Why I won’t be attending Systems We Love

Systems We Love is a one day event in San Francisco to talk excitedly about systems computing. When I first heard about it, I was thrilled! I love systems so much that I moved from New Mexico to the Bay Area when I was 23 years old purely so that I could talk to more people about them. I’m the author of the Kernel Hacker’s Bookshelf series, in which I enthusiastically described operating systems research papers I loved in the hopes that systems programmers would implement them. The program committee of Systems We Love includes many people I respect and enjoy being around. And the event is so close to me that I could walk to it.

So why I am not going to Systems We Love? Why am I warning my friends to think twice before attending? And why am I writing a blog post warning other people about attending Systems We Love?

The answer is that I am afraid that Bryan Cantrill, the lead organizer of Systems We Love, will say cruel and humiliating things to people who attend. Here’s why I’m worried about that.

I worked with Bryan in the Solaris operating systems group at Sun from 2002 to 2004. We didn’t work on the same projects, but I often talked to him at the weekly Monday night Solaris kernel dinner at Osteria in Palo Alto, participated in the same mailing lists as him, and stopped by his office to ask him questions every week or two. Even 14 years ago, Bryan was one of the best systems programmers, writers, and speakers I have ever met. I admired him and learned a lot from him. At the same time, I was relieved when I left Sun because I knew I’d never have to work with Bryan again.

Here’s one way to put it: to me, Bryan Cantrill is the opposite of another person I admire in operating systems (whom I will leave unnamed). This person makes me feel excited and welcome and safe to talk about and explore operating systems. I’ve never seen them shame or insult or put down anyone. They enthusiastically and openly talk about learning new systems concepts, even when other people think they should already know them. By doing this, they show others that it’s safe to admit that they don’t know something, which is the first step to learning new things. They are helping create the kind of culture I want in systems programming – the kind of culture promoted by Papers We Love, which Bryan cites as the inspiration for Systems We Love.

By contrast, when I’m talking to Bryan I feel afraid, cautious, and fearful. Over the years I worked with Bryan, I watched him shame and insult hundreds of people, in public and in private, over email and in person, in papers and talks. Bryan is no Linus Torvalds – Bryan’s insults are usually subtle, insinuating, and beautifully phrased, whereas Linus’ insults tend towards the crude and direct. Even as you are blushing in shame from what Bryan just said about you, you are also admiring his vocabulary, cadence, and command of classical allusion. When I talked to Bryan about any topic, I felt like I was engaging in combat with a much stronger foe who only wanted to win, not help me learn. I always had the nagging fear that I probably wouldn’t even know how cleverly he had insulted me until hours later. I’m sure other people had more positive experiences with Bryan, but my experience matches that of many others. In summary, Bryan is supporting the status quo of the existing culture of systems programming, which is a culture of combat, humiliation, and domination.

People admire and sometimes hero-worship Bryan because he’s a brilliant technologist, an excellent communicator, and a consummate entertainer. But all that brilliance, sparkle, and wit are often used in the service of mocking and humiliating other people. We often laugh and are entertained by what Bryan says, but most of the time we are laughing at another person, or at a person by proxy through their work. I think we rationalize taking part in this kind of cruelty by saying that the target “deserves” it because they made a short-sighted design decision, or wrote buggy code, or accidentally made themselves appear ridiculous. I argue that no one deserves to be humiliated or laughed at for making an honest mistake, or learning in public, or doing the best they could with the resources they had. And if that means that people like Bryan have to learn how to be entertaining without humiliating people, I’m totally fine with that.

