The 2006 Poly Living Conference: Notes and Impressions
The two were very much alike, though superficially poles apart. Loving More East took place in a rustic summer-camp setting (Ramblewood in Maryland). Poly Living has been held, for each of its two years now, in a well-appointed high-rise convention hotel in downtown Philadelphia. But the format, the types of folks attending, and many of the workshop presenters were very much the same. After a keynote get-together Friday evening, three tracks of simultaneous workshops ran all day Saturday and half of Sunday (you had to miss 2/3 of them). Topics focused on improving the functioning of your poly family, how to find and choose partners, legal issues, safe(r) sex -- but mostly, emotional/psychological topics: such as building romance, overcoming sexual blocks, managing jealousy, exploring bisexual tendencies, and understanding relationship dynamics.
There was a workshop on how to build a local poly group and one on cohousing and intentional communities. There was yoga for early risers, lively conversation and informal get-togethers all day, an official, nonsexual Cuddle Party (registered trademark) Saturday evening, and more intimate private gatherings through the night. Here's the program booklet.
For a while it looked like the conference might not happen this year. Poly Living's founder and organizer, George Marvil, has been struggling with major health problems; he put in an appearance, but the conference could not have been pulled off without a lot of the local community pitching in. As it was, publicity was poor and the website went unattended until the day before the event. (There's nothing like an inactive website to make a whole outfit look dead.) No doubt this is why only about 100 people came, compared to 150 last year.
But what aliveness you missed! Here are fragments from my notes and experiences.
A Brightening Spotlight
The Friday keynote was given by Nan Wise, relationship counselor and one of our sharpest and boldest public spokespeople, on the state of polyamory today. "What we are up to is of interest to an increasingly large number of people," she began. We are becoming more widely noticed. She noted the explosive growth in the Google count of web pages containing the word "polyamory," as well as other signs of a big reservoir of interested people whom the organized community has not yet reached. "There's a great deal of response to what we're doing."
Wise said she is getting "flickers of interest" from Hollywood and TV producers about doing something with polyamory. And, say what you will about the new TV show "Big Love" (a portrayal of quasi-Mormon polygamy that will debut on HBO March 12th), the show is certain to draw wider public attention to non-monogamy and turn spotlights onto us.
So what's coming over the horizon? "The best way to predict the future," Wise declared, "is to invent it" (quoting computer pioneer Alan Kay). "My challenge to you guys this weekend is to imagine what you would like to create. What ways of being would you like to develop here this weekend? How do we empower each other to do this? Go for it -- go ahead and risk."
She ended by having everyone get up, wander among each other, latch onto someone, and exchange what you hope to get from the conference. This was followed by a challenge to eyeball a stranger, look them over, and tell them some observation that you appreciate about them -- then do this with every person in the room. If taken literally, this would have resulted in about 100 squared = 10,000 appreciations between strangers; corny, but it broke the ice effectively for the hors-d'oeuvres reception that followed.
Actually, lots of attendees knew each other from past conferences or from real life. I became tolerant (compersive?) toward repeated cases of someone I was talking to suddenly letting out a whoop and hugging/tackling a new arrival. I'd say a majority of people were couples and singles, but with quite a few larger poly groups and networks too (more than at Loving More East last summer). I'd guess about 1/4 were conference newbies.
I moved among different tables and groups. People's relationships to polyamory seemed to run the gamut -- from a lady in deep distress over her newly poly husband; she was eager for the advice of the more experienced -- to exploratory couples and their partners -- to happy, confident, cuddlesome, radiant networks of long-timers who have this thing nailed; the kind who give rise to the talk that, for some, this can indeed be a more evolved way of life. Conversation groups continued till midnight, long after the waiters had removed tablecloths and cleaned up around us.
Black Belt Relationship Training
As a lifelong earlybird I was up for yoga at 7:30 Saturday morning. After overpriced breakfast in the hotel cafeteria (note: pack your own rations to save time and money), the workshop schedule got under way -- concentrated in the small part of the hotel that we had to ourselves. (There were a couple other conclaves in progress, most visibly a big tattoo convention whose roaming members in leathers, face jewelry, painted hair and chains made us polys look ridiculously normal.)
