Julia Scott

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The Panic Button

Tuesday, October 1st, 2019

When I think about how we come to fear, I think about a photograph my parents took of me as an 11-year-old. I’m in their bedroom, perched on the edge of their bed. It’s plenty warm in the house, but I’m dressed for subzero temperatures. I have on layers of clothes underneath my wool winter coat. I wear a bright pink ear-warmer headband above my ponytail and glasses, through which I stare out at the camera with a baleful expression. I am clutching a fire extinguisher.

I remember that my parents thought I looked adorable in my getup as I prepared myself for a notable first: They were leaving me alone, without a babysitter, to go out with their friends for the night.

They naturally assumed I would eat the dinner they’d prepared, watch some TV and go to bed. I naturally assumed that something would cause the house to catch fire and, despite my attempt at heroics with the fire extinguisher, I would end up in the snow outside, watching it burn.

I spent much of that evening on their bed, waiting for them to come home, the fire extinguisher propped up on a pillow next to me. Every so often I’d peer into the snowy street to see whether any strangers were approaching our front steps. I scurried upstairs and downstairs, my heart pounding, as I listened for sounds that seemed out of place — anything that could be construed as the first signs of a burglar who, I was sure, would choose this exact evening to try to break in. Whenever the refrigerator switched on or a truck rattled by, I jumped.

To say I was a needlessly fearful child is accurate, but it also diminishes the reality of my dread. I was certain that something bad would happen — soon — to me or to the people I loved. When my parents left me at home, I’d tell myself terrible stories that initially seemed plausible, then seemed inevitable, and then didn’t seem like stories at all — panic-inducing scenarios of my parents being assaulted on the street or getting into a car accident. The feelings produced by these fake storylines felt real. I was scared, and therefore I had reason to be. That was the feedback loop.

My mother would try to help me see my fictions for what they were by offering an alternative ending. She would stop what she was doing, sit me down and detail how safely their evening would play out, from dinner at the restaurant to the play they would see afterwards. She would never, to my frustration, commit to a curfew.

Frequently, she reassured me by pointing out the little doorbell installed on the left side of her bed. It was round and white to blend in with the rest of the wall and positioned about a foot above the telephone. The panic button, she called it. One push and it called the alarm company. The police would come to the house. Only use it in an absolute emergency.

This only confirmed what I had suspected: I had legitimate reasons to panic. I timed how long it would take me to run down the hallway from my bedroom and push the panic button. Sometimes at night I would creep toward my parents’ room, ease the door open, and tiptoe over to the bed to make sure they were still breathing.


The more we know about the world, the more there is to fear. I wish we talked about it more, but it seems that fear is the final taboo. We like to think we should be over our fears by adulthood — that we should be better, more perfect, more evolved. The opposite is true for me, and I’m convinced I’m not alone.

In my opinion, most adults carry around deep, sloshing cisterns of confusion, pain and fear. We move slowly and carefully, lest we spill a drop and expose ourselves. Our fears are among the few things that unite us, yet we suffer them quietly and alone.

“As far back as I can remember, every minute of life has been an emergency in which I was paralyzed with fear,” writes poet and essayist Mary Ruefle in Madness, Rack, and Honey.

Yet why is it that all we hear are stories about people who overcame their fears? Of public speaking. Of snakes. Of air travel. Of failure. Even of death. We celebrate these achievements. We talk about ‘conquering’ our fears as if they are a cancer — and as if there were a cure.

Until recently, all that talk of fear-squashing sounded pretty good to me. At 38, I still have much in common with the child edging toward the panic button. Many nights, I close my eyes and wonder whether this will be it. I live in Oakland, California, so my specific and immediate concern is whether tonight will be the night my apartment building will collapse on top of me. The Hayward Fault runs less than three miles from my home and is notoriously overdue for “The Big One.”

With the recent string of earthquakes in Southern California, it’s become even easier to imagine myself buried under rubble, suffocating, my back broken, unable to call for help. In other, more optimistic scenarios, I emerge from the building into the fresh hellscape of my neighborhood, bleeding and starting to walk toward the hospital.

When I drive across the bridge to San Francisco I am frequently seized by fear. Rather than admire the view, I think about an earthquake buckling the concrete and ripping the steel girders in two, sending my car straight to the bottom of the bay. I try to strategize: Should I bail out of the car while it’s falling? How long would I survive once the car hit the water?

It’s not just earthquakes that keep me up at night. I can’t stop thinking about all the potential ways catastrophic climate change will end life as we know it. But I may not be around long enough to witness that . . . because I also semiregularly convince myself I have a new terminal health condition. I wake up after a night of Googling and my search history is still open: “Early Stage Ovarian Cancer — Three Signs to Look Out For.” “When to Get Tested for Alzheimer’s.”

I am a treat at parties.

Just kidding — I don’t tell anyone I have these thoughts.

What’s worse, my thoughts no longer just poison my mind. I’ve started clenching my jaw in my sleep and had to get a tooth repaired. And this spring, I experienced my first panic attack in 15 years. It was such a nonsequitur that I didn’t even understand what was happening until later. One moment it was a beautiful Saturday, the next I was crumpled over on a bus-stop bench, nauseated, breathless and confused. How odd, I remember thinking. Why can’t I make this stop?

When I have a problem, I usually poll my friends. So I put a message on Facebook, asking them to volunteer some stories about their fears. Implicit in my asking was a hope that they would also tell me how they overcame them. Something I could pilfer and apply to my own life.

Clearly, I didn’t understand fear.


One of the people I talked to for this story — we’ll call her Morgan — had a terrible fear of heights. She would go to theme parks with her friends and watch people screaming with joy on the roller coasters, knowing how ill it would make her feel to climb up and strap herself in. She’d force herself to do it anyway. One day, when she was 19, it dawned on her that she could conquer her fear — and impress her motorcycle-loving boyfriend — by learning to fly propeller planes. She found a flying school at a local airport and signed up for 10 lessons on the spot.

“I set out to prove to myself that I could do something that scared the living shit out of me,” she says. “It was stupid and bizarre and harsh.”

Flying was more satisfying than she’d projected. With her instructor beside her in the cockpit, Morgan could force her attention onto the intellectual aspects of gauges and weather and how everything worked. She learned swiftly and built confidence. When her lessons were complete, she even let her instructor persuade her to fly solo. Morgan felt certain she’d be cured.

The day of her solo flight, Morgan tried to stay calm by telling herself the plane was just a machine — a car you drive in the sky. Taking off, she felt the fuselage give a tiny shudder and then she was airborne.

It was magic. She felt like Amelia Earhart. She was the one who had pulled that piece of metal off the ground and was circling in the sky.

Then she realized that she had to land. She tried to squeeze down her mounting panic by recalling her training. Rather than let herself think about crashing, she checked off every step, one by one. In the end, she made a perfect landing.

But Morgan was disinclined to celebrate. The moment she cut the engine, she knew she would never fly a plane again. Her fear of heights had returned in full force. Four decades later, she has come to accept that it will never go away.

People spend their days quietly coping with fear. “When an elevator goes up, my palms start to sweat. I can’t control it. I know it’s totally irrational,” says one man I know who developed some new fears in midlife but doesn’t tell people about them. Let’s call him Roger. He says going above the 20th floor is guaranteed to induce a panic attack.

Roger lives in a town with mercifully few high-rises. When he travels, he always requests a hotel room as low to the ground as possible. He also hates flying. He would rather drive eight hours than take a one-hour flight. He doesn’t know how these fears got started; they just happened. Today he copes with Xanax.

Another friend — I’ll call her Claire — traces her fear of heights to a trip to Italy she took three years ago. She was driving up a winding mountain road toward a cliff town to take in the view. After a lifetime of happily climbing to the tops of European castles, standing at the stomach-churning edges of canyons and exploring California’s mountains by car, something changed. The road was practically cantilevered over the sea. Every time she hit another switchback, it felt like she was about to tip over the edge.

Soon after that, she started to suffer panic attacks on mountain roads. Her palms and feet got clammy and she worried that she wouldn’t be able to hold on to the wheel or hit the brakes in time to save herself.

Then the claustrophobia set in. A year later, while hosting a party at her house, Claire accidentally locked herself in her bathroom. She had to remove the handle and jimmy open the door. She started avoiding bathrooms at cafés, especially the ones with heavy deadbolts. On airplanes she asks a flight attendant to please watch the door — she can’t bear to lock it.

Claire went to a psychologist who prescribed exposure therapy to help her fight her fears. No way was that going to happen, she says, so she, too, uses antianxiety medications. “I’m not over the anxieties, but my response to them is much more muted,” she explains. “As a woman, especially, I don’t want to lose my independence because of fear.”


I started out writing about “how we come to fear,” but I actually think it’s more accurate to say that our fears come to us. And if we can’t forestall them, what hope do we have for resisting their influence?

Security expert Gavin de Becker says that’s the wrong question. His book, The Gift of Fear — published in 1997 and still the most popular fear-advice book in a crowded marketplace — argues that fear plays an innate role in keeping us alive. In his professional experience helping people assess threats from co-workers, ex-partners and stalkers, de Becker believes tahat when it comes to predicting violent behavior in particular, fear sends us helpful survival signals that we too often choose to ignore. Instead, we should embrace the fear as a kind of intuition, a guide to predicting that something bad will happen.

But here’s the catch: The helpful kind of fear, he says, is short-lived and rare. And it really only helps us avoid unexpected dangers like an assault, not the things some of us have feared for years, like earthquakes or heights or being trapped in enclosed spaces.

“Real fear is a signal intended to be very brief, a mere servant of intuition,” he writes. “But though few would argue [with the notion] that extended, unanswered fear is destructive, millions choose to live there.”

De Becker distinguishes between useful fear (which manifests when we’re threatened) and useless fear. He points out that in a life-threatening crisis, fear is often the last thing we feel. Claire can attest to this. She has been held up at gunpoint, and she’s been in car accidents. She stays calm and enters a state she calls “taking-care-of-business mode.” I’ve had similar experiences after car accidents. The terrible thing has happened. You accept it immediately and launch into problem-solving. Fear is absent.

“The very fact that you fear something is solid evidence that it is not happening,” de Becker notes in a neat turn of phrase. “If it does happen, we stop fearing it and start to respond to it.”

So, what’s happening to me when I startle awake at night, trembling, my heart pounding so hard that I mistake the sensation for my bed shaking in an earthquake?

According to de Becker, that’s not authentic fear. It’s worry. “Worry is the fear we manufacture,” he says.

When I read those lines, I frowned at the word “manufacture.” I doubt the people I interviewed would say they’ve manufactured the burden of their fears.

But de Becker insists that remaining in a state of fear — like a car alarm that won’t shut off — is a choice, and it is more dangerous than we think, because it often leads to panic. It could even cause more harm than the fear itself.

Too bad fear and worry feel the exact same way in our bodies — like an existential threat.

This makes perfect sense on a physiological level, says journalist Jaimal Yogis, author of The Fear Project. That shot of cortisol that makes me gasp at night is a symptom of the classic fight-or-flight response that Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon first characterized in 1915. We’ve all experienced the rest of them: dilated pupils, tensed muscles, elevated heart rate.

These symptoms are governed by the amygdala, which has been protecting us since early hominids faced down saber-toothed cats and giant hyenas. Unfortunately, our amygdalas have not evolved with the times. I can set mine off reading a scary headline on my smartphone.

“By the time you can say ‘I’m afraid,’ your body is already well into the stress process,” Yogis writes. We have no medium setting built into our bodies for medium-sized scares. It’s just an on/off switch. There’s no going back once you’ve hit the panic button.

Over time, chronic anxiety can translate into devastating physical disorders like pulmonary disease and cardiovascular problems. It can disrupt the central nervous and endocrine systems, flooding the body with stress hormones like cortisol, which in turn contribute to all manner of issues with sleep, weight gain, diabetes and, yes, even teeth-clenching at night.

What of this idea, then, that we can choose a better way? De Becker offers three behavioral tips that underpin his philosophy of grappling with dreaded outcomes.

1) When you feel fear, listen.

2) When you don’t feel fear, don’t manufacture it.

3) If you feel yourself creating worry, explore and discover why.

“Worry will almost always buckle under a vigorous interrogation,” he writes triumphantly, and you can almost see the sheriff’s badge gleaming on his chest.

But the problem with all our fears is that they tell good stories. The plots may vary, but the core message is unsettling. It’s about uncertainty, about our profound lack of control over our lives, on this planet, in this universe. Objectively speaking, potential disasters are everywhere — epidemics, asteroids, drunk drivers. They could strike us down at any time. Our nervous systems keep us aroused, sniffing the air for the next threat. And when you see it that way, it makes sense to stay vigilant for all of them.

“Anxiety, unlike real fear, is always caused by uncertainty,” says de Becker. When we can’t predict something, we can’t prepare for it. We’re forced to admit there’s nothing we can do. Welcome to the human condition.

Sometimes, our fears also depend greatly on context. The Chapman University Survey of American Fears offers a fascinating snapshot of just how much our fears and anxieties can change over time based on the media zeitgeist — and which ones abide, year after year.

In 2016, for instance, three of the 10 most prominent fears Americans cited were terrorism, gun control and Obamacare — all major themes of the presidential campaign.

In 2017, according to the survey, Americans widely feared getting into a nuclear confrontation with North Korea — at a time when the Trump administration’s nuclear brinkmanship and “fire and fury” threats were constantly in the news.

In 2018, for the first time, five of the top 10 fears were about destruction of our environment: contaminated drinking water; the pollution of oceans, lakes and rivers; bad air; the mass extinction of flora and fauna; and global warming. At least now I know I have company.

What I find most interesting, however, are the three universal fears that climb to the top of the chart every year and sit there, unmoving, like Dante’s shrieking harpies perched in the tortured wood. Two are closely connected: the twin fears of a loved one becoming seriously ill and of a loved one dying.

The third is the consistent number one thing we Americans fear: the behavior of corrupt government officials. Regardless of party affiliation, it seems people most fear government malfeasance.

That may seem odd, but to the worrier, all fears have their own logic. Mine are no exception. The Hayward Fault will definitely erupt . . . sometime. The climate crisis is here, and it’s going to get worse. And everyone dies of something, whether it’s cancer or a wrong turn off a steep mountain road.

How are we supposed to handle ourselves in the meantime? This is as much a question about living, I’ve come to realize, as it is about coping with life’s less appealing features: uncertainty and lack of control.

For me, catastrophizing — thinking about the worst possible thing that could happen and letting my mind deal with the consequences — offers a kind of perverse comfort, the promise of tussling with my fears and shoring up my resilience to suffering. The trouble is, I never actually escape the fear loop. I’m never really reassured. And this minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour anxiety drip becomes its own eternal wellspring. Anyone who has a history of panic attacks will tell you that the fear of having one can be enough to set the next one off.

“In terms of fear of heights or flying, what I actually fear is the feeling of panic, of being trapped and unable to get away, and how I’ll act and feel. Not so much crashing. So that you begin to fear the fear,” says Roger, the man who avoids flights and elevators. Fear will just metabolize itself after a while.


I sometimes think about my young self and wonder what happened to me. Why wasn’t I more resilient? Did my parents not cultivate my independence? I’ve started wondering about how much our early development and even our personalities shape our viewpoint when it comes to risk and fear. When I was 11 and facing a night alone, I perceived those parentless hours as a harrowing ordeal. But some other kid might have turned them into an escapade, watching off-limits TV channels and gorging on junk food all night.

I am acquainted with people who go through life assuming that everything will be OK. And even when it won’t, they see no point in worrying about it, because there’s nothing they can do to prevent bad things from happening. My grandmother, for instance, had a favorite expression: “What is, is.” She held tight to those words amid several life-changing setbacks, and lived to age 96. I envied her disposition, but I will never be like her. My version of resilience involves planning for the worst, even though I know it’s an endless iteration.

So I’ve been looking for a third way — a middle path. When someone recommended I read The Places That Scare You, a book of Tibetan Buddhist teachings by Pema Chödrön, I resisted at first, even though I have my own flailing meditation practice. I worried that she would tell me that fear is an illusion or something equally trite.