I stopped working with Bryan in 2004, which was 12 years ago. It’s fair to wonder if Bryan has had a change of heart since then. As far as I can tell, the answer is no. I remember speaking to Bryan in 2010 and 2011 and it was déjà vu all over again. The first time, I had just co-founded a non-profit for women in open technology and culture, and I was astonished when Bryan delivered a monologue to me on the “right” way to get more women involved in computing. The second time I was trying to catch up with a colleague I hadn’t seen in a while and Bryan was invited along. Bryan dominated the conversation and the two of us the entire evening, despite my best efforts. I tried one more time about a month ago: I sent Bryan a private message on Twitter telling him honestly and truthfully what my experience of working with him was like, and asking if he’d had a change of heart since then. His reply: “I don’t know what you’re referring to, and I don’t feel my position on this has meaningfully changed — though I am certainly older and wiser.” Then he told me to google something he’d written about women in computing.

But you don’t have to trust my word on what Bryan is like today. The blog post Bryan wrote announcing Systems We Love sounds exactly like the Bryan I knew: erudite, witty, self-praising, and full of elegant insults directed at a broad swathe of people. He gaily recounts the time he gave a highly critical keynote speech at USENIX, bashfully links to a video praising him at a Papers We Love event, elegantly puts down most of the existing operating systems research community, and does it all while using the words “ancillary,” “verve,” and “quadrennial.” Once you know the underlying structure – a layer cake of vituperation and braggadocio, frosted with eloquence – you can see the same pattern in most of his writing and talks.

So when I heard about Systems We Love, my first thought was, “Maybe I can go but just avoid talking to Bryan and leave the room when he is speaking.” Then I thought, “I should warn my friends who are going.” Then I realized that my friends are relatively confident and successful in this field, but the people I should be worried about are the ones just getting started. Based on the reputation of Papers We Love and the members of the Systems We Love program committee, they probably fully expect to be treated respectfully and kindly. I’m old and scarred and know what to expect when Bryan talks, and my stomach roils at the thought of attending this event. How much worse would it be for someone new and open and totally unprepared?

Bryan is a better programmer than I am. Bryan is a better systems architect than I am. Bryan is a better writer and speaker than I am. The one area I feel confident that I know more about than Bryan is increasing diversity in computing. And I am certain that the environment that Bryan creates and fosters is more likely to discourage and drive off women of all races, people of color, queer and trans folks, and other people from underrepresented groups. We’re already standing closer to the exit; for many of us, it doesn’t take much to make us slip quietly out the door and never return.

I’m guessing that Bryan will respond to me saying that he humiliates, dominates, and insults people by trying to humiliate, dominate, and insult me. I’m not sure if he’ll criticize my programming ability, my taste in operating systems, or my work on increasing diversity in tech. Maybe he’ll criticize me for humiliating, dominating, and insulting people myself – and I’ll admit, I did my fair share of that when I was trying to emulate leaders in my field such as Bryan Cantrill and Linus Torvalds. It’s gone now, but for years there was a quote from me on a friend’s web site, something like: “I’m an elitist jerk, I fit right in at Sun.” It took me years to detox and unlearn those habits and I hope I’m a kinder, more considerate person now.

Even if Bryan doesn’t attack me, people who like the current unpleasant culture of systems programming will. I thought long and hard about the friendships, business opportunities, and social capital I would lose over this blog post. I thought about getting harassed and threatened on social media. I thought about a week of cringing whenever I check my email. Then I thought about the people who might attend Systems We Love: young folks, new developers, a trans woman at her first computing event since coming out – people who are looking for a friendly and supportive place to talk about systems at the beginning of their careers. I thought about them being deeply hurt and possibly discouraged for life from a field that gave me so much joy.

Come at me, Bryan.

Crosspost: No more rock stars: how to stop abuse in tech communities

This post originally appeared on Leigh Honeywell’s blog on June 21, 2016. I’m cross-posting here it because I am a co-author and I think my readers will enjoy it.

Content note for discussion of abuse and sexual violence.

In the last couple of weeks, three respected members of the computer security and privacy tech communities have come forward under their own names to tell their harrowing stories of sexual misconduct, harassment, and abuse committed by Jacob Appelbaum. They acted in solidarity with the first anonymous reporters of Jacob’s abuse. Several organizations have taken steps to protect their members from Appelbaum, including the Tor Project, Debian, and the Noisebridge hackerspace, with other responses in progress.