I started with a session by Michelle/Michael Zee on releasing sexual blocks -- not a hands-on practical (shucks!), but an exercise in dredging up past experiences and hangups to blurt out and let go of, facing off with a partner with whom mutual secrecy was pledged. So, 'nuff said.
My next workshop was "Creating Partnerships Within Relationships," led by Marcia Baczynski, co-founder with Reid Mihalko of the Cuddle Party franchise business. She started with the often-forgotten obvious: "Being a partner to your partner means getting up and doing something, not just being there and expecting it to happen." She dwelt on the metaphor of a single-person kayak versus a coupled, two-hulled catamaran. A single kayak is tippy and vulnerable but maneuverable; it can head straight toward a goal. A catamaran has more stability, redundancy, and strength, but it is less maneuverable and has to tack back and forth to make headway. "When you enter a partnership, you're giving up your right to go directly toward your goals." Instead you're going to have to tack this way and that toward them, "to places you wouldn't have gone by yourself." Accept this and enjoy it.
If you want to be a first-rate partner, you first have to build yourself well -- build your kayak. Among her points on this:
"Know thyself:" who you are, what you want, what's important to you. No illusions.
"Practice being fearless. Look for where your fears are, and go there." Don't try to climb out of life's roller coaster. "Step into your fear; become familiar with your fear process."
"Look for what is so, not for what you wish were so." This was most refreshing to hear in a gathering with more than its share of New Age woo woo sympathizers.
"Cultivate curiosity;" what side of your partner have you not seen?
"See the world with fresh eyes; drop the past behind." Be with the person your partner is right now, not with who he or she was some time in the past.
"Love thyself. If you can't love yourself, how can you recognize somebody loving you?" This includes creating a support structure for yourself independent of your partner(s) -- so that whatever happens, you'll be solid in yourself.
"Expand your integrity. Strive always to be in your word." When something comes up, handle it. "Your integrity and your fears are closely related."
Interestingly, I was struck by how many of her points resembled the best military values. I'm an antiwar person through and through, but I married into a military family and I have a hunch that she was raised in one.
As examples for designing good catamarans -- solid, aware partnerships that can master the challenges out on the open seas of polyamory -- she analyzed the differences between several closely related concepts: compromise versus sacrifice, for instance. In both, despite their subtle differences, "it's important to keep checking your course. Goals and compromises and sacrifices are not permanent or unquestioned." Write them down, and come back to them. And, "Rather than compromise on old things, try to make something new."
Another pairing: reliance versus dependence. "Dependence is more like not being able to do for one's self. Reliance is being independent, yet ready to rely on another." Make clear distinctions between these when formulating agreements.
Support versus participation: "You do not have to participate in what your partner does in order to support them."
Honor versus respect: "Respect is cerebral; honor wells up from within." Nevertheless, these two come can from opposite cultural places: "Honor can be imposed by external codes," which may be ancient, ugly, and wrong; "while respect is a choice that you yourself make; it is more democratic, liberal, and modern."
I'm glad I took good notes.
I attended a later relationship workshop, "Breakdown, Breakthrough, and Intimate Encounter" by Nan Wise, who has been married to her legal husband longer than Marcia has been alive. Here too a theme was bursting through fear and inertia. "If it's not growing it's dying," she stressed. "After NRE, you've got to work on Renewed Relationship Energy. You've got to keep breaking new ground." And polyamory is "an excellent way to keep breaking new ground."
Much of her talk was on the interaction of four dynamics: masculine and feminine versions of active and passive. A few quotes:
"Every symptom is an attempt at change -- a change that is trying to happen."
"Behind every behavior is a good intention. Only if you understand the map of the person's mind will you understand the good intention behind the behavior."
"Polyamory is great, but it can also be a place to hide;" it's possible to "spread yourself too thin" to try to avoid trouble with deep relationships. Don't bet on it; poly should mean "the back door is shut," to "close the possibility of an easy out. You need to be ready for pressure to build until you have to deal with it. If you have an issue in a committed relationship, deal with it." Push forward to make the relationship sustainable.