But unlike Gavin de Becker, Chödrön doesn’t claim we can ditch our long-term fears. She says they’re part of the human condition. Chödrön describes fear as something we learn early and often — it’s a product of circumstances that “harden us” until we become resentful and afraid, she says.

We can ease fear’s grip by opening ourselves up, over time, to what hides beneath: tenderness and vulnerability. She says these two qualities could take us a lot further in life, but most of us have bricked them off and poured concrete over the wall for good measure.

“Tapping into that shaky and tender place has a transformative effect,” she writes. “Being compassionate enough to accommodate our own fears takes courage, of course, and it definitely feels counterintuitive. But it’s what we need to do.”

Rather than waiting for our fears to overtake us on their schedule, she suggests we acknowledge their shrieks and look up at the branches where they perch in our lives every day. That we get to know them.

We’d rather do almost anything else. I know I would. I would rather numb myself watching YouTube far into the early morning hours than spend another night facing whichever fear asserts itself.

Chödrön says that tendency only makes things worse. “Openness doesn’t come from resisting our fears but in getting to know them well,” she writes.

I am trying. Sometimes when I’m fearful now, I let myself acknowledge how it feels — I’m scared. This is scary.

Other times, I try to bring some of my reporter’s persona to the moment and become curious — an approach Chödrön mentions in the book. Asking “What’s really happening here?” and “What’s under this feeling of panic?” can yield results. It’s possible my presumption that I have a terminal disease has something to do with my deeper fear of failing at life, of not having mattered at all. Maybe my horror of earthquakes is tied to a distasteful reality I’d rather avoid: the impermanence of this life I’ve built, and having it taken away from me.

I no longer shake my head at that little girl who sat on the edge of her parents’ bed, sweating in too-much clothing, eyeing the panic button. She had a certain wisdom. Deep down, she sensed a truth her parents couldn’t refute: Life is uncertain and few things are within our control.

Fear seemed like the best way to handle that news at the time. I’m hoping it’s not too late to learn another way.

I also regularly give in to — and I’m not sure Chödrön would approve of this — the exigencies my fears demand. Last year, I purchased two heavy, fully stocked earthquake-emergency backpacks. I stashed them in my car and my apartment. I bought two more for my parents for Christmas. (They were confused.) I also treated myself to a shiny new fire extinguisher, even though my old one was not expired.

The friends I talked to all choose to be out in the world despite their fears. But their lifestyles are limited, and the do’s and don’ts are a process to be managed, constantly. Claire still likes to explore steep mountain roads, but only those with a barrier. She feels sick when she’s obliged to drive over a long bridge, but she can handle it if someone else, like a bus driver, is at the wheel.

Morgan attributes her fear of heights to a childhood wound that never healed. Some things she simply won’t do, like roller coasters and downhill skiing. But she’ll climb a mountain for the beauty. It’s hard to do — sometimes really hard — but there’s simply no other way to enjoy the vista. When I asked her how she overcomes her fear, she gently corrected me.

“I have found of myself that a surrender practice is the best. It’s not a conquering, or a getting over, or a getting away from,” she said. “And climbing a mountain is another form of that surrender practice.”

We can keep ducking our fears, but at a certain point they prevent us from seeing the view. I could leave Oakland, but I love my tranquil apartment, my neighborhood, the white-blossom magnolia tree in the courtyard, and the patio where I can contemplate its flowering while I meditate. So I choose this.

“What has life taught me? I am much less afraid than I ever was in my youth — of everything. That is a fact. At the same time, I feel more afraid than ever. And the two, I can assure you, are not opposed but inextricably linked,” writes Mary Ruefle.

Bad things will happen. To me and to the people I love. To the planet, and the creatures on it that don’t have a voice. I know this to be true. But something good could happen, too: the type of alternative ending my mother tried to teach me to construct. With all my planning and preparing for the worst, I have little space to imagine an actual future. The version of the story in which I go on living — not because of my fears, but despite them.

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On Being Alone

Tuesday, January 1st, 2019

When I was a little girl, I never dreamed of a husband or children. I never pictured a wedding starring me as the bride with white dress and elegant bouquet. I never pictured the groom. I couldn’t see our first dance, the exotic honeymoon. No matter how hard I strained, I could not get excited about the issuance of babies with cute faces and soiled diapers.

Instead, I dreamed of a goat.

It could have been a sheep or a ram. I’m not sure I knew the difference back then, or which image may have lingered in my mind after my mother finished reading me the stories of Heidi in the Swiss Alps and the Three Billy Goats Gruff. But at a certain age — the one where people start to ask you what you want to be when you grow up — the where seemed to be a lot clearer than the what. Whenever I pictured my adult life, I pictured a hillside high above a rural town. On that hillside, a small cabin where I would live. Next to that cabin, a goat.

As I learned about the world, and even began to travel a bit to Europe in my early teens, this vision became more specific. The cabin was situated on a hillside in France, in Provence, in a remote valley a short walk from a glittering view of the Mediterranean. I would get to know my neighbors and offer them tea when they passed by my open door. We would speak French together. I would write. Occasionally I would have a male caller, just one. The details of what we would do in the cabin were hazy. The male caller could come and go, but the main thing is that he knew when to go. The goat would be my main companion, and the source of delicious and nutritious milk, just like for Heidi. I would learn to love goat milk. I would relish my solitude.

It may not surprise you to learn that I was an only child. Growing up, this made me different from most of my classmates. They fought for their parents’ attention and had to share a bedroom. I woke up alone. From early on, I had an imaginary friend named Mr. Rice Guy. I wish I could tell you I remember what I imagined he looked like. But I do remember how he made me feel. Being with him was safe and gentle. I think we must have spent endless hours together in my bedroom, on my frizzy green carpet, chattering and playing. Mostly I think I chattered and he listened.

When Mr. Rice Guy wasn’t needed, I spent the bulk of my time inside books. But I also liked to do nothing at all — just look out the window at the alleyway behind my house, and daydream. I had friends over for sleepovers, which was fun because I owned all kinds of games, and you couldn’t play Candy Land or Clue without someone else. But I was always a little glad when they left and I could sink back into the quiet of my room. I didn’t have to share my stuffed animals. This was a perk, but it also meant that some of them went neglected, which I remedied by carrying a different one to bed with me on a rotating basis. I didn’t want them to feel alone, although I rarely did.

Alone. That word seems like a threat, mostly. What do we do with children who misbehave? We send them to their room, alone. Tell them they’re grounded, the punishment being to deprive them of companionship and force them to “think” about what they’ve done. These days, we take away their electronics so they can’t play games, go online or post updates on social media. The message: Time with others is a treat we earn. Being alone is a reprimand.

We find so much comfort in the presence of others, sometimes without realizing it. Even having someone in the next room is a comfort. But when the house is still and there’s nothing else to do, the self confronts. And we would do almost anything to avoid hearing what it has to say.

What lives alongside solitude? Boredom, potentially. Anxiety, often. And the concept of loneliness has an overwhelmingly negative connotation — the absence of others is plain and uninspiring.

“In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fortunately, we have many tools at hand to prevent us from slipping into a 3 a.m. of the soul: they’re our laptops, iPads, smartphones, books, magazines and TV remotes.

One of my favorite studies about the experience of solitude and loneliness — there is a whole subfield of social psychology devoted to it — took place in Atlanta in 2015. It surveyed 185 adults, aged 20 to 81, to determine their reactions to the experience of momentary solitude: those interstitial parts of the day when there’s downtime with nothing to engage in.

The study’s authors had the idea to analyze not just people’s stated feelings about solitude, but their physiological reactions to being alone. Specifically, they measured levels of cortisol — the “stress hormone,” activated when the body perceives a threat. Seven times a day for ten days, they had participants submit saliva samples — at random moments, when a beeper went off. Sometimes when the beeper went off they were alone, other times they were not.

Overall, cortisol levels were higher when people were alone, as opposed to being with others. Even if they said otherwise in the questionnaire, their bodies were stressed. But there were some interesting variations. People over 51 had a different response; their cortisol levels were lower. In fact, several studies have suggested that as we age, we mind our solitude less, and we may even prefer it — a neat trick as we approach a time of life where we may be facing more of it.

A review of the literature suggests that free will is the decisive factor here. Getting to choose solitude makes a big difference in how we handle it, and whether it contributes to our well-being. Yet there is a fragile line between the solitude that heals and the one that salts the wound. Many other studies have shown how involuntary solitude and isolation can prove not only anxiety-inducing, but dangerous — from a slightly higher risk of heart problems to deep-seated alienation, especially among vulnerable teens.

For me, a great deal has been lost of that little girl who knew how to be alone. Some writers (or future writers) crave a room of their own: I craved a life of my own. Served up in short, bracing doses, I discovered early on that isolation — the extreme version of solitude — can offer me the only hope I can ever have of knowing who I truly am and what I actually want, absent the “shoulds” of the world.

But as an adult, even when I have it, I’ve become used to filling the silence rather than letting it speak to me.

I fall asleep and wake up next to my smartphone. The first thing I do, before I get up to go to the bathroom, is reach for the phone. I look at Google News and let algorithms tell me what to think and care about. I bite my nails without noticing. My habits have become more pronounced amid the ongoing national perma-emergency in our politics. The daily outrage drives the double-time news cycle — confronting me, all of us, every day.

It’s not just my time that’s being nibbled away by my devices, not to mention the whole superstructure of adulthood. It’s my mind. Recently I noticed that I was having trouble generating original thoughts: problematic for a writer. I worry that, at 38, I have become a dullard. That my inner creative world has shrunk to the occasional glimpse from a car’s window while my smartphone chirps directions, always preventing me from exploring an intriguing side road or getting lost.

The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” asserted Adrienne Rich. You can silence your cell phone. But the “fertilizing” quality of silence, as she called it, won’t reach a distracted mind.

Even with all my electronics put away in a drawer, my apartment shouts at me from every corner. CLEAN ME OR YOU WON’T SLEEP WELL TONIGHT, says the carpet. READ ME, YOUR CAREER DEPENDS ON IT, screams my pile of unread magazines. Even with the sound turned off in the movie of our lives, there’s always the director’s commentary. See what happens when you glance at a bookshelf. Or notice the details of your child’s room.

When was the last time I was truly solitary? I couldn’t conjure it. I’m not talking about the default experience of solitude when we’re doing laundry, checking email or driving somewhere with the radio on. Some people harvest solitude for content (for instance, choosing to listen to a podcast) and others for insight (I include meditation here, because although it can be very helpful, it still has intentionality). None of these things are bad ideas — they’re part of everyday life, mine included. But I wanted to explore around the margins, where the instinct to fill time loses its edge. My appetite for solitude may be greater than some others’, but in its ideal form, I don’t seek to harvest it for anything.

Yet I am the first to admit that solitude — what I define as true solitude, the state of being alone without needing to do anything in particular — feels dangerous.

“So afraid one is of loneliness, of seeing to the bottom of the vessel,” wrote Virginia Woolf, who saw the bottom of the vessel more than once. An overwhelming number of writers have detailed the contributions of solitude — and even loneliness — to the creative mind.

“What is needed is this, and this alone: solitude, great inner loneliness. Going into oneself and not meeting anyone for hours — that is what one must arrive at,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in 1903, offering advice to Franz Kappus, his tortured young protégé. But even Rilke struggled to enforce his own solitude with the demands of family and the necessities of travel. And that was before YouTube.

I realized that I urgently needed to turn off the narrative channel of my daily life. So this summer, I made a little experiment. I would go away on a retreat, disconnect from everything familiar. I would rent a cabin in a part of California that was strange to me, and, to the greatest extent possible, be alone. I didn’t want to go on a meditation retreat with a group of strangers. I wanted to unfurl, alone, without any fixed agenda. I wanted solitude, even if it was attended by troubling doses of boredom and loneliness. And the only way to do that was to remove myself from my “self.” Only then could I hope to access the deeper well of inner silence — true isolation — and explore what it had to offer.

The term “solitude,” though, continued to bother me because it didn’t quite describe what I was missing. A friend of mine came up with the concept of self-visitation: the active work of peeling away those aspects of life that distract one from oneself. It is conscious, methodical subtraction, without any expectation of a payoff or reward. True self-visitation contains no epiphanies; it is simply the communing familiarity of self in space and time.

But with the layers stripped away and no one to step in and tell me how to think or who to be, what version of myself would I be left with? And, whispered a voice I was ignoring, what if she doesn’t have anything interesting left to say?

Looking online, I found a one-room cabin up north in a town I’d never heard of, Forestville. It had no electricity, no Wi-Fi and no indoor plumbing. There was an outhouse and an outdoor sink and shower. Meals could be wrangled on a butane burner. Trying not to think too hard, I booked it for three nights.

As I made ready to leave, I made some other decisions. My phone could come with me in case of emergencies, but would be turned off and locked in the glove compartment of my car. No laptop. No alcohol, no caffeine. No music. And no books — I would need to leave my books at home. The only companion for my mind would be a journal to write in. Not with any writing goal in mind, just to record my thoughts if I wanted to.

“But won’t your mind start to spin when you’re alone?” asked a friend. I shook my head, but I didn’t really know. I would deal with the dark night of the soul if it came to pass, at 3 a.m. if need be.

Another friend looked at me in horror when I told him I wouldn’t be bringing along any reading material. “Not even one book? Can’t you hide one under your floorboard, like a box of crackers in case of emergency?”

I waited until the last minute to pack for my retreat, cramming the morning full of work deadlines. It’s a simple hour and a half to Forestville from where I live in the Bay Area, but I arrived three and a half hours later than expected. I was still checking my phone and answering emails up to the moment I pulled up on a Monday afternoon. My host, the owner of the property, was there to greet me. To get to the cabin, he helped me carry my bags down a long wooded lane, over a soundless creek tamed by the heat. The only other house on the property belonged to him, and I couldn’t see it through the trees once I settled in.

It was even smaller than advertised — just a bed, desk and chair, a side table and a narrow armoire, stuffed with linens. The outhouse was 100 feet away, which I suspected would be interesting at night. No goat, alas.

Looking around, I thought of Henry David Thoreau’s description of looking at his simple cabin, his pond, his woods and his bean field. “I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself,” he wrote.

The first thing I did was to take down the heavy mirror behind the bed, which trailed a skein of absconded spiderwebs as it left the wall. I put it on the floor, facing inward. I didn’t want to witness myself witnessing myself. I carefully washed my produce — two apples and two tomatoes — in the outdoor sink that, I discovered, drained straight to the forest floor. I brought them inside and lined them up on a windowsill with my two lemons in a little pattern. There.

I fetched a pot to make hard-boiled eggs over the butane burner and it had two living spiders in it, one of which did not want to leave the pot and merely surfed the water. Suddenly, I felt a sharp sting on my lower back — and immediately decided I had been bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease, my superparanoia. (It turned out I had no bug bite at all.) I had a brief, panicky moment when a bee buzzed past my ear and the sound made me think I had missed a text on my cell phone. Actual panic — my heart was pounding when I remembered my phone was turned off, in my car.

In brief, I was nearly insensate of the pleasures of my new home that night. I could tell it wouldn’t be a silent retreat. I could be as quiet as I wanted, but I was staying in someone’s rural backyard. I lay on my back far into the night and listened to trucks buzzing by on the main road and a demented dog barking in the distance. Absent other distractions, my mind immediately started to cannibalize what I had last fed it, devouring the finer plot points of Sherlock and replaying the opening bars of Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 over and over again. Then I started to catalogue all the ways in which I had caused friends or family members to feel neglected, hurt or let down over the years.

The next morning was so bright and cloudless that when a hawk passed for a moment above where I sat with my journal and morning tea, I wondered who’d turned out the lights. I claimed a wobbly bistro table with peeling green paint on the narrow deck outside my cabin. Twice a day I brushed away the leavings from the redwoods and coast live oaks that hung over the deck. The oaks shed their leaves constantly. I could hear them ding onto the metal roof as I lay in bed.