But Appelbaum isn’t the last – or the only – abuser in any of these communities. Many people are calling for long-term solutions to stop and prevent similar abuse. The authors of this post have recommendations, based on our combined 40+ years of community management experience in the fields of computer security, hackerspaces, free and open source software, and non-profits. In four words, our recommendation is:

No more rock stars.

What do we mean when we say “rock stars?” We like this tweet by Molly Sauter:

Seriously, “rock stars” are arrogant narcissists. Plumbers keep us all from getting cholera. Build functional infrastructure. Be a plumber.

You can take concrete actions to stop rock stars from abusing and destroying your community. But first, here are a few signs that help you identify when you have a rock star instead of a plumber:

A rock star likes to be the center of attention. A rock star spends more time speaking at conferences than on their nominal work. A rock star appears in dozens of magazine profiles – and never, ever tells the journalist to talk to the people actually doing the practical everyday work. A rock star provokes a powerful organization over minor issues until they crack down on the rock star, giving them underdog status. A rock star never says, “I don’t deserve the credit for that, it was all the work of…” A rock star humble-brags about the starry-eyed groupies who want to fuck them. A rock star actually fucks their groupies, and brags about that too. A rock star throws temper tantrums until they get what they want. A rock star demands perfect loyalty from everyone around them, but will throw any “friend” under the bus for the slightest personal advantage. A rock star knows when to turn on the charm and vulnerability and share their deeply personal stories of trauma… and when it’s safe to threaten and intimidate. A rock star wrecks hotel rooms, social movements, and lives.

Why are rock stars so common and successful? There’s something deep inside the human psyche that loves rock stars and narcissists. We easily fall under their spell unless we carefully train ourselves to detect them. Narcissists are skilled at making good first impressions, at masking abusive behavior as merely eccentric or entertaining, at taking credit for others’ work, at fitting our (often inaccurate) stereotypes of leaders as self-centered, self-aggrandizing, and overly confident. We tend to confuse confidence with competence, and narcissists are skilled at acting confident.

Sometimes rock stars get confused with leaders, who are necessary and good. What’s the difference between a rock star and a leader? We like the term “servant-leader” as a reminder that the ultimate purpose of a good leader is to serve the mission of their organization (though this feminist critique of the language around servant-leadership is worth reading). Having personal name recognition and the trust and support of many people is part of being an effective leader. This is different from the kind of uncritical worship that a rock star seeks out and encourages. Leaders push back when the adoration gets too strong and disconnected from achieving the mission (here is a great example from Anil Dash, pushing back after being held up as an example of positive ally for women in tech). Rock stars aren’t happy unless they are surrounded by unthinking adoration.

How do we as a community prevent rock stars?

If rock stars are the problem, and humans are susceptible to rock stars, how do we prevent rock stars from taking over and hijacking our organizations and movements? It turns out that some fairly simple and basic community hygiene is poisonous to rock stars – and makes a more enjoyable, inclusive, and welcoming environment for plumbers.

Our recommendations can be summarized as: decentralizing points of failure, increasing transparency, improving accountability, supporting private and anonymous communication, reducing power differentials, and avoiding situations that make violating boundaries more likely. This is a long blog post, so here is a table of contents for the rest of this post:

Have explicit rules for conduct and enforce them for everyone

Create a strong, specific, enforceable code of conduct for your organization – and enforce it, swiftly and without regard for the status of the accused violator. Rock stars get a kick out of breaking the rules, but leaders know they are also role models, and scrupulously adhere to rules except when there’s no alternative way to achieve the right thing. Rock stars also know that when they publicly break the little rules and no one calls them out on it, they are sending a message that they can also break the big rules and get away with it.