A reporter was present for part of the conference, Trevor Stokes of the Columbia News Service; he wrote a decent article that first appeared in the Chicago Tribune a couple weeks later (you can read it here). He remarked at one point on how appropriate much of the weekend's material would be to ordinary couples. Yup.
Legal Issues: Eyes Front
Valerie White, lawyer and executive director of the Sexual Freedom Legal Defense and Education Fund, gave a session on Polyamory and the Law. While polyamory per se is not explicitly illegal most places (though Utah defines "bigamy" as merely cohabiting with someone while married to someone else), some states retain laws against fornication and adultery. "These crimes are very, very rarely prosecuted, but if they're out to get you...." She noted that the Supreme Court's 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision overturning gay sodomy laws sets out, in broad, clear, powerful language, the right to self-determination in private relationships. Valerie urged people to read it for its strong and moving language.
Of more immediate concern to poly families are property ownership, child custody, zoning regulations, wills, and other practical matters. Some mortgage lenders may find your group arrangement odd and turn you down; others may like the extra financial security of a third (or more) person and give you a break. Know the difference in your jurisdiction between holding title to a house as Tenants in Common (the default) and Joint Tenants with Right of Survivorship (which you have to specify). "Courts may be unwilling to get involved in property distribution if you break up. So you need detailed written agreements;" get a lawyer. Also, everyone needs a will. "There are forms for wills online for free, but take your finished document to an attorney"; the signing of a will or other such document "is a very exact process" that must be followed to the letter.
Zoning laws often restrict the number of "unrelated" people who can live in a house, as well as certain property improvements such as adding new bathrooms or bedrooms. "Investigate this before buying" or starting construction. You don't want to face a court order to break up your household or to tear out an expensive new addition. If you want to create a family corporation (an LLC) to hold property, be diligent about the niceties of maintaining the corporation -- filing annual reports, holding an annual meeting, electing officers, etc. -- or it will fail in the eyes of the law. "Be scrupulous." Her overall advice: "Be careful, be vigilant, and find out the facts before you act." Did I mention getting a lawyer?
Why Venus Doesn't Get Mars, and Why Mars Is Totally Clueless
Reid Mihalko gave a funny and insightful talk on romance -- and communication about it -- between the sexes. He began by warning that he would be dealing in stereotypes, un-PCness, and humor, and the kernels of truth they contain, based on the vast numbers of friends who have unloaded onto him. "Men and women talk and think about love and romance differently." For instance: "Men are goal oriented; women are listening oriented." An example of this was later discussed: A man who decides to fix the leaky faucet that she's talking about may think he's being romantic and showing his love, but she won't think so when he gets up and goes down cellar looking for tools. "Why are you ignoring me like that?" "What do you mean? You asked me to fix your faucet!" "No I didn't!"
Women love to be romanced and -- listen up, guys! -- this is what romance is for a woman: "Anything that proves you were thinking about her before she walked into the room." Whether it's buying her flowers before you arrive, arranging something special for an anniversary, cooking or getting food before you get together, or planning out a date beforehand. Women are hard-wired (for good evolutionary reasons) to get heart-flutters for a man who shows signs of thinking of her when she's not around.
This, on the other hand, is unnatural for men. Romantically, men tend to live in the moment. As in, "Hi! I'm here! Let's think of something to do! What do you wanna do? Why are you yelling at me?"
Women, nevertheless, can indeed romance guys -- "it just looks a little different," Reid said. Romance of a man equals, "You approve of him. Tell him, 'You rock. I give you my endorsement and approval.' Most of us guys just want to be told we did a good job." While women don't want to be ignored, men don't want to be made wrong. Especially in relationships.
Reid is a good actor/performer and got laughs as well as shocks of recognition (on my part, anyway). He began the workshop by getting up and writing on a whiteboard the take-home message for guys about romance: "What did you do today to earn a blow job tonight?. And he ended with the take-home message for women on how to romance guys: "Tell him what he did to earn that blow job."