I walked the property, then took in my private fire pit. It sat in a clearing with six brightly colored Adirondack chairs around it, clearly awaiting the company of friends. I watched some dusty salamanders sun themselves on the circle of rocks and dart across the ash, and wondered if I would make myself a fire, and whether it would be sad to sit in one of those jolly chairs and stare at the flame, alone.

What on earth would I find to fill my days with, my friends wanted to know. It seemed like a strange enough question to me as I sat at my green table, long enough to watch the transit of the sun to what must have been high noon, judging by the heat. I watched two skittering brown squirrels chase back and forth between a pair of elegant oaks on opposite sides of the laneway. The trees had grown toward each other until their branches crossed like broadswords.

In the woods, what you notice fills you to the brim. I could have sat far longer, but there always seemed to be something to do — although nothing that needed doing beyond basic survival. Of course, there was the meal prep and cleanup, the daily troubleshooting — What substitutes for a colander? — the dressing and undressing and showering. The journaling was optional. (I suppose the showering was, too, but I’m not an animal.)

I took strenuous hikes on the Sonoma coast. It transpired that there were many important things to do: to pause, overheated, every few hundred yards on an uphill climb and notice, as I tried to catch my breath, how the spines of sword ferns have a soft coating that belies the brittleness of the leaves. I paused to taste wild blackberries and savor their tartness; to meditate by a creek, and caress the moss next to my feet; to pick a clover from the mounds that grew up around the redwood fairy circles, and chew the stem to enjoy their secret lemon flavor; to observe how the sun filtered through the ferns, stenciling the roseate soil with a living photo negative.

I noticed and did things without noticing or doing things, just because I was curious and it felt good. It turned out that I liked my mind after all.

“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself,” wrote Michel de Montaigne around 1572. When I was on forest time, the world belonged to me. I stopped feeling anxious. The most significant questions pertained to the timing of dinner and bedtime. I learned to gauge how much daylight remained by eyeing the corona of blue in the sky above my cabin clearing, rather than the crepuscular creep along the forest floor. Still I misjudged a couple of times and ended up brushing my teeth and showering after dark, with a flashlight, having a giggle at my own expense.

I wrote without effort, often at night in bed with my journal propped up on my knees, straining with a candle in one hand and a pen in the other. On my last evening, I built a fire and sat next to it, eating my meal. I looked around at the five other empty chairs and did not feel any desire to fill them. “This is as close as I come to feeling holy,” I wrote that night.

But I hadn’t thought about what would come next. Within 45 minutes of leaving Forestville the next day, I had bitten off two nails and was taking mental notes of all the things I needed to accomplish as I zoomed down Highway 101. I had a long and guilty reunion with my laptop that afternoon.

My reentry was wobbly. As easily as I had settled into my solitude, I felt myself losing the thread. I cried a lot. I had trouble sleeping, trouble working. For a time, I stayed off Google News. In the car, I forced myself to sit in silence and avoid listening to the radio. I meditated in the morning. I lit candles at night. But little by little, I felt my old condition settle in somewhere near my solar plexus: that state of dullness mixed with hypervigilance.

The world felt immense and harmonious when I spent my days hiking in vast places and sleeping in a very small one. But now, with access to everything in the world on my computer, in the Bay Area, and at the supermarket, it felt like I had fewer choices. The air in my lungs felt compressed. I didn’t experience the same sense of possibility.

I had been hoping to portage some elements of my retreat life into my ‘real’ life, but I forgot that the same person — me — is always there, struggling and striving and kicking and generally making a mockery of attempts to honor my goals and stay aligned. I should have read my Montaigne more closely: “Ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and lust do not leave us when we change our country. . . . Neither deserts, nor rocky caves, nor hair shirts, nor fastings will free us of them,” he wrote.

It took only three days of self-visitation to remind me that my internal compass still points in the direction of true north, just as it did when I was a child. But how do I keep it in my sights when I’m getting spun in circles? And, when I find it again, how can I follow it without walking out on my life, when there are so many things that deserve my attention — a project that’s due, a friend who’s in pain, this country’s civil rights, our environment?

How can I live in the world, engaged and open-hearted, while cultivating my inner silence and need to withdraw?

Montaigne thought it might be possible to do both. “Real solitude,” he wrote, “may be enjoyed in the midst of cities and the courts of kings; but it is enjoyed more handily alone.” Thoreau returned to society after two years, and when he was at Walden he had frequent visitors — he describes his small cabin filled with up to 30 people at a time. He was no hermit, but walked frequently to town along the railroad tracks and recounts his conversations with all manner of folk who knew the woods.

There is something reassuring about these questions, and the fact that they have been with thoughtful writers for such a long time — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, May Sarton, Emily Dickinson, Louise Bogan and hundreds more. They all sought a balance between the version of themselves they gave to the world, with its traumas and distractions, and the need to belong to themselves, cultivate their autonomy and create something original and true. They weren’t just talking about how to write, but self-visitation in the everyday.

My childhood vision has come true. I never did marry or have children, and I have yet to even cohabitate with anyone, although I have had several meaningful relationships. I don’t own a hut on a hillside, but I do have a male caller. He, like me, relishes his solitude and knows how to respect mine. I intend to take a self-visitation retreat every year. In the meantime, I will do my best to keep my door open and, after all the visitors leave, get back to the page, alone.

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How Canadians Took Silicon Valley… And Never Owned the Win

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

[Original story here: https://thelogic.co/news/the-big-read/origin-story-canadians-in-silicon-valley/]

Lars Leckie knew C100 had arrived when he was walking down the street in downtown Toronto a few years ago, crossing an intersection while wearing his C100 jacket. A young entrepreneur stopped him mid-stride, and introduced himself. “‘It’s so great to meet someone from the C100!’” Leckie recounts the man telling him. “And I’m like, ‘I’m just in downtown Toronto, I’m not at an office where you expect to see startups,’” says Leckie. “It was pretty cool.”

Bay Area venture capitalists like Leckie, managing director at Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, rarely get that kind of open-mouthed rock-star treatment in Silicon Valley, although they are a key part of its mystique—the golden-robed men and women who, like ancient Roman emperors in the Colosseum, control pollice verso the fate of companies and the circulation of economy-altering sums of money.

But together, the charter members of C100 have inspired their own mystique, a coveted stamp of approval. C100 is a small, member-driven non-profit that connects Canadian tech entrepreneurs with the Valley’s top Canadians in the industry. Hundreds of companies apply for 48 Hours in the Valley, its signature program, each year. Only 20 are selected. The pitch session trainings and mentorship that CEOs receive—not to mention introductions to funders—have contributed to the growth of companies like Clearbanc, Frank And Oak, Kik, Wealthsimple, Tulip and Well.ca.

All told, more than $3 billion in venture capital was invested in Canada in 2017, and another $3.2 billion the year before that. C100 estimates that the funds companies with a C100 connection since 2010 easily stretches into the billions. Yet the story of Canadian excellence in the Valley is fraught—and not just by conversations at home about “brain drain,” even as Canadian entrepreneurs continue to derive a net benefit from the training they get from U.S. universities and tech jobs. The other issue is the hidden history of Canadian success itself.

In its reluctance to acknowledge the realities of the modern tech diaspora, Canadians—or the Canadian press, at any rate—have inadvertently overlooked the names and diminished the achievements of generations of Canadians who handed the baton to the tech workers transforming our digital economy.

The resulting lacuna may seem benign, but it has had real consequences for today’s tech talent, according to Canadians I spoke to in the Valley. It’s fostered a hesitation for Canada to celebrate its wins—and has affected Canadian entrepreneurs’ tendencies to see themselves playing a bigger role on the world stage.

“Americans are so good at telling the entrepreneurial story and Canadians need to improve. In the mythology of Silicon Valley, we are surrounded by the Elon Musks, the Steve Jobses. Who are those people in Canada? Most kids in high school don’t even know who Tobi Lütke is,” says Anthony Lee, a managing director at Altos Ventures and co-founder of C100, referring to the founder of Canadian e-commerce behemoth, Shopify.

People here like to say that the longer you live outside Canada, the more fiercely Canadian you become. The charter members of C100—a Who’s Who of Canadian technorati—pay for the privilege of participating in events and volunteering their time, not the other way around. Leckie defines the job as “making sure that people know Canada is kicking ass.”

He meets me at his office—a bright, wood-beamed space whose windows overlook San Francisco’s Pier 33, where tourists queue up along the ferry dock to Alcatraz. In a previous life, before attending Stanford University, Leckie was a member of the Canadian Sailing Team, who represented his home country at the Pan American Games. But the plaque he keeps in his office has nothing to do with sailing competitions. He excuses himself and comes back a minute later to show it to me: a hockey puck mounted on a trophy base, presented to Leckie by C100 to thank him for his work as an inaugural co-chair of the organization.

Yet judging by how Canadians back home perceive the diaspora, people like Leckie—not to mention Lee and his C100 co-founder Chris Albinson—could represent the face of the “brain drain” as much as any of the young engineering grads migrating down from the University of Waterloo or the University of Toronto today. They had intended to come to the Bay Area for a year or two before returning home, but ended up staying. They are giving their time (and, sometimes, money) to help Canadian companies succeed. But they are agnostic on the question of where Canadians should locate their startups, at least in the beginning stages.

“We think people ought to be in the ecosystem here, to be a part of it. If you want to be a giant in tech, you have to spend some time down here. But you don’t have to stay here,” says Lee.

Albinson cringes at “brain drain.” “It’s a term I find horrifically bad for the country,” he says. “No, we’ve always been about supporting Canadian entrepreneurs. But if you’re only doing Canadian entrepreneurship in Canada, that gets away from this idea of flow. There should be no barrier for capital, people or information.”

Some of the people I interviewed for this story live in the Bay Area, while some have returned home to Canada. But none of them say their career trajectories would have been possible had they stayed in Canada, rather than coming to the U.S. for work experience. That’s changing now, but there is too much precedent to think it will end any time soon.

The early 1990s saw a wave of Canadians pouring into the Valley on the crest of the telecom boom. Two cohorts preceded them, but their names and stories are not widely known. This is where the details get sketchy, owing to a lack of published materials. It’s hard to piece together a narrative from the paucity of recorded histories: unlike the volumes of work on Americans (including American immigrants) and their successive technologies, the body of information on Canadian tech achievers is, for the most part, paper-thin.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed, either. “I’ve not come across an historian of Canadian technology. If you find said person, please share their name with me,” John Stackhouse tells me. The former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail now works for RBC, and is writing a book on the Canadian diaspora. He helped a bit with the following history.

Canadians at U.S. engineering schools in the ‘40s and ‘50s undertook advanced studies and research as part of the Cold War nuclear academic arms race. Starting in the ‘60s, Canadians are thought to have worked at companies like Fairchild Semiconductor, one of the early chipmakers that helped Silicon Valley get its name.

In subsequent years, Canadians were among the engineers who developed software programs, modems and routers at companies on both sides of the border. The University of Waterloo’s computer science program was established in 1964, soon becoming one of the biggest of its kind in the world, catching the eye of companies like IBM. Around that time, U.S. companies started hiring Waterloo grads, a tradition that continues today.

Some important names come up in conversations that track the origin story of Canadians in the Valley—people of Canadian descent whom some of today’s tech cohort have claimed as their forebears. Cecil Green, co-founder of Texas Instruments, was born in England and raised in Vancouver, where he studied at the University of British Columbia in the ‘20s. His financial gift helped build the university’s Green College and a visiting professorship program. Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande is an Indian immigrant who studied at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) and Queen’s University in the late ‘70s. He worked at a Motorola subsidiary in Toronto and later co-founded Sycamore Networks, one of the biggest IPOs of the telecoms era, and endowed an innovation centre at UNB. And then there’s James Gosling, the father of the Java computing language, who was born and raised in Calgary and worked at Sun Microsystems for nearly three decades before moving on to Oracle, Google and Amazon Web Services.

By the ‘90s, Canadians were thick on the ground in early computer software, graphic design, telecoms and mobile. And then they started climbing the masts of the Silicon Valley flagships: Shaan Pruden at Apple, Jeff Skoll at eBay, Don Listwin and Rob Lloyd at Cisco, Jeff Mallett at Yahoo, Doug Roseborough at Oracle and Rob Burgess at Macromedia (now Adobe). The list really does go on—and that’s before you get to today’s top Canadians who occupy the upper ranks at marquee companies like Facebook, Dropbox, Uber, Google, Salesforce, Zynga and Slack.

Silicon Valley Canadians of the late ‘90s and early aughts didn’t have a lot of ways to find each other. There was—and still is—the delightfully-named Digital Moose Lounge, which hosts social gatherings like Canada Day events. Aside from that, people were mostly dispersed, ending up camouflaged among American colleagues at work. Later, when LinkedIn came along, Leckie created a “Canadians in the Bay Area” LinkedIn group, and Canadians started self-identifying. That helped form the basis for C100’s early outreach.

The Canadian ability to blend in has made it surprisingly difficult to pin a number on the population of expats in the Bay Area; various estimates peg it at somewhere between 250,000 and 350,000. Not even Rana Sarkar, consul general of Canada in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, knows for sure. He says, “A good chunk may have dual passports and…are inadvertent Canadians: either their parents are Canadian, or they moved down here at a young age or they’re laying low and have married an American.”

But the central question of what constitutes a Canadian is an interesting one, he reckons. What about people like Deshpande and Musk, who passed through Canada and occasionally reference their maple-leaf roots? “If someone’s mom or dad is a Canadian and they’ve only visited the country a few times, does that mean they’re a Canadian of interest?” Sarkar asks. If the answer is yes, the narrative of the Canadian diaspora will need to be expanded—and many in the Valley think Canada will the better for it.

There’s an expression Albinson, the C100 co-founder, uses often: “When the United States catches a cold, Canada catches the flu.” In 2008, Canada’s tech sector had a bad flu in the midst of the financial crisis. “Canada, as an innovation economy, was on death’s door,” he recalls. “There was no venture capital. There was no angel money. And all over the country, entrepreneurs were losing their companies. Nortel was dead, Research in Motion [known as BlackBerry] was wobbly.”

It took a crisis for Canadians of the Valley to see themselves as a collective asset.

In addition to co-founding C100, Albinson is co-founder of Founders Circle and Panorama Capital. A Kingston boy, he was always intrigued by a painting of the Golden Gate Bridge that his grandmother brought home from a trip to San Francisco. He dislikes hierarchy and the East Coast. And he loves the weather and beauty of his adopted home of Larkspur, a little town in Marin County, Calif., where he meets me in the garden patio of a restaurant with fountains and birdsong.

Back in 2002, when he was a venture capitalist at JP Morgan Partners, Albinson was part of a trip to India designed to showcase the country’s goal of becoming a technology leader by 2020. In Delhi, he witnessed the benefits of viewing Indian expatriates not as a lost liability but rather as an asset. The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) is a Silicon Valley-based non-profit that connects entrepreneurs with South Asian roots around the world with funding, networking, education and mentorship. Founded in 1992, TiE became a model for C100 to emulate in building its own support ecosystem for expats.

By contrast, in 2008, Canada had few startup incubators. And it had a tax law requirement that made foreign venture funding of Canadian startups so difficult that investors were skipping the country altogether—Crunchbase called it “a leper colony for tech entrepreneurs.” Canada eliminated the tax section in 2010, after lobbying by stakeholders like C100, says Albinson.

“We realized the Canadian environment was very fractured,” says Albinson. “One of the reasons why Canada wasn’t having that much success wasn’t that the entrepreneurs weren’t good, but because the ecosystem around them was a mess.”

Albinson and Lee hatched C100 together just minutes after first meeting at an event in Palo Alto sponsored by the Canadian government. The consul general wanted to recruit them to a business advisory board to stimulate industry connections, but they had a better idea.

In January 2009, Albinson stood in front of the 85 most successful Canadians in a conference room on Sand Hill Road, the so-called “Wall Street of the West” in Menlo Park, Calif.. He cleared his throat and issued a call to action on behalf of their homeland. “I looked them in the eye and said, ‘You’ve had the privilege of a passport, you’ve had an amazing education. Because you’re in this room, you’ve had a lot of success down here. You have a responsibility. We want to start this. You owe it to these entrepreneurs to do this.’”