One of the authors of this post believed every first-person allegation of abuse and assault by Jacob Appelbaum – including the anonymous ones – immediately. Why? Among many other signs, she saw him break different, smaller rules in a way that showed his complete and total disregard for other people’s time, work, and feelings – and everyone supported him doing so. For example, she once attended a series of five minute lightning talks at the Noisebridge hackerspace, where speakers sign up in advance. Jacob arrived unannounced and jumped in after the first couple of talks with a forty-five minute long boring rambling slideshow about a recent trip he took. The person running the talks – someone with considerable power and influence in the same community – rolled his eyes but let Jacob talk for nine times the length of other speakers. The message was clear: rules don’t apply to Jacob, and even powerful people were afraid to cross him.

This kind of blatant disregard for the rules and the value of people’s time was so common that people had a name for it: “story time with Jake,” as described in Phoenix’s pseudonymous allegation of sexual harassment. Besides the direct harm, dysfunction, and disrespect this kind of rule-breaking and rudeness causes, when you allow people to get away with it, you’re sending a message that they can get away with outright harassment and assault too.

To solve this, create and adopt a specific, enforceable code of conduct for your community. Select a small expert group of people to enforce it, with provisions for what to do if one of this group is accused of harassment. Set deadlines for responding to complaints. Conduct the majority of discussion about the report in private to avoid re-traumatizing victims. Don’t make exceptions for people who are “too valuable.” If people make the argument that some people are too valuable to censure for violating the code of conduct, remove them from decision-making positions. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are asking yourself if someone’s benefits outweigh their liabilities, recognize that they’ve already cost the community more than they can ever give to it and get to work on ejecting them quickly.

Start with the assumption that harassment reports are true and investigate them thoroughly

Over more than a decade of studying reports of harassment and assault in tech communities, we’ve noticed a trend: if things have gotten to the point where you’ve heard about an incident, it’s almost always just the tip of the iceberg. People argue a lot about whether to take one person’s word (the alleged victim) over another’s (the alleged harasser), but surprisingly often, this was not the first time the harasser did something harmful and it’s more likely a “one person said, a dozen other people said” situation. Think about it: what are the chances that someone had a perfect record of behavior, right up till the instant they stuck their hand in someone else’s underwear without consent – and that person actually complained about it – AND you heard about it? It’s far more likely that this person has been gradually ramping up their bad behavior for years and you just haven’t heard about it till now.

The vast majority of cases we know about fit one of these two patterns:

  1. A clueless person makes a few innocent, low-level mistakes and actually gets called on one of them fairly quickly. Signs that this is the likely case: the actual incident is extremely easy to explain as a mistake, the accused quickly understands what they did wrong, they appear genuinely, intensely embarrassed, they apologize profusely, and they offer a bunch of ways to make up for their mistake: asking the video of their talk to be taken down, writing a public apology explaining why what they did was harmful, or proposing that they stop attending the event for some period of time.
  2. A person who enjoys trampling on the boundaries of others has been behaving badly for a long time in a variety of ways, but everyone has been too afraid to say anything about it or do anything about other reports. Signs that this is the likely case: the reporter is afraid of retaliation and may try to stay anonymous, other people are afraid to talk about the incident for the same reason, the reported incident may be fairly extreme (e.g., physical assault with no question that consent was violated), many people are not surprised when they hear about it, you quickly gather other reports of harassment or assault of varying levels, the accused has plagiarized or stolen credit or falsified expense reports or done other ethically questionable things, the accused has consolidated a lot of power and attacks anyone who seems to be a challenge to their power, the accused tries to change the subject to their own grievances or suffering, the accused admits they did it but minimizes the incident, or the accused personally attacks the reporter using respectability politics or tone-policing.

In either case, your job is to investigate the long-term behavior of the accused, looking for signs of narcissism and cruelty, big and small. Rock stars leave behind a long trail of nasty emails, stolen credit, rude behavior, and unethical acts big and small. Go look for them.

Make it easy for victims to find and coordinate with each other

Rock stars will often make it difficult for people to talk or communicate without being surveilled or tracked by the rock star or their assistants, because private or anonymous communication allows people to compare their experiences and build effective resistance movements. To fight this, encourage and support private affinity groups for marginalized groups (especially people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them), create formal systems that allow for anonymous or pseudonymous reporting such as an ombudsperson or third-party ethics hotline, support and promote people who are trusted contact points and/or advocates for marginalized groups, and reward people for raising difficult but necessary problems.