Dare to Lead
There was so much more. I went to a workshop by Robyn Trask of Loving More on how to set up and run a local poly support/discussion group and build it into a community. The internet has made advertising and recruiting very feasible. Items from my notes: Meetings can be at either a public place such as a restaurant or in someone's home; each has advantages and drawbacks. There must be a make-things-happen person; nothing happens without leadership. But eventually leadership should come from a core group; one person isn't enough. Consistency is key; meetings should be at the same time every week or month. Establish rules of the meeting, such as "What gets said here and now stays here and now." Reach out to new people at the meeting, get them talking, ask what their questions are, and acknowledge that everyone does poly differently. (For instance, Robyn observed, right now "poly singles are really growing in the community.") Avoid cliquishness; "In our group [in her home town of Boulder, Colorado] we're very good at pulling people in and making them feel welcome." Note: "People who speak at their first meeting always come back."
Many people came to the conference for fun, for the shared love and camaraderie, and/or to meet up with old friends. Some came specifically to work on relationship skills. But others were there with larger ideas: to help build the movement and to refine a new way of living. At a poly conference a few years ago, Brad Blanton, the author of the Radical Honesty books (popular in the poly world), reportedly said in his keynote address, "You guys are the research-and-development arm of society." Some at the Poly Living gathering considered themselves just that -- as pioneering a generalization of romantic love beyond its little socially prescribed niche into a wider principle for organizing life. I sensed an excitement that this thing works well enough -- at least some tantalizing fraction of the time -- that we really may be laying the foundations for some new part of future society.
I'll end on a high point for me: the Saturday night Cuddle Party. This was a paid extra, $20 per person. Cuddle Parties are the two-year-old invention of Reid and Marcia, who have made an ongoing business of it. The idea is that many people in our alienated culture are eager for warm, gentle human contact without it having to be a sexual overture. "Skin hunger." You can read more about the Cuddle Party phenomenon in many articles such as this one and at the Cuddle Party web site.
Of course, a cuddle party at a poly conference sounds redundant. The first 15 of each sex who got our names onto the signup sheet jammed into a large suite, all dressed in pajamas, and Reid and Marcia led things off. They apologized for going through the whole orientation procedure required for the... what to call them... general public ("Muggles," someone offered. "We're the magical people"). But they led us through the entire drill in case anyone needed it, and to demonstrate to us how a Cuddle Party is run. Most of the drill consisted of ensuring boundaries, safety, and security, so that one can be intimately affectionate safely. No hands under pajamas. Erections happen; they're no big deal, ignore them and they'll go away. Each person was asked to state ways that he or she did and did not feel comfortable being touched. No touching without first stopping and asking. We then paired up and practiced stopping and asking; part of the exercise was replying "No, thanks" to a person's face. There was a safe room where people could retreat if they broke down or got overwhelmed. Apparently this happens among the touch-deprived.
And soon we were flopped on mattresses, nuzzling and stroking and chatting about anything and everything, simultaneously giving and getting face massages, foot rubs, finger pulls, back rubs, hair brushes, and what have you in a complex, ever-changing web. As time went on the noise level rose as conversations bubbled and rolled. I gather than at most Cuddle Parties, people tend to talk first and break the touching ice gradually, but not at this one. After a couple hours or so, for the closing, we all stacked into one big puppy pile, awash with dopamine and oxytocin, gentleness and smiles, with all being right in our kindly little world.
The next afternoon, bustling with bags out to the taxi stand and the train station, I felt like I was stepping through a time machine back to the 21st-century Dark Ages.
But it was not like stepping out of a dream. A person who posts to one of my e-mail lists uses this signature line: "The revolution is not going to happen tomorrow -- it's never going to happen. It's taking place right now. It is an alternate universe that coexists with this one, and you can step into it any time you like." It is no dream; it is another reality that is up to us to bring more into this world, as best we can.
So: You ask are these conferences worth the time and expense? Folks, save up your nickels and dimes. I hope to meet you next time.