Lee says they felt inspired by Own the Podium, the national campaign (now a non-profit) to invest in Canadian winter sports that helped make Canada the top gold-medal finisher at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “It was very un-Canadian to say, ‘We’re going to win,’” says Lee, “and I think it was kind of a turning point for the Canadian psyche” (Later, C100 created its own video homage to Own the Podium with a Silicon Valley twist: “It’s about claiming the podium as ours, painting it red and white, crushing it and sprinkling the dust into the eyes of our competitors”).

Albinson and Lee weren’t sure if their pitch would work. It was a novel ask, and people inside the room had no reason to contribute, other than their patriotism. “What I didn’t know was, did the thing that burns inside me about being Canadian, was that in everybody?” says Albinson.

Nearly everyone took out a pen and wrote a cheque for US$850.

What a difference a decade makes. As Canada’s tech sector gains traction, government support and major venture capital from south of the border, the freshly-laid infrastructure convinces top Canadians in the Valley that the growth trend will accelerate. It’s when someone like Montreal native Patrick Pichette moves on from his role as CFO at Google and turns venture capitalist, joining iNovia with the express purpose of elevating Canada’s best startups. Or when homegrown Hootsuite hero Ryan Holmes uses his success to build a national entrepreneurship accelerator to help youth in Canada launch the next big thing.

In 2017, Canadian companies comprised 14 per cent of the Deloitte Technology Fast 500, which tracks the fastest-growing tech companies in North America, up roughly three per cent from the year before.

Today, it’s U.S. venture firms that are working to get in front of Canadian entrepreneurs. Andrew D’Souza, co-founder and CEO of fintech service company Clearbanc, says he personally hears from at least one U.S. venture capitalist a week, usually from San Francisco or New York, asking him for advice on whom they ought to be meeting with in Toronto. “People are starting to wake up and realize there’s great talent and great companies built here,” he says.

It’s no longer strictly a requirement for Canadian entrepreneurs to knock on Silicon Valley doors for Series A funding, or even to base their companies in the Bay Area, says D’Souza. But you do need a “good connection” in the Valley, if only to level-set with the competition. “In Canada it’s very easy to be a big deal before you’ve accomplished very much. You can get in The Globe and Mail and you can get on TV…. It’s helpful to be able to look up and realize you’re actually competing on a global scale.” He co-founded Clearbanc in San Francisco in 2015, but a year later, it was clear the conditions were right for a move to Toronto. Now he recruits from both countries.

Albinson talks about being Canadian as though it were a superpower. “You tell people, ‘I’m Canadian,’ and suddenly you’re into three levels of trust. You need to be very, very careful with that. That’s one of the things I tell the C100 folks: we have this amplification that we’ve been entrusted with, whether we know it or not.”

More than a decade after Canada’s telecoms era sputtered, the country’s tech economy has all the ingredients it needs to dominate. What’s missing right now may not be something C100 can provide.

“It’s almost just a matter of confidence,” says Lee. “One thing I’ve noticed is that Canadians working in any industry will pay more attention to Canadians outside the country. Canadians have always needed outside validation. It’s always been part of the culture.”

He pauses. “Part of what we’re trying to say is, ‘Stop it, already.’”

Americans don’t need to name their success stories constantly because they’re all sewn into the mythology. They’ve managed to make all their disparate stories into American ones—to give them an inevitability. But in this case, history is being made in real time by Canadians at home and abroad in an industry that has little narrative of its own.

Canadians will recall getting intermittent history lessons on TV in the ‘90s by way of “Heritage Minutes”— those iconic national video clips depicting important Canadian moments. They’re how we learned about Canada’s contributions to basketball, Superman and even the real-life bear that was said to have inspired Winnie the Pooh. But why not the father of Java?

“I grew up during the Canadian iconography era,” says Leckie, referring to those film clips. “It’s always been my goal that Canadian tech would have that moment in the sun.”

If that happens, it will need to include the Silicon Valley diaspora.

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Letter of Recommendation: Candle Hour

Sunday, March 18th, 2018

One of my best teenage memories starts with a natural disaster. In January 1998, my parents and I returned to our home in Montreal to find that a giant tree limb had ruptured our living room. What would soon be known as the Great Quebec Ice Storm had struck. It was the most catastrophic in modern Canadian history. Accumulations of freezing rain had cracked our maple tree nearly in half. It shattered our front window, glass fringing the tree limb like a body outline in a murder scene.

Outside, downed power lines sparked like electric snakes. More than a million Quebecers were left without power. Cars were crushed and impaled by fallen limbs. Because the ice could inflict violence at any moment, everyone retreated indoors, making for an oddly quiet state of emergency. Except for the distant beeps of electrical-crew trucks, all you could hear was the crack of trees buckling under the weight of the ice, day and night. Long after the sidewalks were cleared, we tiptoed past the eaves of tall buildings and kept our voices low, steering clear of icicles thick as baseball bats and sharp as spikes, primed to fall at any moment.

For seven days and seven nights, until the power returned, we lived by candlelight. We learned to be mindful of candles: how to stand them up, walk with them, nurture their light. At first it was maddening to cook dinner — to carefully carry a plate of candles to the cupboard, poke around for ingredients, then go off again in search of a knife, taking care not to drip wax into the cutlery drawer. I learned how to brush my teeth and bathe by candlelight; the light bounced off the mirrors, making the bathroom for once the brightest room in the house. In our bedrooms, we piled under blankets and read ourselves to sleep by the flickering flames.

Outside, our neighborhood descended into darkness at twilight, but if I stared hard enough at windows blurred with ice, I could just make out little dancing lights. Decades later, no one in my family remembers what we talked about, or ate, or how we spent our afternoons that week. But we all remember the candles.

The Montreal Ice Storm, 1998. (Archives de Montreal)

I’ve since settled in California, and last January events in the world left me with a hunger for silence. I adopted a strict information diet: no television news or social media. One evening, I didn’t even bother to flick on the lights in my apartment. I walked quietly to the window and watched the last of the day, the darkness swallowing the trees along my street. Instinctively, I went looking for a book of matches in the back of the kitchen junk drawer. Opening a closet, I felt around until I discovered the remnant of a housewarming gift: a milk-white candle. I struck a match and lit the dusty wick. I commandeered a plate from the cupboard and set it on my coffee table. I nestled in a blanket, listening to the wind in the courtyard. Eventually, for the first time in too many days, I found myself surrendering to sleep.

That was the start of a practice I’ve taken to calling Candle Hour. An hour before I go to bed, I turn off all my devices for the night. I hit the lights. I light a candle or two or three — enough to read a book by, or to just sit and stare at the flame, which, by drawing oxygen, reminds me I need to breathe, too. I surround myself with scents and objects I like — some fresh rosemary plucked from a neighbor’s bush, a jar of redwood seed pods. I have a journal ready, but I don’t pressure myself to write in it. Candle Hour doesn’t even need to last a full hour, though; sometimes it lasts far longer. I sit until I feel an uncoupling from the chaos, or until the candle burns all the way down, or sometimes both.

Candle Hour has become a soul-level bulwark against so many different kinds of darkness. I feel myself slipping not just out of my day but out of time itself. I shunt aside outrages and anxieties. I find the less conditional, more indomitable version of myself. It’s that version I send into my dreams.

At night, by candlelight, the world feels enduring, ancient and slow. To sit and stare at a candle is to drop through a portal to a time when firelight was the alpha and omega of our days. We are evolved for the task of living by candlelight and maladapted to living the way we live now. Studies have noted the disruptive effects of nighttime exposure to blue-spectrum light — the sort emanated by our devices — on the human circadian rhythm. The screens trick us into thinking we need to stay alert, because our brains register their wavelength as they would the approach of daylight. But light on the red end of the spectrum sends a much weaker signal. In the long era of fire and candlelight, our bodies were unconfused as they began to uncoil.

Tonight’s candlelight will cast the same glow on my Oakland walls as it did on my parents’ walls in Montreal in 1998. I’ll feel in my bones that the day has passed — as all days, even fearful ones, eventually do. The day’s last act is cast in flickering gold. I’ll watch the flame bob and let my mind wander, until I realize I’m sleepy. After a while, I’ll lean over and blow it out, ready now for darkness — where renewal begins.

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Senior Tech Moves Beyond “I’ve Fallen And I Can’t Get Up”

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

Berkeley resident Janis Bordeaux lost her dad to a fall this summer.

John wasn’t frail. At 84, he was still the kind of man who never stopped building and making things. The summer before his fall, he was sanding the floor.

But by the following summer, John’s health had declined. He was having problems with his heart and his weight, and he was taking 12 medications every day. He had no history of falls, but as Bordeaux watched her dad grow weaker, she became more and more worried that he could stumble or slip and hurt himself.

When her parents, who also live in Berkeley, decided to spend the summer at their second home on the New Jersey shore, John suffered his first fall. He wasn’t seriously injured, but a few days later, he fell again.

“I feel like falls are the thing that will take you out nowadays, because pharmaceuticals are extending your life into what seems like an unnatural range,” Bordeaux reflects. “That could just be someone trying to make peace with their dad dying from something that seemed preventable. But on the other hand, he was getting so weak that a fall was bound to happen.”

It wasn’t the second fall that killed her dad. Or the third. Bordeaux’s dad fell four times that week.

The last two falls happened on the same day. He died shortly after.

The saddest part is that, statistically speaking, John’s story is so common. More than half of all elderly falls happen in the familiar surroundings of home. There are often warning signs well in advance, such as muscle weakness or gait imbalance. When your muscles are weak, it’s hard to stop yourself mid-fall. And most older adults who have fallen, or feel unsteady on their feet, don’t tell their doctors about it, according to the CDC.

Advice on how to prevent these traumatic falls has not changed much over the years. Experts say seniors who are unstable on their feet should invest in some easy home renovations to minimize slipping or tripping, such as better lighting, fewer rugs and more handrails. It’s important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms and, if needed, have your medications adjusted. The National Council on Aging recommends several evidence-based fall-prevention exercise programs for seniors, including Tai Chi, which is proven to increase balance and strengthen leg muscles.

Seniors work out as part of a community-wide event on LaCrosse, Wisconsin. (CDC)

But that’s pretty much it. As any concerned caregiver who has Googled “how to prevent senior falls” on behalf of a loved one is aware, the preponderance of helpful online resources all cover similar ground – annual physicals,  eye exams, eating vitamin-rich foods, exercise and removal of safety hazards.

In spite of these efforts, 29 million Americans over 65 reported falling in 2014, with 7 million of those falls leading to injury, and direct medical costs of $31 billion annually. Falling once makes you twice as likely to fall again.  And falls are the leading cause of death by injury for older adults.

Cancer is hard. It’s a hard problem. Preventing falls should be easy. Right?

If it were easy, we would be doing a better job of it, says Sanjay Khurana, Vice President of Caregiving Products and Services at AARP.

“As a society, we recognize that falling has a huge impact on degradation in quality of life,” he says. “One in four older adults falls every year, and less than half actually tell their doctors about it.”

The whole world is getting older -– fast. And those demographics are about to make this crisis into a calamity. A 2007 report from the World Health Organization lays it on the line: “The economic and societal burden of falls will increase by epidemic proportions in all parts of the world over the next few decades.” If countries, governments and communities don’t develop a coherent strategy to combat senior falls “in the immediate future,” the WHO projects the number of fall-related injuries will be 100 percent higher by 2030.

Old-School Tech No More

The one thing none of the government reports and websites mention is technology. Which is odd, considering senior falls have always been associated with a certain personal medical technology still in widespread use today. It goes by different names, but the iconic brand is LifeCall, whose infamous 1980s TV advertisement — “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”-– has launched a thousand punchlines. Not to mention inspired countless satires, from Urkel to Pokémon.

Here’s how it works: You wear a pendant or a wristband that you push to call an emergency responder when you fall. When they pick up, you can talk to them through a speaker installed in your home (provided you’re close enough for them to hear you, and conscious enough to push the button).

It seemed like a pretty impressive innovation when it was introduced in 1974. But now, we have the technology to do better, says the AARP’s Khurana. Way better.

Khurana has been keeping an eye on wearable and home-based sensors. Some can “see” through walls and discern whether an elderly person may be in distress, or allow you to check in on your parent or grandparent remotely by reporting on where they are and whether they’ve been having trouble walking lately.

Others can help you improve your balance with personalized exercises via smartphone sensing (or an at-home scale), or light the way to the bathroom at night – without requiring a verbal command.

Khurana has made it his mission to persuade industry there’s a financial upside to investing in fall prevention. He’s confident that when entrepreneurs and investors realize how big the market is –- the AARP says $2.9 billion for safety monitoring and fall-prevention tech alone –- the rate of innovation will kick into high gear.

The AARP did its part to goose the market this year with the Fall Prevention Innovation Challenge, a worldwide product search with some serious prize money attached. The first-time partnership with OpenIDEO and UnitedHealthcare attracted 205 design ideas from 90 countries. The competition launched in February and concluded in June.

The $50,000 top prizewinner (which judges dubbed Most Viable Solution) was Luna Lights, an automated lighting system that is activated when someone gets out of bed at night. It wirelessly lights the path along frequently traveled hallways toward, say, the bathroom or the kitchen. When the user gets back into bed, the lights snap off. Over time, cloud-based analytics compile habit data to signal to a caregiver that the elderly user may be spending extra time in the bathroom or wandering the house at night, which could suggest an underlying medical issue.

The competition’s $25,000 Most Promising Idea winner was Path Feel, a smart insole that vibrates in several pressure points when the foot touches the ground. The idea is to help older adults (or people with neuropathy, Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis) improve their balance in real time by helping them feel their feet on the floor. The company says it’s aiming to launch the product in 2018. Its built-in gyroscopes and oscillometers transmit data on gait patterns to an app that physical therapists and caregivers can use to measure progress.

Down the road, all that data could give rise to a new way to map the gait characteristics of, say, a 65-year-old diabetic against a larger dataset of “healthy walkers,” which could eventually help create algorithms for being able to detect certain symptoms and contribute to developing new diagnostic methods.

“As we age, we start changing our walking,” says Lise Pape, founder of Walk With Path, the UK-based company that invented Path Feel. “For instance, we start taking shorter steps. There’s indications in the literature that you can use walking to identify early onset Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”

El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, California, is already using predictive technology to reduce falls. A system made by Qventus combines data from patients’ electronic health records with call-light and bed-alarm data to alert nurses that the patient is at high risk of a fall. The staff can then implement additional monitoring, including the use of video, and intervene if the patient is going to attempt to stand. In April, Chief Nursing Officer Cheryl Reinking said the hospital saw a 39 percent decrease in falls over the first six months the system was in use.

The Missing Ingredient: Dignity

One reason that more modern apps and gadgets aren’t on the market: When it comes to wearable tech, seniors are a challenging population to design for.

“The vast majority of products we look at have major flaws,” says Richard Caro, a San Francisco-based scientist/inventor. “They’re basically designed with some 20-year-old audience in mind, not an 80-year-old audience.”

Caro organizes the Longevity Explorers, an online and in-person community of people over 70, who meet up to talk about aging and test out new senior tech gadgets.

The Longevity Explorers test out different lighted canes. (Richard Caro)

The products typically fall into one of two categories, he says. Either they solve a problem users don’t think they have, or they solve a problem people do have, but the solutions are so poorly implemented they’re not that usable.

For instance, the products will come with instructions in tiny gray type or they’ll have buttons that don’t work well with shaky hands. On the other end of the spectrum, some products are so simple and dumbed down that they don’t offer the user interface and normal functionality people need.

“A lot of people buy them and don’t wear them,” says Caro. “While the devices are pretty useful, they are mostly rather ugly. They look like you’ve escaped from the hospital.”

Sanjay Khurana has heard those objections, too –- from his own mother, who lives in an independent living facility. He gave her an emergency pendant to wear, but she doesn’t like it.

“And I asked her, ‘Mom, why don’t you wear this?’ She goes, ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead with the device.’ Because it requires you to wear it around your neck, it signals to the rest of the world that you are in need of help.”