Watch for smaller signs of boundary pushing and react strongly

Sometimes rock stars don’t outright break the rules, they just push on boundaries repeatedly, trying to figure out exactly how far they can go and get away with it, or make it so exhausting to have boundaries that people stop defending them. For example, they might take a little too much credit for shared work or other people’s work, constantly bring up the most disturbing but socially acceptable topic of conversation, resist de-escalation of verbal conflict, subtly criticize people, make passive-aggressive comments on the mailing list, leave comments that are almost but not quite against the rules, stand just a little too close to people on purpose, lightly touch people and ignore non-verbal cues to stop (but obey explicit verbal requests… usually), make comments which subtly establish themselves as superior or judges of others, interrupt in meetings, make small verbal put-downs, or physically turn away from people while they are speaking. Rock stars feel entitled to other people’s time, work, and bodies – signs of entitlement to one of these are often signs of entitlement to the others.

Call people out for monopolizing attention and credit

Is there someone in your organization who jumps on every chance to talk to a reporter? Do they attend every conference they can and speak at many of them? Do they brag about their frequent flyer miles or other forms of status? Do they jump on every project that seems likely to be high visibility? Do they “cookie-lick” – claim ownership of projects but fail to do them and prevent others from doing them either? If you see this happening, speak up: say, “Hey, we need to spread out the public recognition for this work among more people. Let’s send Leslie to that conference instead.” Insist that this person credit other folks (by name or anonymously, as possible) prominently and up front in every blog post or magazine article or talk. Establish a rotation for speaking to reporters as a named source. Take away projects from people if they aren’t doing them, no matter how sad or upset it makes them. Insist on distributing high status projects more evenly.

A negative organizational pattern that superficially resembles this kind of call-out can sometimes happen, where people who are jealous of others’ accomplishments and successes may attack effective, non-rock star leaders. Signs of this situation: people who do good, concrete, specific work are being called out for accepting appropriate levels of public recognition and credit by people who themselves don’t follow through on promises, fail at tasks through haplessness or inattention, or communicate ineffectively. Complaints about effective leaders may take the form of “I deserve this award for reasons even though I’ve done relatively little work” instead of “For the good of the organization, we should encourage spreading out the credit among the people who are doing the work – let’s talk about who they are.” People complaining may occasionally make minor verbal slips that reveal their own sense of entitlement to rewards and praise based on potential rather than accomplishments – e.g., referring to “my project” instead of “our project.”

Insist on building a “deep bench” of talent at every level of your organization

Your organization should never have a single irreplaceable person – it should have a deep bench. Sometimes this happens through a misplaced sense of excessive responsibility on the part of a non-abusive leader, but often it happens through deliberate effort from a “rock star.” To prevent this, constantly develop and build up a significant number of leaders at every level of your organization, especially near the top. You can do this by looking for new, less established speakers (keynote speakers in particular) at your events, paying for leadership training, creating official deputies for key positions, encouraging leaders to take ample vacation and not check email (or chat) while they are gone, having at least two people talk to each journalist, conducting yearly succession planning meetings, choosing board members who have strong opinions about this topic and a track record of acting on them, having some level of change or turnover every few years in key leadership positions, documenting and automating key tasks as much as possible, sharing knowledge as much as possible, and creating support structures that allow people from marginalized groups to take on public roles knowing they will have support if they are harassed. And if you need one more reason to encourage vacation, it is often an effective way to uncover financial fraud (one reason why abusive leaders often resist taking vacation – they can’t keep an eye on potential exposure of their misdeeds).