He says design could make the difference.

“If the same product could be designed with a little more dignity, you would wear them, right? Maybe if it was a better-designed pendant, or a wristwatch. A smartwatch could integrate that.”

At least two companies are attempting just that. One is GreatCall, which makes the Lively Wearable, a fitness tracker that looks like a sport watch with only one button –- an emergency button. It syncs to a smartphone but only works in an emergency if you’re carrying your smartphone with you.

Wellnest, a new wearable geared toward seniors. (Jonathan Ramaci)

The other one is Wellnest, which is a smartphone watch you dial by voice. It has built-in 4G LTE and you converse with it via an Amazon Alexa interface. It can guide you home, order an Uber for you, remind you to take your meds, and sense when you’ve fallen. It will notify your caregivers if you’ve missed your meds or have been slipping a lot as you walk. It also allows them to ping your location in an emergency. (Lively Wearable is  already available; Wellnest is due out by the end of the year.)

Finally, what about after you’ve fallen, but before you hit the floor? One prototype idea in the Fall Prevention Challenge was a Spanx-like pair of underwear with built-in hip protectors – and a motion sensor that calls an ambulance after a fall. In fact, the “senior airbag” concept abounds. One is a “smart belt” you attach around your waist that activates in milliseconds after a fall, theoretically before you hit the ground.

Of course, all this technology requires the elderly person to be willing to use it, which means acknowledging they are at risk. Marketing and design teams have a heavy lift to make fall prevention technology relevant to Baby Boomers, a generation distinguished more by rejecting aging than by accepting the limits it imposes.

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Post-Theranos, Can Silicon Valley and Biomed Get Along?

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Oil and water. Plaid and polka dots. Fish and peanut butter. We all know these things don’t go together.

It’s worth asking how well the “get in hard, cash out fast” tech ethos du jour fits in with the plodding, regulation-heavy culture of health care. It’s a valid question in the wake of the Theranos flameout, in which a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with no medical background, lots of hype and very little scientific scrutiny raised copious venture backing to  revolutionize blood testing, only to see the technology fail in market.

Tech culture rewards disruptors. And those who can pivot on a dime.

But the process of getting a new drug or medical device to market is long and convoluted, a necessary drag. There’s the academic papers subject to peer review, the many stages of clinical testing and government approval. Yes, it all takes years, but it makes the science transparent.

By contrast, Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes was secretive about how the company’s technology worked, and the venture firms that pumped millions into Theranos either didn’t have the details, or weren’t scientifically literate enough to ask the questions that might have raised red flags.

Stanford professor Dr. John Ioannidis saw the red flags early on –some that even non-scientists could have discovered.

“So the first thing that I did as a researcher, as a scientist, is check the scientific literature,” he recently told NPR.  “How much do we know about what they [Theranos] do? And I couldn’t find even a single paper.”

Dr. Norman Paradis is a  professor of medicine at Dartmouth College who works as a consultant for diagnostic startups. He has given presentations to venture firms, and he says the fact that Theranos got hundreds of millions of dollars and went to market without proving itself makes it “a Silicon Valley event, and not a biomedical event.”

“I think Silicon Valley is used to this kind of thing: take an idea that isn’t fully formed and get it out into the world without validation, and maybe it fails later on.” Whereas in the biomedical field you almost always need to have data early on.

So what happened? The wrong people were asking the questions, says Paradis. “If you look at the list of who invested in Theranos, none of the venture capitalists who regularly do biomedical diagnostics were investors,” he says. The firms with relevant medical expertise steered clear. “Normally you show up to present an idea to these firms,  they really know what you’re talking about,” he added.

At a conference it hosted in January, The Economist asked a panel of venture capitalists about the broader perception of a culture clash between scientists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs … and the Theranos example, specifically. The panelists represented three firms that invest in life science and healthcare ventures: Lisa Suennen from GE Ventures, David Sabow from Silicon Valley Bank, and Emily Melton from DFJ Venture Capital.

Here’s the full video:

The panelists agreed that some of the accepted rules that govern much of today’s startup development and commercialization seem to run counter to those of science-based startups in medicine and biotech. And that there is a tension between the two sides.

“It’s a solution sell versus a product sell,” said Melton from DFJ. “Investors think of things as products, whereas people on the health care side think of solutions.”

Suennen from GE Ventures agreed. “On the tech side, people are practically allergic to providing services,” she said.  But in the case of health care, “You can’t take the people out of caring for people.”

And, said Suennen, the timelines involved are vastly different.

“In the health care world, the time horizon for investments to mature and exit is pretty long compared to other marketplaces – usually 7 to 10 years,” Suennen added.

Melton noted that won’t deter some venture firms from investing in health care. “We’re willing to be more patient if we feel like there’s a great opportunity at the end,” she said, adding that, “We do need to have a clear path to commercialization.”

Of course a startup can’t come to market without jumping  through the hoops — specifically, the FDA approval process. That’s why these panelists said regulation is a — gasp! — good thing. “You need regulation in health care, for the most part, to make the market grow,” Suennen said.

Everyone on the panel agreed that the next big thing in digital health or biomedicine will not emerge until tech innovators and medical experts work together: venture companies need  the new ideas from the tech side combined with the health care knowledge. And that’s starting to happen.

Since most biomedical startups are still in early funding stages, it will take a few years to see a new model of collaboration emerge and produce significant breakthroughs in biomed.

“You need that life sciences perspective to understand how has it been done, what works, what doesn’t — in order to totally revolutionize it,” said Sabow, from Silicon Valley Bank. “People who are trying to do it without that multidimensional perspective are going to spend a lot of money, get a lot of buzz, but not necessarily have the revolutionary impact they’re hoping for.”

There was some awkwardness when Melton was asked about Theranos. Her firm, DFJ, pumped $500,000 in seed money into the venture early on. Interestingly, she all but said that her firm did not have access to data from Theranos when they cut the check.

“I think transparency is critical. You can’t mess around with people’s lives and you can’t put products out there without being very transparent about what you’re doing. Data is very critical, and letting people have access to the data.”

The Theranos debacle has a “tragic” element that goes beyond hundreds of lost jobs and lost investment, says Paradis. For $750 million, you could have funded at least seven good startups, he says. “It’s almost impossible to get a complete new diagnostic test developed, because funders are so conservative [when it comes to medical products],” he says. “That’s even less likely to happen now.”

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What Makes San Francisco Sourdough Unique?

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

If bagels are a New York thing, San Francisco definitely has sourdough. And probably no one has convinced more people that our sourdough is unique than Boudin Bakery, where tourists line up at Fisherman’s Wharf for a taste of that moist-tangy, fogbound delight.

Bay Area native (and KQED staffer) Peter Cavagnaro has been eating local sourdough all his life. It’s his favorite bread. And that got him wondering about something. He asked KQED’s Bay Curious….

“What makes San Francisco sourdough so unique?”

Here at KQED, we’ve always heard there’s something in the water or the air that makes our sourdough special. But is that really true?

It turns out that this is as much a science question as it is about the history and local mythology of our “authentic” local sourdough. By the time I had the answer, I also had 2 pounds of smelly homemade sourdough starter fermenting at home, and the results of a lab test that described the microbes living in it.

Taste the Microbes

To understand what makes our bread taste the way it does, you need to know how bread gets started. My investigation began in the fermentation room at Semifreddi’s bakery in Alameda, one of the best-known local producers of sourdough, along with Acme Bread Company and Tartine Bakery.

The fermentation room is the inner sanctum of the bakery. It’s a very cold, stainless-steel vault where 300 yellow buckets brim with slow-bubbling beige goop: future sourdough. I stood there, shivering in a hairnet, with co-owner Mike Rose and head baker John Tredgold.

Rose is a soft-spoken man who talks about sourdough with wonderment, as if it’s alive — which it is, with millions of microbes.

“Can you hear it? It’s hungry,” Rose said. “It will be fed later today. It gets fed once a day. Equal parts flour and water.”

Before sourdough gets baked, it has to be grown. Born as a primordial glop, aptly called starter. All it needs to grow, as Rose said, is flour and water. And time. That’s it. If you add anything else, it’s not real sourdough. Eventually, the sugars in the flour start to break down, and fermentation happens on its own.

Tredgold handed me a plastic spoon and pointed me to a bucket. I could see bubbles rising to the surface of the bucket — a sure sign of microbial activity. The starter tasted like very sour yogurt to me, but Tredgold treated the experience like tasting a fine wine, smelling and savoring.

“This is more like creme fraiche,” he said. “It makes you salivate, it makes you excited to eat more.”

The author’s starter, looking healthy with lots of air pockets.

Flour, Water, Temperature, Time

Semifreddi’s produces 9,500 loaves of sourdough each day. But no two loaves taste exactly alike. And that’s because the starter is alive with millions of wild yeast cells and naturally occurring bacteria. The yeast makes the bread rise. And the bacteria create the acids that make the bread sour.

The flavors vary from day to day, and batch to batch. Sourdough is one of the most ancient breads, dating back at least 5,000 years. It’s reasonably easy to create a starter from scratch, but tricky to master the triple arts of crust, crumb and flavor when baking. So much depends on capturing enough wild yeast to make the bread light and airy. (Adding commercial yeast is not a permitted technique at the baking stage if the goal is authentic, old-fashioned sourdough).

“We try to control it by temperature and time. And our hands. It’s never fully totally under control, because we’re dealing with natural organisms,” said Rose. “I love it,” he added with a grin.

Rose was so passionate that I decided to try growing my own sourdough starter at home (more on that below).

The Boudin Lore

A little voice nagged at me, though. Anyone can make sourdough, but would it be authentic if it wasn’t born in San Francisco? (I live in Oakland).

No one has convinced more people about the unique qualities of San Francisco sourdough than Boudin, which says it’s been selling the same loaf of bread for 168 years. According to the Boudin Bakery museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, the company’s mother dough follows an unbroken line back to the Gold Rush in 1849. Louise Boudin even saved the starter from a burning building in the 1906 earthquake.

A museum docent told me the starter is so special and irreplaceable that the Boudin mothership sends its retail stores fresh starter every 23 days. Without it, they say the sourdough those stores produce would stop tasting like San Francisco sourdough and start tasting like San Diego or Sacramento sourdough.

Why? Well, according to the museum, Boudin bread owes its special flavor to a strain of bacteria that thrives only in San Francisco’s climate. Scientists identified it here in 1970, so they named it Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis.


Not That Unique, Actually

It’s a great story. Too bad it’s not quite true.

Scientists did identify Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis here. But recent studies have found it in up to 90 percent of countries where sourdough is produced. So from a biological standpoint, San Francisco sourdough is not all that distinctive.

“It’s something that everyone thinks is unique to San Francisco and that is not true at all,” said Ben Wolfe, a microbiologist at Tufts University in Boston. His lab studies fermentation full time … including the microbes you find in sourdough.

So, case closed? Not quite.

Boudin Bakery says their decades-old starter is the key to the bread’s flavor.


Science is still learning about the lactic acid bacteria (like L. sanfranciscensis) that give sourdough its main sour flavor. Other fermented foods have lactic acids, too, like miso, yogurt and kimchi.

But scientists don’t know where they come from. Or how they get into your sourdough starter when you make it in your kitchen.

One explanation is that the bacteria could be in the flour to begin with. So when you go to the store and buy a bag of flour, it’s not sterile. They could also be on your skin or floating around your kitchen, but Wolfe says those are less likely to become the dominant bacteria in your starter.

“This is one of the big questions we’re trying to answer in our story of American sourdough: Where are the lactic acid bacteria coming from?” said Wolfe.

The Sourdough Project

There’s never been a large-scale study in home kitchens to really identify the sources of bacteria at home.

Until now.

Wolfe’s lab has partnered with the Rob Dunn Lab at North Carolina State University on the Sourdough Project, the first comprehensive effort to test the DNA of sourdough starters across America — and understand the evolutionary biology that underlies the differences among starters.

The Sourdough Project is soliciting hundreds of sourdough starter samples from amateur and professional bread bakers across the country. (To participate in this public science project, get started by filling out this questionnaire).

Scientists will analyze samples to answer the baseline question: How variable are the microbes from region to region? And how much variability can be attributed to the grain of the bread, versus the air, the water or the humans involved?

There are so many factors. Wolfe ticks them off.

“It could be the time that people ferment their breads. It could be the temperature. It could be a special set of recipes used in San Francisco than in other places.”

When I told him I was growing my own sourdough starter, he offered to analyze it.

So while science may yet discover something special is lurking in our sourdough, Wolfe isn’t holding his breath.

Not even the bakers at Semifreddi’s, a company that has been in a position to benefit from the reputation of local sourdough, embrace the cachet.

Semifreddi’s head baker Tredgold says it’s pure marketing.

“It sells the city. It’s one of the things the city’s known for. The bridge, the bay, the sourdough.”

And Rose, the co-owner of the bakery, added: “If we take our local starter and bake with it in Los Angeles, I think it will taste very similar to what we’re making here,” he said.

Blasphemy! But possibly … true.

My Kitchen Sourdough Experiment: Results

My own sourdough experiment lasted more than a month. I used King Arthur whole wheat flour and kept my mixture on the kitchen counter. As it grew, it smelled distressingly like vomit before it mellowed. At one point it almost spilled out of the Tupperware I’d been keeping it in.

As my starter matured, it needed to be fed twice a day on a regular schedule. I raced home from work to give it more flour and water, spoke to it, and pampered it with field trips out to the balcony to give it some exposure to the Oakland atmosphere. (In spite of what I learned about the uncertainty of the science of microbes in sourdough, I still pictured my starter capturing beneficial wild yeast and bacteria from the atmosphere.)

I don’t have pets or children, so I took photos of my starter’s regular maturity and forced my friends to admire them.

But the most important question was: How did it taste? I baked two little loaves and brought them into the KQED newsroom to get some brutally honest feedback from fellow reporters.

Julia Scott, left, and Bay Curious podcast host Olivia Allen-Price enjoy the fruits of Scott’s labor in the KQED newsroom — some homemade sourdough bread.

Being a first-time baker, you can imagine how this went. The loaves were so dense they had almost no air pockets. They weighed at least 3 pounds and were nearly rock-hard. My colleagues at KQED charitably praised the taste, but it was clear something had gone wrong in the baking process … or with the starter itself.

A few weeks later, I got my sourdough DNA results back from Ben Wolfe’s Tufts lab. My starter had two bacterial species: Lactobacillus brevis and Lactobacillus plantarum; and one yeast species: Wickerhamomyces anomalus. All of which are very commonly found in sourdough starters made around the world, according to Wolfe. It’s also common to have no more than a few species of yeast and bacteria in any given starter.

But that one bacterium once believed to make our bread so special — Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis? My bread didn’t have any. Would things have gone differently if it had shown up? I may never know.

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How Quebec Separatism Prepared Me for Trump’s America

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

My sense of belonging to Canada came at the moment I was faced with the prospect of losing my place in it. The night of October 30, 1995, my parents held a gathering for thirty friends to watch the Quebec referendum returns on TV. Outside, the Montreal night fell quickly and very few of us spoke, ate, or breathed. I was fifteen years old.

The vote teetered over the line between Yes and No for hours. When the results broke for the No campaign, it was by such a small margin—54,288 votes—that we experienced more a sense of relief than of victory. The federalist vote had won, and my family, their friends, all of us Anglophones had affirmed our right to stay in Canada. But 2.3 million of our neighbours had betrayed us. That’s how it felt at the time: we were surrounded by people who’d decided their enfranchisement, their identity, precluded ours.

Quebec would remain tethered to Canada, but unbeknownst to me, my parents made a different decision that night. Across the room, their eyes met; there was no need to speak or negotiate. It was time for us to go. My parents felt that as Anglos, Quebec had no place for us. The moment high school ended, we moved to California.

Those years in Quebec, “It was like the country you thought you were living in was no longer your country,” remembers my mother. There could be no better way to sum up my own feelings, and those of millions of fellow Americans, after the election of Donald Trump. Coping with the aftermath has split my American friends into two camps. One group is in the fight. They protest, sign petitions, binge-donate to non-profits, and call Congress members every day. Others have turned off the channel completely, booking last-minute trips to Mauritius, Costa Rica, and other faraway places with little Internet access. Fellow writers have told me they are in “internal exile,” a term invoked by artists who stayed in Germany during the Nazi occupation. They work on what’s in front of them. They don’t engage beyond it.

And then there’s the #Calexit crusade, which evokes an unpleasant sense of dêja vu. Although the effort to have California secede from the union and gain independence for the world’s sixth-largest economy is still a fringe movement, it has gained some powerful backers in the tech sector. Proponents have already filed language for a proposed referendum in March 2019. It’s a long shot: even if a majority of Californians voted for it, enacting the legislation would require an amendment to the US Constitution and the approval of both chambers and thirty-eight states.

But it’s a sentiment I understand all too well.

Let me be clear: I reject separation completely. There is no way you can convince me that anything could justify being legally separated once we are bound together as a country. But based on my experience in Quebec, I find myself wanting to warn my fellow Blue Staters that there’s a deeper process we need to undertake: that of emotional resettlement, of finding a new whole to identify with.

Canada stayed together after 1995, officially. But Quebec never ended its emotional journey to define how it belongs to the country, and how it belongs to itself. I went on a similar journey. I still have (and cherish) my Canadian passport, but my loss was permanent. My status as an emotional refugee began with the referendum, and our plans to leave. But it didn’t end until I’d traded my sense of belonging in Quebec for a sense of belonging in California.

We Blue Staters are now the emotional refugees, millions of us. We lost this election, and a lot more besides. We lost our illusions of belonging to a fractious but inclusive America. The one that honours individual freedoms and a form of governance grounded in our collective common values. Like kindness. Don’t forget kindness.


The fact is, sometimes your side loses an election. That’s part of the process. But this time, we’re not just on the losing side: we’re on the outside. This country we loved and believed in has left us. What do we belong to now? Over the next four years, there are aspects of the culture we’ll leave behind, walk away from, just as we feel it has rejected us. But some things are left that we’ll need to walk toward.

Geographically, of course, we are staying put. But emotionally, we are divested. Where will we find our new homes?

We’ll need to find them in ourselves. And for that, I look toward Quebec.

Tens of of thousands of Anglophones left Quebec after 1995, just like my parents and I. But lately I have been thinking about the people—friends and family included—who stayed behind to participate in a civil society that is still very much at odds with itself.

The referendum campaign was my political awakening. I was old enough to grasp the stakes, and for the first time, I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. I remember the historic Unity Rally in the Place du Canada. My classmates and I skipped school and walked downtown, where I tried to perch on a stack of unwieldy police barricades and catch a glimpse of the leaders on the dais. I remember Jean Charest’s curly Afro, the buses of waving Canadians from other provinces and the enormous flag the crowd held on its shoulders, as big as a hundred flattened parachutes.

On the night of the 30th, after the votes were counted, I sprinted onto Sherbrooke Street with a friend, shouting and waving a Canadian flag. Many drivers honked in support; some yelled abuse.

Now I think back to that night and imagine the devastation and the loss for all the people who were so sure history would go another way. They, too, were motivated by wanting to belong. I can see how, having touched the dream, watching Jean Chrétien declare victory on TV must have felt as dejectedly surreal as it still does when I turn on the TV today and see the words “President-elect Trump.”

Quebec nationalists voted with their hearts, not with their heads—so went the narrative at the time. I have heard that patronizing description applied to some of the people who voted for Trump, too. But if it is true, then it only reinforces my belief that now is not the right time to change hearts and minds in America. Painful as it is for a liberal arts–educated journalist to admit, there are limited possibilities for dialogue in a climate characterized by either recrimination or retreat. But it is possible to try something else.

I’ve lived outside of Quebec for eighteen years now. Sometime after I left, Quebecers—Francophones, Anglophones and Allophones—got to work creating a society they felt they could belong to, whatever the passport. There were some major moral failures at the government level (the Quebec Charter of Values comes to mind), but I’ve also seen major progress toward integration, regardless of political beliefs. Many of my Anglo friends now work in French all day. They’ve married and befriended French Canadians. Their kids are growing up bilingual in a distinct, multicultural society. When I visit Montreal, I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever did growing up.

That’s the feeling I want for this country. And it won’t come from turning our backs on the federal government. The wisdom of separatists was not in the instinct to leave; it was in defining exactly which values mattered to them, and using those values as a template after the referendum to find a way to belong inside Quebec, and also inside Canada—for now, at least.

We will all live in Trump’s America, but that doesn’t mean we should back down from the challenge of living the way we want our society to function. No one can take those values away from us. They transcend us and, ultimately, define our neighbourhoods and local institutions.

The harmony in Quebec may be illusory. If certain politicians have their way, someday my friends’ children may also find themselves voting in a shattering separatist referendum. And they’ll need to confront the same questions of allegiance that we did. But by then, concepts of “us” and “them,” “insider” and “outsider,” may have changed.

I now know that staying is one thing, belonging another. After I left, Quebecers built a society that holds hope for the latter. It’s still a fraught and emotional experiment. But it’s a feeling we Blue Staters will need to get used to.

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Heavyweight episode: “Julia”

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016


What happens when you go back and open the door to a time in your childhood that you tried to forget? Heavyweight host Jonathan Goldstein and I found out together.

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The Loneliest Man in Belize

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

‘Rozco! Love you, hon!” cried a man in baggy jeans. His shout, insincere and taunting, was aimed at the back of Caleb Orozco, a 41-year-old man walking along a row of tarp-covered souvenir stands near one of Belize City’s ferry terminals. Orozco’s only acknowledgment was to walk a little faster, car keys clutched in his hand. It was a hot December afternoon, a week before Christmas, high season in the city’s tourist zone. Two policemen appraised Orozco but said nothing as more taunts flew. “Saw you on TV!” a woman dressed in white jeered from her craft stand, where she sold carved wooden boats. Farther down the sidewalk, two men snickered. “Caleb! You done rub too hard!” leered a man in a blue baseball cap, pointing to Orozco’s crotch.

Batiman!” someone called from the shade of a food­-cart umbrella.

In Belize — a small Anglophone Caribbean nation tucked into the eastern flank of Guatemala and Mexico — “batiman” (Creole for, literally, “butt man”) has long been the supreme slur against gay men, the worst possible insult to their personhood and dignity. But now another slur is beginning to take its place: “Orozco.”

Caleb Orozco. Photo credit Julia Scott

Caleb Orozco. Photo credit Julia Scott

Five years ago, Orozco’s lawyer walked into the Belize Supreme Court Registry and handed over a stack of papers that initiated the first challenge in Caribbean history to the criminalization of sodomy. Caleb Orozco v. the Attorney General of Belize focuses on Section 53, a statute in the Belize criminal code that calls for a 10-year prison term for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” If Orozco won, his supporters hoped, it would establish a moral precedent across the Caribbean and even create a domino effect, putting pressure on other governments to decriminalize sodomy. But it took three years for the Supreme Court to hear the case; two years later, the nation still awaits a verdict.

In the meantime, Orozco operates the United Belize Advocacy Movement, or Unibam, the only gay ­rights advocacy and policy group in Belize, out of his home in a thick-walled compound on Zericote Street, where stray dogs nose for food scraps in the dirt. The walls are topped with broken shards of glass and rusty, upside-down nails. A seven-foot-tall security gate barricades his driveway. When home, he must remember to lock all six locks — two for his house, two for his office and two padlocks on the gate for good measure. Those precautions do not prevent Orozco’s neighbor or people walking by his house from throwing rocks and bottles over the walls, shouting, “Aala unu fu ded” (“All of you should die”). Other residents have picked up two-­by-fours and chased him in the street. People stone Orozco’s house frequently enough that he rarely bothers to call the police at this point. (This being Belize, a country with a population of just 360,000, he sometimes knows whoever is throwing the rocks on Zericote Street anyway.)

Orozco’s natural habitat, the place where he feels powerful and at ease, is in front of his pink laptop in his office, a squat outbuilding with barred windows. Inside these walls, no one will disparage his manner of dress: snug graphic tee, stylish camo-print shorts and black Keds that hug his feet like shapely hooves. No one will comment on the way he styles his hank of hair, with a flip to the left and some highlights that tend to come out looking gray. He greets clients and funders with a soft handshake and a wry joke — usually at his own expense. When they leave, he spends hours online in the growing dark, sometimes past midnight.

“Did you know we caused the floods in Belize?” he remarked airily, scrolling through headlines on a local news site. “There’s an actual comment from a man who says so.” Later he double-­locked his office doors and led the way across a yard strung with empty clothing lines, dry grass crackling underfoot. He paused for a few moments, listening for unrest from his neighbor’s house, before mounting the heavily sagging steps. He jerked open the sticky door. The floor tipped at an angle, and the ceiling was patched and moldy. One window had holes big enough for him to poke his head through. “My house is like my life — a hot mess,” he said, making his favorite joke with a wan smile.

He is Belize’s most reviled homosexual and its most ostracized citizen, a man whom fundamentalists pray for and passers-by scorn; a marked man at 30 paces. His weary face is on the evening news and in newspaper caricatures, which have depicted him in fishnets and heels. His name is now a label, one used to remind other gays that they are sinners and public offenders. Win or lose, Orozco’s fight for his fundamental rights and freedoms will follow him for the rest of his life.

Americans and Europeans visit Belize for all the things that make “the Jewel” an ideal place to relax: coral reefs, paradisiacal white beaches, a green-azure sea. It is a deeply Christian country, with a Constitution that proclaims the “supremacy of God” as a first principle. Recently, it has seen a surge in Pentecostalism and other proselytizing strains of faith. Although bounded on two sides by Latin American countries with more liberal attitudes toward same-sex relationships, Belize retains a culture more closely aligned with Caribbean countries whose perspectives were colored by 200 years of British occupation. There is an ethos of “live and let live,” but only as long as the gay community remains invisible. Gay couples cohabitate and quietly raise children, but without demanding legal recognition. Couples don’t hold hands in public. No hate-crime laws exist to punish targeted assaults.

Formerly British Honduras, Belize gained independence in 1981, inheriting most of its governing documents from its former master. Section 53 is an artifact of Belize’s colonial past dating to the 1880s. The British bequeathed similar “buggery” laws to all 11 other Caribbean countries once ruled by the crown. (The Bahamas has subsequently removed them.) Buggery became a criminal offense in the England of King Henry VIII in 1533. Of the 76 countries that still criminalize sodomy around the world today, most do so as a holdover from British colonial rule. (Britain repealed its buggery laws in 2003.) In Belize, anti­gay laws extend beyond the criminal code: Homosexuals are still technically an explicit class of prohibited immigrants, along with prostitutes, “any idiot,” the insane and “any person who is deaf and dumb.”

Much as with Lawrence v. Texas, the case whose resolution in the United States Supreme Court invalidated anti-­sodomy laws still on the books in 13 states, Orozco’s challenge is less about sodomy than about discrimination. Even the most zealous Christian leaders, the ones leading the crusade to keep Section 53 on the books, acknowledge that law or no law, sodomy does happen in the privacy of bedrooms in Belize — and not just between gay men, either. Despite the fact that the law is rarely enforced, Orozco and his lawyers say that the threat of indictment encourages public harassment, threats and occasional violence against many gays and lesbians, who have little recourse. The police sometimes charge hush money not to turn people in, according to Lisa Shoman, one of Orozco’s attorneys. The Belize attorney general told me that he personally believes that Section 53 is discriminatory, though his office is obligated to defend it in court.

Orozco is an unlikely instigator of this challenge. He wasn’t politically galvanized until he was 31, when he went to a workshop for gay men and people living with H.I.V. at a public health conference in Belize City. One by one, the men stood up, spoke their names and added, “I have H.I.V.” or “I have sex with men.” Orozco was bowled over. “I got up and said, ‘By the way, I like men.’ I realized that you perpetuate your own mistreatment by remaining silent. And I decided I would not be silent anymore.”

A year later, he helped found Unibam as a public-­health advocacy group for gay men. Until that point, Orozco had never paid much attention to the H.I.V. epidemic in his country. Even after one of his uncles, who was gay, died from complications related to AIDS, Orozco didn’t fully grasp what had killed him. He couldn’t acknowledge being gay — to others or himself — until well into his college years. “People would ask me, ‘Are you gay?’ And I would say stupid things like: ‘I’m trisexual. I’ll try anything just once,’ ” he recalled. “The truth was, I wouldn’t try anything.” He didn’t have sex until he was 23, and when he did, he felt pressured into it. He has never had a long-­term boyfriend. The men Orozco knows won’t be seen with him. “There was one man who would only want me to pick him up after 8 o’clock at night,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I think about it all the time — is this the price I’m paying? To have no love life? To be the one publicly gay man in Belize? To be the most socially isolated?”

Caleb Orozco in Belize City. Photo credit Julia Scott


Orozco did not have litigation on his mind at an H.I.V. conference in Jamaica in 2009 when he spoke to two law professors — one Jamaican, one Guyanese — with the University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project, which they had recently founded with a colleague to focus on human rights in the Caribbean. They had been studying bans on same-­sex relationships, laying the groundwork for a test case that, if successful, could encourage similar legal challenges in neighboring countries. Belize was ideal: It had a Constitution with stronger personal privacy and equality protections than other Caribbean countries. From a human rights point of view, it was a case they thought they could win.

When Orozco heard this, he recalled, “I put up my hand — literally — and said: ‘What about me? I’m ready since yesterday. How can we do this?’ ” But even as he signed the legal papers, litigation itself was never the point. “I realized the case was simply a tool to create a national dialogue,” he said. “It isn’t just Section 53. It’s adoption. It’s Social Security. It’s not having the first say of the health of your partner. There’s the dignity issues, which haven’t been recognized.”

The legal challenge was a controversial move in Belize’s gay community, where the question of gay rights — what they are and how to get them — is a conversation that has just barely begun. Belize has never had an inciting incident to catalyze a movement, like the 1969 Stonewall uprising. There is no annual Gay Pride parade. No member of government or other prominent figure has ever come out. No gay bars or ritual “safe spaces” exist as places for people to meet, just carefully organized house parties and private encounters on Facebook. The L.G.B.T. community in Belize, with the exception of a dedicated corps of organizers and supporters, remains timid, fractured and apolitical. Unibam itself has only 128 members, in part because of people’s concern that their names could be made public. “Don’t ask, don’t tell — that’s the way with just about everything here,” said Kelvin Ramnarace, a Unibam board member. “It doesn’t mean progress. It’s one thing to not have rights and know it. Here you think you do, because it’s not so hard to live here. But we don’t.”

But Orozco’s lawyers had reasons to hope that a softening was at hand. The tone had already begun to shift across much of neighboring Latin America, where activists were laying the groundwork for a string of victories. Today, six Latin American countries recognize same-­sex marriage or civil unions. Eleven countries have banned employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and seven countries protect L.G.B.T. citizens against hate crimes.

“Even though people said they anticipated some backlash in Belize, almost all the groups I spoke to seemed favorable,” said Arif Bulkan, the Guyanese lawyer Orozco met at the H.I.V. conference. Bulkan and his colleagues spoke to a range of Belizean civil-­society groups and local leaders, including those in the church establishment. He recalled an important meeting with the president, at the time, of the Belize Council of Churches, which encompasses Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians. “He said they wouldn’t support us openly,” Bulkan said, “but they wouldn’t oppose us either.”

So Orozco had few reasons to think he might regret putting his reputation, and Unibam’s, on the line. Today, he shakes his head like a man in a dream. “I just thought it was going to be some litigation,” he said. “I didn’t expect opponents, didn’t expect propaganda and all that other stuff that happened.” He paused. “I really didn’t.”