Flatten the organizational hierarchy as much as possible

Total absence of hierarchy is neither possible nor desirable, since “abolishing” a hierarchy simply drives the hierarchy underground and makes it impossible to critique (but see also the anarchist critique of this concept). Keeping the hierarchy explicit and making it as flat and transparent as possible while still reflecting true power relationships is both achievable and desirable. Ways to implement this: have as small a difference as possible in “perks” between levels (e.g., base decisions on flying business class vs. economy on amount of travel and employee needs, rather than position in the organization), give people ways to blow the whistle on people who have power over them (including channels to do this anonymously if necessary), and have transparent criteria for responsibilities and compensation (if applicable) that go with particular positions.

Build in checks for “failing up”

Sometimes, someone gets into a position of power not because they are actually good at their job, but because they turned in a mediocre performance in a field where people tend to choose people with proven mediocre talent over people who haven’t had a chance to demonstrate their talent (or lack thereof). This is called “failing up” and can turn otherwise reasonable people into rock stars as they desperately try to conceal their lack of expertise by attacking any competition and hogging attention. Or sometimes no one wants to take the hit for firing someone who isn’t capable of doing a good job, and they end up getting promoted through sheer tenacity and persistence. The solution is to have concrete criteria for performance, and a process for fairly evaluating a person’s performance and getting them to leave that position if they aren’t doing a good job.

Enforce strict policies around sexual or romantic relationships within power structures

Rock stars love “dating” people they have power over because it makes it easier to abuse or assault them and get away with it. Whenever we hear about an organization that has lots of people dating people in their reporting chain, it raises an automatic red flag for increased likelihood of abuse in that organization. Overall, the approach that has the fewest downsides is to establish a policy that no one can date within their reporting chain or across major differences in power, that romantic relationships need to be disclosed, and that if anyone forms a relationship with someone in the same reporting chain, the participants need to move around the organization until they no longer share a reporting chain. Yes, this means that if the CEO or Executive Director of an organization starts a relationship with anyone else in the organization, at least one of them needs to leave the organization, or take on some form of detached duty for the duration of the CEO/ED’s tenure. When it comes to informal power relationships, such as students dating prominent professors in their fields, they also need to be forbidden or strongly discouraged. These kinds of policies are extremely unattractive to a rock star, because part of the attraction of power for them is wielding it over romantic or sexual prospects.

Avoid organizations becoming too central to people’s lives

Having a reasonable work-life balance isn’t just an ethical imperative for any organization that values social justice, it’s also a safety mechanism so that if someone is forced to leave, needs to leave, or needs to take a step back, they can do so without destroying their entire support system. Rock stars will often insist on subordinates giving 100% of their available energy and time to the “cause” because it isolates them from other support networks and makes them more dependent on the rock star.

Don’t set up your community so that if someone has a breach with your community (e.g., is targeted for sustained harassment that drives them out), they are likely to also lose more than one of: their job, their career, their romantic relationships, their circle of friends, or their political allies. Encouraging and enabling people to have social interaction and support outside your organization or cause will also make it easier to, when necessary, exclude people behaving abusively or not contributing because you won’t need to worry that you’re cutting them off from all meaningful work or human contact.

You should discourage things like: semi-compulsory after hours socialising with colleagues, long work hours, lots of travel, people spending almost all their “intimacy points” or emotional labour on fellow community members, lots of in-group romantic relationships, everyone employs each other, or everyone is on everyone else’s boards. Duplication of effort (e.g., multiple activist orgs in the same area, multiple mailing lists, or whatever) is often seen as a waste, but it can be a powerfully positive force for allowing people some choice of colleagues.

Distribute the “keys to the kingdom”

Signs of a rock star (or occasionally a covert narcissist) may include insisting on being the single point of failure for one or more of: your technical infrastructure (e.g., domain name registration or website), your communication channels, your relationship with your meeting host or landlord, your primary source of funding, your relationship with the cops, etc. This increases the rock star’s power and control over the organization.