In Belize, church leaders are granted deference in the press and by lawmakers on social issues. But in large part, the ecclesiastical focus has always been on the spiritual rather than the political realm. So Orozco was blindsided by the announcement, soon after the suit was filed, that the Roman Catholic Church of Belize, the Belize Evangelical Association of Churches and the Anglican Church had together joined the case on the government’s side as an “interested party,” a legal distinction that allowed them to hire lawyers, file motions and be heard during the trial. More than 400 church leaders and ministries came together to mobilize their adherents in the name of public morality. In another first for Belize, church leaders founded a nationwide activist campaign, Belize Action, and began drawing thousands of believers to rallies that denounced the “homosexual agenda.”

The churches also flexed their legal muscle in a pretrial motion to remove Unibam as a claimant in the case; as an organization, they argued, it had no standing to challenge the law. Their motion succeeded. Suddenly Orozco was the sole claimant. The case would come down to whether Orozco’s personal human rights had been violated. He was hounded for interviews, and his name was broadcast all over the world. Someone posted a video to YouTube called “[Expletive] Unibam dis da Belize,” with a photo of Orozco. He received death threats when his name was printed. Shoman, an opposition senator in the National Assembly of Belize as well as one of his lawyers, received explicit rape threats. One day, Orozco was walking downtown, alone, when a man on a bicycle, shouting antigay slurs, threw an empty beer bottle at Orozco’s head. It smacked him on the jaw and cracked two of his molars. After taking his statement, “the police said, ‘If you find who did this, tell us, and we will pick them up.’ Why is that my responsibility?” he asked me with a sardonic smile.

Before the churches joined the case, Orozco allowed three organizations to join forces as an interested party on his side: the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, the International Commission of Jurists and the Human Dignity Trust, major transnational nongovernmental organizations with global standing, large budgets and access to the best human ­rights lawyers in the world. “I thought that using interested parties from the international community would have brought some kind of leverage,” he told me.

But the presence of these foreign groups, even on paper, allowed Orozco’s enemies to reframe the case as an act of cultural aggression by the global north. According to Bulkan, “a lot of the negative press after that was about foreigners coming in.” Prime Minister Dean Barrow told a local news station: “One of the things that we have to be grateful for in this country is the culture wars we see in the United States have not been imported into Belize. Well, obviously, this is the start of exactly such a phenomenon.” The United States and Europe were meddling colonizers, Orozco their traitorous pawn. Orozco’s religious opponents referred to victories for same-­sex marriage in California and Canada as further evidence of the true agenda at work in Belize. “It puts a lot of pressure on us,” Orozco said. “When we started this, we weren’t thinking about gay marriage.”

Opponents made much of the fact that Unibam receives all of its budget, around $35,000 a year, from foreign governments and foundations, including the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, the Swiss Embassy in Mexico City and the Open Society Foundations. “Is Unibam being used for a foreign gay agenda?” one news station asked. The Amandala, the nation’s largest newspaper, published a page-­long editorial under the headline “UNIBAM DIVIDES BELIZE.” “Homosexuals are predators of young and teenaged boys,” wrote the editor in chief, Russell Vellos, in a separate column. “Woe unto us, Belize, if homosexuals are successful in our court. Woe unto us! In fact, since ours is a ‘test case,’ woe unto the world!”

The headquarters of Unibam. Photo credit Julia Scott


Six days a week, Orozco drives to his mother’s squat rental in a Belize City suburb and sits down at her glass kitchen table. Perla Ozeata, a matter-­of-fact woman with the same dark eyes as her son’s, serves up his favorites: steaming dark bowls of chimole, a Belizean specialty; escabeche with chicken and whole jalapeños; and her special cheesecake. Strangers have cursed her for “encouraging” her son to be gay, but she is proud of him. The first day Orozco went to court, he wore clothes his mother bought him. She ironed his shirt and tied his tie. Sometimes when she looks at him, she still sees the friendless schoolboy who played in the yard by himself, catching lizards and trying to avoid his bullies and his father’s chronic disapproval. She intends to one day tear down the house on Zericote Street and rebuild, so she can move back in with him and protect him. “Somebody have to live with Caleb, because people take advantage of him,” she told me one afternoon. “Caleb no fighter. He can fight out the mouth, but he can’t fight physical.” At one point, when Orozco was out of earshot, she said in a low voice: “Every time he walk the street, they promise to kill him. Win or lose the case, they’ll kill him.”

These days Orozco leaves his compound on foot for only two reasons: to walk to the bank (10 minutes) or to the market for groceries (five minutes). On good days, he can make the 10-minute walk in seven and the five-minute one in three. But even inside a place of commerce, things can go awry. “A gentleman said he wanted to push his bat up my you-­know-­what,” Orozco told me at one point. “I was at the bank. I had my nieces with me.”

He was sitting on his messy bed, his knees pressed together. His clothes were jammed into a dresser decorated with peeling children’s stickers. Twice a day, Orozco brushes his teeth over the tub because he doesn’t have a sink. The walls are a single run of wooden slats with holes like gapped teeth, so pests are a problem. “Compare rats to spiders, and I prefer spiders,” he said.

Coming out is supposed to broaden your world. Orozco’s world has narrowed to the space between these walls. Some days the tension in his neck hurts so badly that he resorts to painkillers. Other days he just feels numb. He doesn’t answer his cellphone when it rings and just watches TV until he drops off to sleep. “I don’t like feeling trapped,” he acknowledged. “But I cannot afford to lose myself in this work. I create my own social space, completely.”

Once in a while he takes a chance on a night out at Dino’s, a dance club in downtown Belize City. But he never goes without a friend. At midnight one Saturday, Orozco parked near a faded billboard with a picture of a sad-looking woman and the message “ABORTION: ONE DEAD, ONE WOUNDED.” With his sister Golda, her husband and a friend, he ascended a narrow concrete stairwell to a long, dark room with earsplitting Caribbean dance music. “This is what we do,” Orozco said, shrugging. It’s an in-­joke that Belize City’s only gay-friendly club is on Queen Street. Drag queens have performed as dancers and singers, but on most nights, like the night we visited, the club is filled with straight couples grinding up against the plywood walls. “Not a lot of gays here,” I said. Orozco replied, “That’s the challenge.”

There were a lot of watchful eyes at Dino’s. Camo-clad security guards, grim-faced and armed, scanned the crowd for troublemakers. Hand-painted brontosaurs and stegosauri stared out from the walls, rendered with cartoon menace in Day-­Glo colors under black light. As the dancers watched one another, they took in Orozco, taller than most Belizean men at 5-foot-11, as he stood by the door for a long time in burnt-­orange slacks and natty brogues, sipping a Coke over ice. He watched them back, seeming very ill at ease.

Orozco counted eight members of his tribe in the room that night. He knew all their names, professions and stories. But in four hours, only one, a contractor who had done some work with Unibam, approached Orozco and his group to say hello. Orozco approached no one at all. “I don’t have many friends,” he acknowledged later on. “You turn left, you have criticism. You turn right, you have indifference.” He has warm relationships with his clients and colleagues, but he doesn’t socialize.

Ramnarace, the Unibam board member, told me that he supports Orozco as a leader, but that others in the gay community have their doubts. “Internationally, I think he is more accepted than he is locally,” Ramnarace said. “Because when he says certain things here, he doesn’t always come across well.” In interviews, Orozco can appear peevish or overly cerebral, seeming impatient with his interviewer or else resorting to the programmatic lexicon he uses at human rights meetings. “But still,” Ramnarace went on, “he’s a brave little bitch to go do that, even to fumble. It isn’t easy to do, not here, not alone, a little Hispanic guy.”

Orozco used to love going out dancing late at night. One memorable time at Dino’s, he made out with a man in public, right there on the dance floor. Tonight, he and his small group formed a circle in the darkest part of the room. Golda began to dance in her gold sandals and light flowered dress, smiling at her older brother in an encouraging way. Her husband and their friend danced at her sides. Orozco, expressionless, planted himself near a pillar and began moving in place, gazing down at the floor. “As long as I don’t see an eye looking at me, I can lose myself in the music,” he said. “I just don’t want to be conscious of anyone’s eyes looking at me.”

It has now been 24 months since the hearings on Section 53, with no word on when Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin will deliver a decision. The Supreme Court does not have a calendar for decisions, and sources close to the case have refused to speculate as to the cause of the unusual delay. The Supreme Court Registry did not answer a request for comment. “Unfortunately, civil matters in this country do proceed at a very slow pace,” Shoman said. “But I could never have imagined that something of this magnitude, a case regarding the personal liberty of the citizens, should take so long.” She and the rest of Orozco’s legal team have sent multiple letters to the registrar general but received no reply.

Caleb Orozco in his office. Photo credit Julia Scott

Caleb Orozco in his office. Photo credit Julia Scott

Jonathan Cooper, the chief executive of the Human Dignity Trust, is just as eager for results. “The ramification of the Belize decision will be felt across the Commonwealth, if not beyond,” he told me. Because either side is likely to appeal any decision all the way to the Caribbean Court of Justice, the highest court for not only Belize but also Barbados, Dominica and Guyana, the controversy (and Orozco’s notoriety) is likely to spill over into those nations as well. And then there is the matter of international human rights law. The legal groups invoked the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights in their argument, with the knowledge that should the appeals court rule in Orozco’s favor on that basis, other jurisdictions would find the criminalization of sodomy very hard to justify.

After waiting so many years, Orozco has made a decision of his own. Shortly after the court hearings, he quietly stepped down as the president of Unibam. He stayed on as its executive director, but he told me that he hopes to leave that post next year. “I’ve come to realize that I’ve sacrificed my life to this work,” he said. “And I wake up to an empty bed and a pillow. And what does that say about me?”

These are not the words of a Harvey Milk revolutionary, and in fact Orozco doesn’t see himself in the mold of Milk, who was murdered at 48. But Orozco has believed for some time now that he won’t outlive his middle age. “My larger goal is to survive to the end of my case,” he said. “They said that if something should happen to me, the case would be over. I’ve invested seven years of my life in this thing, and I don’t want to throw that away.”

Orozco has come to the conclusion that the big changes he thought were within reach five years ago are actually a generation away. Living in Belize as a gay man or woman is like peering across a demilitarized zone with a pair of binoculars. If he took a four-­hour bus ride to Chetumal, Mexico, Orozco would enjoy the right to marry. Someday, Orozco may tear down his house and rebuild it. He may go to law school or pick up the business-administration career he left behind. But he has ruled out leaving Belize. He loves his family too much. He hopes that with time, most of his fellow Belizeans will learn not to judge. “Our opponents have been fear-mongering,” he said. “Most people could care less what I do in my bedroom.”

One afternoon, Orozco took his least favorite walk, to the bank. He rose from his office chair, turned off the fan, cut the lights, locked all six locks and stepped out in a brown tie-dye button-down and knee­-length cotton pinstripe shorts. The narrow downtown streets were clogged with cars short on mufflers, long on horns. He passed bakeries and pharmacies and street vendors hawking bags of peanuts and dried fruit and discount clothing stores blaring pop music.

Stoop-­sitters on Central American Boulevard nudged one another and gestured. A man in a truck driver’s uniform, smoking a cigarette, quietly watched Orozco go by, then spat and uttered a profanity. Two adolescent girls turned to look back at his retreating form, then doubled over with laughter. Three construction workers, legs dangling in a muddy trench, looked up as Orozco walked past. “Hey, Belize bwai!” they shouted. “Hoo da fayri, butt bwai?”

A few steps from the bank, Orozco passed two women alongside a young girl with her hair tied back in braids, wearing gold sandals and a flouncy white dress. She gazed at Orozco with curiosity. Then she looked up. “Mama,” she said, “that’s a batiman.”

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My Bed Runneth Over

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

“So are you guys in an equilateral triangle, or are you more of a V?”

A dark-haired woman leans over to an eager-looking young couple seated next to her and holds up her thumb and forefinger. Each of the V signifies a person; the fleshy connective tissue between them stands for the partner to whom they’re both sexually connected. Her hand gesture is intended as an icebreaker, but the couple pause awkwardly, as if they don’t know exactly how to answer.

Courtesy San Francisco Magazine

In polyamorous relationships, knowing where you stand is crucial, but often hard to figure out. Whether you have 2 partners or 10, managing multiple liaisons can feel like walking a tightrope—which is perhaps why the perplexed couple have come to this unmarked warehouse on Mission Street that houses the Center for Sex and Culture. Tonight’s Open Relationship Discussion Group is exploring “Threesomes and Moresomes.” The attendees—a total of 22 men and women, a commendable turnout for a Monday night in November—sit in a neat circle, jittering with the same blend of excitement and anxiety that you might find in a roomful of people training for their first parachute jump.

Coats still on against the chill of the unheated room, the gathered polyamorists try not to stare too obviously at the painted nudes on the wall, rendered in various poses of masturbation and frottage. It’s a hip-looking crowd, mostly in their 30s and 40s, white, and flying solo, though there are a few couples and one triad: two women and a man who stroke each other’s hands and listen, but never speak.

When Marcia Baczynski, a relationship coach and tonight’s discussion leader, asks how many people are new to the group, nearly half raise their hands. Some of them are new to poly altogether, including one smartly dressed woman who met the love of her life—a married man—on OkCupid six months ago. With his wife’s consent, she and the man started a passionate affair. Little by little, the two women grew to care for each other as well, to the point that the three of them now sleep in the same bed.

“If I hadn’t fallen in love with him,” the woman says, “I wouldn’t have been able to develop feelings for her. They’ve been together 17 years, and sometimes I see them as the same person.” She gestures toward the man on her left, who smiles and takes her hand. Then her face falls: The wife, who is not present tonight, is pregnant. “There’s this other large need that I have,” the woman confesses, “to get married and have kids. There’s a huge guilt in me for wanting to date other men. I’m afraid I’ll hurt him if I do.” She starts to cry. The room is silent until the man speaks up: “I’ve told her that the last time I loved someone this much, I married her. I don’t know what to do with this.”

Someone asks whether the two of them have talked about having a child together. They have, and they may. “But that’s the hard part for me,” the woman says. “It’s so not what my parents wanted for me. It’s not the social norm.” Everyone nods.


“Jealousy, time management, and lack of clarity around what you’re doing.” Baczynski ticks off the three most common pitfalls that beset practitioners of poly. We’re seated close together on a lipstick-red velvet chaise at Wicked Grounds, a kink-friendly café on Eighth Street where you can purchasee hand-carved rosewood butt paddles with your peppermint tea. Curly-headed and bright-eyed, Baczynski exudes friendliness that inspires a tangible intimacy. A decade ago, she gained fame in the alt-sex community as the coinventor of cuddle parties, which began in 2004 with clothed strangers caressing each other in her Manhattan apartment and have spread to thousands of living rooms across the United States and Canada. Now she’s one of the Bay Area’s most sought-after relationship coaches in the poly sphere, thanks in part to the prominence of her online curriculum, Successful Nonmonogamy, which helps couples open up their relationships without imploding them.

Twenty-four years after Sonoma County pagan priestess Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart conceived the word “polyamory” (meaning “many loves”), the Bay Area poly scene is still the biggest in the country and very much in the vanguard of a movement to disrupt monogamy. Many of its members are more aptly described as “monogamish,” Dan Savage’s term for couples who stay committed to each other while having sex on the side. (Polyamory also extends to couples who date each other and single people who date around a lot—although poly types tend to dismiss cruisers and commitment-phobes as not part of their tribe.) But the variations only spin out from there. The aforementioned V becomes an equilateral triangle when a threesome commits to sharing sex, love, and face time among all three partners. Two couples, or a couple and two singles, make a quad. If a fivesome is connected via a common partner, that’s a W. Partners may be primary, secondary, or tertiary, though some polys reject those terms as too determinative. A distinction is made between lovers and metamours (a partner’s partner), the latter often a close friend who steps in to resolve conflicts, cook dinner for everyone, and help raise the kids.

The concepts behind these words are constantly being hashed out in homes throughout the Bay Area, long known as polyamory’s petri dish. New additions to the vocabulary often bubble up here before filtering out to polyamorists in the rest of the country. “Compersion,” for example, defined as taking pleasure in your partner’s pleasure with another person (the opposite of jealousy), emerged in the Kerista Commune, a Haight-Ashbury “polyfidelitous” social experiment that used a rotating schedule to assign bed partners.