To prevent this, identify core resources, make sure two or more people can access/administer all of them, and make sure you have a plan for friendly but sudden, unexplained, or hostile departures of those people. Where possible, spend money (or another resource that your group can collectively offer) rather than relying on a single person’s largesse, specialized skills, or complex network of favours owed. Do things legally where reasonably possible. Try to be independent of any one critical external source of funding or resources. If there’s a particularly strong relationship between one group member and an external funder, advisor, or key organization, institutionalize it: document it, and introduce others into the relationship.

One exception is that it’s normal for contact with the press to be filtered or approved by a single point of contact within the organization (who should have a deputy). However, it should be possible to talk to the press as an individual (i.e., not representing your organization) and anonymously in cases of internal organizational abuse. At the same time, your organization should have a strong whistleblower protection policy – and board members with a strong public commitment and/or a track record of supporting whistleblowers in their own organizations.

Don’t create environments that make boundary violations more likely

Some situations are attractive to rock stars looking to abuse people: sexualized situations, normalization of drinking or taking drugs to the point of being unable to consent or enforce boundaries, or other methods of breaking down or violating physical or emotional boundaries. This can look like: acceptance of sexual jokes at work, frequent sexual liaisons between organization members, mocking people for not being “cool” for objecting to talking about sex at work, framing objection to sexualized situations as being homophobic/anti-polyamorous/anti-kink, open bars with hard alcohol or no limit on drinks, making it acceptable to pressure people to drink more alcohol than they want or violate other personal boundaries (food restrictions, etc.), normalizing taking drugs in ways that make it difficult to stay conscious or defend boundaries, requiring attendance at physically isolated or remote events, having events where it is difficult to communicate with the outside world (no phone service or Internet access), having events where people wear significantly less or no clothing (e.g. pool parties, saunas, hot tubs), or activities that require physical touching (massage, trust falls, ropes courses). It’s a bad sign if anyone objecting to these kinds of activities is criticized for being too uptight, puritanical, from a particular cultural background, etc.

Your organization should completely steer away from group activities which pressure people, implicitly or explicitly, to drink alcohol, take drugs, take off more clothing than is usual for professional settings in the relevant cultures, or touch or be touched. Drunkenness to the point of marked clumsiness, slurred speech, or blacking out should be absolutely unacceptable at the level of organizational culture. Anyone who seems to be unable to care for themselves as the result of alcohol or drug use should be immediately cared for by pre-selected people whose are explicitly charged with preventing this person from being assaulted (especially since they may have been deliberately drugged by someone planning to assault them). For tips on serving alcohol in a way that greatly reduces the chance of assault or abuse, see Kara Sowles’ excellent article on inclusive events. You can also check out the article on inclusive offsites on the Geek Feminism Wiki.

Putting this to work in your community

We waited too long to do something about it.

Odds are, your community already has a “missing stair” or three – even if you’ve just kicked one out. They are harming and damaging your community right now. If you have power or influence or privilege, it’s your ethical responsibility to take personal action to limit the harm that they are causing. This may mean firing or demoting them; it may mean sanctioning or “managing them out.” But if you care about making the world a better place, you must act.

If you don’t have power or influence or privilege, think carefully before taking any action that could harm you more and seriously consider asking other folks with more protection to take action instead. Their response is a powerful litmus test of their values. If no one is willing to take this on for you, your only option may be leaving and finding a different organization or community to join. We have been in this position – of being powerless against rock stars – and it is heartbreaking and devastating to give up on a cause, community, or organization that you care about. We have all mourned the spaces that we have left when they have become unlivable because of abuse. But leaving is still often the right choice when those with power choose not to use it to keep others safe from abuse.


While we are not asking people to “cosign” this post, we want this to be part of a larger conversation on building abuse-resistant organizations and communities. We invite others to reflect on what we have written here, and to write their own reflections. If you would like us to list your reflection in this post, please leave a comment or email us a link, your name or pseudonym, and any affiliation you wish for us to include, and we will consider listing it. We particularly invite survivors of intimate partner violence in activist communities, survivors of workplace harassment and violence, and people facing intersectional oppressions to participate in the conversation.