William Winters, Anna Hirsch and their partners. Copyright San Francisco Magazine.

Dossie Easton, a Bay Area therapist who wrote the landmark poly bible, The Ethical Slut, in 1997, gets emotional when she talks about how far the poly world has come since her arrival here as a sexual revolutionary in 1967. “I see people who start out where I fought for years and years to get to. They think that they should be able to come out to their families, that their parents should accept them and welcome all their various partners and their various partners’ children for Thanksgiving.”

This isn’t the polyamory of your imagination, filled with ’70s swinger parties and spouse swapping in the hot tub. In fact, the reality of polyamory is much more muted, cerebral, and, well, unsexy. Generally speaking, self-identified poly types aren’t looking for free love; they’re in search of the expensive kind, paid for with generous allotments of time and emotional energy invested in their various partners—and their partners’ children and families. All of that entails a lot of heavy lifting, and a lot of time-consuming sharing. “There’s a joke,” Baczynski says, laughing: “Swingers have sex, and poly people talk about having sex.”

If it all sounds inordinately complicated, that’s because it is. What do you do when your partner vetoes a potential lover? How do you handle it when your spouse starts dating your ex? To cope with jealousy and the thorny subject of sexual boundaries, the poly community relies on an excess of communication—hence, discussion groups like tonight’s. The community calendar offers nonstop opportunities for support, conversation, and debate, including potlucks, workshops, coffeehouse socials, political discussions, and book readings. As one woman tells me, people here like to geek out on relationship philosophy as much as they like to geek out on software (and, in fact, the polyamory world has considerable overlap with the tech community).

In the poly world, uncoupling monogamy and sex leads not only to casual sex but also to uncasual sex and, sometimes, uncasual unsex (that is, ritualized cuddling). “I have the freedom to do whatever I want—and what I want includes taking on a lot of responsibility,” says Baczynski, who is in long-term relationships with one woman and two men. Polyamory isn’t about destroying a beloved institution, she argues. Instead, it’s about casting people in the roles that they actually want to play. “There’s an assumption in our dominant culture that the person you’re having sex with is the person who has all the status and has the mortgage with you, too,” she says. “Why do sex and mortgages go together? I’m not sure.”

But freedom comes with a multitude of challenges, many of which were voiced by the following sampling of local poly practitioners. Collectively they provide a glimpse of what it’s really like to be “open.”


Gloria and Alex and Luna and Joe

Gloria Schoenfeldt wasn’t particularly drawn to polyamory, just to people who happened to be polyamorous. First the 31-year-old school-teacher got used to having a polyamorous best friend in Luna Murray, a 25-year-old event planner. Hearing of Luna’s sexual adventures may have made it easier for Gloria to open her heart to a man named Alex, a 45-year-old photographer and relationship coach who identifies as not only poly but also pansexual.

At first, Gloria didn’t want to know about Alex’s other liaisons, other than their names—she couldn’t take the details creeping into her imagination. But that changed when she realized that she wanted to be a part of his “joys and sadnesses,” even if they weren’t with her. “It’s always worse in my head than it is in real life. It’s always bigger and scarier and more intense and more likely to cause the end of our relationship,” Gloria says. Now she comforts Alex through breakups and heartaches—and enjoys dating other men as well.

When Gloria introduced Alex to Luna, she was happy to see that they hit it off. The couple also got along well with Luna’s boyfriend Joe. So well, in fact, that eventually they all became lovers. Last February, the two couples decided to cohabitate, renting a two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley. For the first time in her 31 years, Gloria tried on the poly lifestyle in earnest, taking care to schedule her dates at the same time as Alex’s so as not to feel abandoned. She shares an occasional sexual four-way with her husband and housemates (they call their state of emotional intimacy a “quasi-quad”). Most of the time, though, they’re plain old housemates, two linked couples who pool money for groceries and get into tiffs over keeping the house tidy. “We live together, we have this loving family connection, and I don’t know what to call that,” says Alex.

Does it work? It does for now—one year in is too soon to declare it a permanent success, although the couples are talking about having children of their own. And both couples married last July, in jubilant back-to-back weddings in Orinda and Berkeley (they served as each others’ witnesses). What keep things stable are the poly-relationship standbys: limits and communication. While they sometimes couple off or have collective sex in the same room, it’s not an orgiastic free-for-all. There are boundaries. Gloria’s never had one-on-one sex with either Luna or Joe. When dating outside their marriage, Alex and Gloria only have protected sex. Luna and Joe won’t bring home a date who hasn’t been vetted by their respective spouse, as well as by Alex and Gloria. Everyone keeps a lid on when Alex’s 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship comes to stay, although she knows that her dad is poly and has seen him kissing his housemates in a non-housemate-like way.

Still, the arrangement has its challenges. Joe, a 25-year-old server at an upscale Berkeley restaurant, used to get so jealous of his wife’s lovers that they developed a system: Before she left on a date, she would sit him down and tell him all the things that she loved about him and promise him that she was coming home. Over time, “it got easier and easier,” says Joe. Now the tables have turned. Joe has several lovers, while Luna’s sex drive has plummeted. It’s made her insecure and sad. “I used to be this sexual beast, and I’m feeling very fragile about my sexuality and my body…. He’ll talk about how much he loves his partner’s body, and I’ll start crying,” she says.

But as far as Gloria’s personal plunge into poly goes, she considers it a success. She was skeptical of monogamy prior to meeting Alex (“It doesn’t provide the security it claims to, because it can’t”), but had questioned whether she had the emotional capacity for an open marriage. Seven months in, the answer is yes, this is a good life. So far.

“The abandonment stuff still comes up,” Gloria says. “When that happens, I cry. And we talk. And he holds me and he reassures me.”



Ian Baker became a practicing polyamorist the hard way: He fell in love with a girl who told him that she didn’t want to be monogamous—and then slept with his housemate. “I freaked out,” recalls Baker, but he wanted to be with her nevertheless. “I had to do a lot of work for it to be OK,” he says, “for my particular psyche to be OK with it.”

That he faced such a difficult adjustment was surprising to Baker, for whom polyamory was hardly a new concept: He’d grown up in a poly family with three parents—his dad, his mom, and his dad’s girlfriend—who bedded down together every night. They were poor, living in a small cottage in the woods in Sonoma County. Baker, who believes that the arrangement helped keep them all housed and fed, likes to use his story to counter the perception of poly as the domain of oversexed, affluent people with way too much time on their hands. “When I was a kid, my parents’ relationship made perfect sense,” he says. “Whatever situation you grow up in is the situation that makes sense.”

Baker, a developer and CEO of the Y Combinator–backed startup Threadable, describes his younger self as an insecure fellow who looked to his girlfriends for validation. He started reading books about jealousy, and slowly it dawned on him that polyamory could help him outgrow his core anxiety. And so he tapped into the poly community for emotional support. “The only reason that I ever wanted monogamy,” he says now, “was because I was insecure.”

Baker is in love with Lydia (not her real name), his partner of four years. He doesn’t date much outside the relationship, he says, because he’s basically fulfilled. “But that doesn’t mean I want to be monogamous,” he quickly adds. “I like the connections that exploring sexuality brings to my life.”

Lydia, on the other hand, does have other lovers. “She wants to see other people, and I want her to have what she wants,” Baker says. But every time she takes a new lover, he admits, “I have some anxiety. So when that’s the case, I have to do a little work. I’ll call someone and chat with them about it for a few minutes, and then I’ll feel better. It’s not a big deal.”

For poly practitioners like Baker, self-improvement and sexual exploration are overlapping preoccupations. It’s well-nigh impossible to handle the emotional agitation of concurrent relationships without facing one’s own self-relationship, they say—your resilience must be equal to the task. “There’s a bunch of different ways that you can learn to be emotionally self-sufficient, and it happens that I learned those lessons by having my girlfriend sleep with my friends,” says Baker, chuckling. “But since then, it’s been wonderful.”



Bespectacled and wearing pink yoga pants, her hair wet after a shower, Sherry Froman leads me up the rainbow staircase to her bedroom and stretches out on her cozy sheepskin rug like a cat in the sun. She has hosted play parties—featuring touching and, sometimes, sex—for years on these sensuous carpets, beneath tapestry-draped ceilings that evoke four-poster beds. Some of the parties begin with an opening ceremony that resembles a personal-growth workshop: Participants practice communicating boundaries and desires, gaze into each other’s eyes, reveal the body part that they want to be touched, practice saying yes and no, explore the mattresses laid out on the floor. But, Froman hastens to add, “not everything is like that—New Age, woo-woo spirituality. The poly scene is very diverse.”

When Froman falls for someone new, someone she wants to date for a while, she skips the elaborate lingerie and whips out her calendar—not because she wants to keep her multiple suitors from colliding, but because she wants them to meet. If they form a copacetic bond, she believes, someday they all might cohabitate in the big house that, for now, resides solely in her imagination. That dream was a reality once, 20 years ago at Harbin Hot Springs, just north of Napa Valley—Froman would walk from house to house visiting friends and lovers who were studying tantric techniques and the full-body orgasm. “I was 23, and all these older men wanted to pleasure me and were fine with me not giving anything back,” she says. “I thought, that’s different from college boys.”

Since then, Froman has dated her share of supposed polys who hypocritically wanted their women to be monogamous with them. “I think a lot of men have a difficult time with polyamory, because the fantasy looks nothing like the reality,” she says. “Because if a man has several female lovers in his life, chances are that the women are going to talk about him to each other. And they’re all going to want him to be comfortable talking about his feelings.”

In the two decades since her time at the hot springs, Froman has learned to resist the pull of NRE—that’s “new relationship energy,” a poly term for the fizzy bubble of endorphins that envelops the newly besotted. While NRE feels great, she says, the high highs usually lead to the opposite. “You’ve got to think sustainably,” she says. “How is this person going to work for you over a period of time?”

Froman describes herself as having been a “very” sexual person since puberty. (When she decided to lose her virginity at age 16, her mother reserved a honeymoon suite with a heart-shaped Jacuzzi for the occasion and took her lingerie shopping.) After years of casual encounters, she stumbled onto the poly world and started choosing partners for different reasons—love, friendship, community. But lately she has again been hankering for more male partners in addition to the long-term beau with whom she shares this four-bedroom in Glen Park—it’s called “adding on.”

Froman, who met her live-in boyfriend on OkCupid (where users can self-identify as nonmonogamous) more than five years ago, believes that her schedule could support three other live-in men. But how to find them? She used to make promising friends by hosting Open Relationship Community potlucks at her house, but now she’s trying to explore new social venues to unearth men. “Once I find them,” she says, “then all of us being in the same bubble with each other is going to be a lot easier. It’s like having a family.”


William and Anna

Anna Hirsch thought that William Winters was going to be her first one-night stand. She ended up marrying him. When they met in Baton Rouge, their relationship styles—his casual connections, her commitment to monogamy—seemed as mismatched as their temperaments. Then they discovered poly, which squared their deep, if idiosyncratic, love with their desire to avoid the mistakes of relationships past. They agreed to experiment, and when Hirsch left town for several weeks, Winters slept with someone else. He didn’t tell Hirsch until she got back.

“She cried for two consecutive weeks,” recalls Winters. “It was totally fucking horrible. I remember saying, ‘Anna, if it is this hard, we do not have to do this.’ It was she who said, ‘No. There is something in this for me. I’m choosing this. But we cannot do it your way.’”

Eight years later, Hirsch, a writer and editor, and Winters, a progressive activist and organizer, are one of the most socially conspicuous poly couples in the Bay Area. In honor of the poly potlucks that they organized for a time, the Chronicle went so far as to dub Winters the “de facto king of the East Bay poly scene”—if you ask, he’ll show you a playing card, designed by his friends as a joke, that depicts him as the king of hearts.

Hirsch and Winters live in the Oakland Hills, in a studio apartment attached to a house occupied by several other poly couples. These days, Winters hosts private play parties and enjoys mingling with women. Hirsch is in a four-year relationship with a married couple (she’s more serious with the husband than with the wife) and has a boyfriend as well. Doing things Hirsch’s way means that Winters has the freedom he needs to play, while she puts down roots with the people she loves. Although she’s legally married to Winters, she likes to “propose” to her partners as a way of acknowledging their importance to her. When she mock-married a platonic friend back in Baton Rouge, Winters was her date to the wedding. “I have this whimsical image of myself old on a porch somewhere, someday,” Hirsch says. “And I would like William to be on that porch. And I think it would be amazing if there were other people on that porch, too.” This process—fitting together relationships without elevating them or putting them in special categories—is described by the couple as “integrating.”

So why did they marry at all? Winters frowns. “I feel like that question itself comes from a scarcity model that says we only have time for one major relationship. That kind of underlies the dominance of monogamy.” Hirsch has a more practical answer: They were in love, and she needed health insurance. “But what do I care about what marriage means?” she says. “It’s not a promise. It’s a celebration of what’s possible.” On their wedding day, she and Winters nixed vows and simply made a toast.

On the poly success scale, Winters rates their relationship as a 9.8 out of 10. Jealousy? Never a problem. Boundaries? The couple’s only rules concern safe sex and date disclosures (each a must). Even so, their marriage has been shaken this past year by the same temperament and communication problems that have plagued them since they got together—at one point, they put their chances of splitting up at 50-50. For all its laboriousness, polyamory is a deeply gratifying lifestyle for Winters and Hirsch, and the effort that it requires—the sometimes Augean task of maintaining multiple messy arrangements all at once—is more than paid off by the emotional rewards. Still, the day-to-day upkeep of a relationship can test anyone’s fortitude. “The poly stuff? So easy,” Winters says. “And the rest of it is like, sometimes, why does it have to be so fucking hard?”

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DRIVEL: Deliciously Bad Writing by Your Favorite Authors

Friday, September 5th, 2014

DRIVEL: Deliciously Bad Writing By Your Favorite Authors is a collection of wordy, overwrought, insipid writing by America’s most beloved authors and artists, edited by award-winning journalist and radio producer Julia Scott.

DRIVEL has already been featured in Vanity Fair and The New York Times and is now on sale at all your favorite outlets.

Based on Litquake’s Regreturature live shows, this hilarious collection includes pretentious poetry, tedious journal entries, and rambling fiction by an amazing roster of writers including Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), Stephen Elliott (The Adderall Diaries), Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), Rick Moody (The Ice Storm), Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), Mary Roach (Gulp), Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), and more.

Purchase your copy today and ‘like’ the DRIVEL Facebook page!


From the Introduction by Julia Scott:

I conceived the idea for this book after performing at the second annual live Regreturature show in San Francisco in 2012. I read from a journal entry I wrote as a twenty-year-old, gushing like a Tiger Beat teenybopper over an encounter with British playwright Tom Stoppard. (“It’s enough to know that I am living IN THE SAME LIFETIME, let alone being in the same room!”)

Who knew my earnest writerly crush on an eminent septuagenarian would supply so many laugh lines? I was delighted. But as the evening slipped by I sensed a second feeling in the crowd: a sort of communal catharsis. Together, we’d transcended the pain and the humiliation of dredging up our stinkiest ‘work’. And we’d turned it into a kind of public sacrifice.

In fact, the writing in this collection is so bad, it deserves its own taxonomy of suckitude. There’s abstruse and esoteric poetry (bad); incoherent and illogical short stories (worse); bumfuzzling proto-journalism (shameful); and pretentious, overwrought journal entries (just turn the page and we’ll not speak of this again).

And all by your favorite, bestselling authors. Yes, they’ve committed horrible crimes against the written word. But the lesson, if there is one, lies in what happened next.

They never stopped writing. And eventually, they began not to suck.

You’re about to meet the dozens of contributors who volunteered to pluck their turgid treasures from the bottom of a locked and moldy vault. Thanks to these courageous but foolhardy writers, the world now knows the real meaning of a work-in-progress.

Anyone who’s ever aspired to greatness but was scared of sucking, who’s spent desperate hours pulling their hair out and throwing draft after draft in the trash, knows the cringing terror these authors are feeling right at this very moment. Have a care for them.


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Julia Scott

© 2020 Julia Scott.