2016-06-21: The “new girl” effect by Lex Gill, technology law researcher & activist

2016-06-21: Patching exploitable communities by Tom Lowenthal, security technologist and privacy activist

2016-06-22: Tyranny of Structurelessness? by Gabriella Coleman, anthropologist who has studied hacker communities

We would prefer that people not contact us to disclose their own stories of mistreatment. But know this: we believe you. If you need emotional support, please reach out to people close to you, a counselor in your area, or to the trained folks at RAINN or Crisis Text Line.


This post was written by Valerie Aurora (@vaurorapub), Mary Gardiner (@me_gardiner), and Leigh Honeywell (@hypatiadotca), with grateful thanks for comments and suggestions from many anonymous reviewers.

HOWTO therapy: what psychotherapy is, how to find a therapist, and when to fire your therapist

I read this hilarious post by Amanda Rosenberg called “I Asked My Therapist How to Find a Therapist” and cry-laughed the whole way through it. (TL;DR: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) Because it’s so true: when you need a therapist the most is when you have the least energy, organization, and resilience, all qualities that are helpful in finding a therapist in the U.S. (Most people muddle through with desperation, panic, and flailing instead.)

Finding a therapist doesn’t have to be this hard. As an American, I was amazed to learn that many countries offer free government-provided mental health care. It’s not a panacea – you still have to jump through hoops and fill out paperwork and get referrals – but it does show that there’s no inherent reason why finding a therapist has to be so. Damned. Hard.

Personally, I love therapy – or rather, I love what therapy has done for me and how much happier I am after doing therapy for many years. I have had to find a number of therapists in my life, and recently I used what I’ve learned to help several people I know find good therapists. I figured I’d share what I learned in this blog post, starting with how to find a therapist since that’s the question I get asked most, and then going on to things like how therapy works and how to pay for therapy. It got kind of long, so here’s a table of contents so that you can skip to the part you’re most interested in.

How do I find a therapist?
What is therapy anyway?
Can I go to therapy if I don’t know what’s wrong?
Can therapy help me?
What if I can’t afford to pay for therapy?
What if I don’t have the free time to go to therapy?
How do I know when I should switch therapists?
How do I know when to stop or reduce frequency of therapy?

How do I find a therapist?

In the case that you are paying privately for a therapist at market rates, here is my recommended algorithm:

  1. Search on Psychology Today for therapists near you.
  2. Optionally, filter your results by therapists who use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). (CBT is the most evidence-based method of talk therapy. You don’t have to use it as part of your therapy program, but listing CBT as a method of treatment is a positive sign in a therapist in my experience.)
  3. Add any other constraints that are important to you: gender of the therapist, whether they specialized in LGBT issues, if they are a person of color, etc.
  4. Read the self-descriptions of the therapists until you find three that click with you. Be critical and picky and pay attention to how they present themselves.
  5. Once you have three, schedule a free get-to-know-each-other appointment with each of them, preferably in the same week. Go to all three appointments and tell them what you are worried about happening in therapy as well as the problems that brought you there. Optionally, you can send them the Geek Feminism wiki page for therapists.
  6. After you’ve been to each, talk through your experiences with each therapist with someone you trust and pick one. If none of them seem right, go find three more therapists and repeat.

If you have therapy through government healthcare or healthcare insurance or an Employee Assistance Plan or something similar (see the section on affording therapy), use whatever directory or right to choose providers that you have to get an opportunity to work with three different therapists if at all possible. Therapy is in part about the fit or the match between your style and your therapist’s style; there’s no one size fits all. If you can only work with one therapist at a time, see the section on when to switch therapists to decide when to move on to another therapist.

If you are looking to pay privately for therapy but can’t afford market rates, here are some suggestions for finding therapists to interview:

  • Google search for “cheap therapy [YOUR LOCATION]” or similar phrases
  • Search on Foursquare or Yelp or other review sites for the same
  • Search online for counseling training schools near you (they usually have cheap rates for working with students)
  • Ask anyone you know who often works with disadvantaged folks: social workers, court-appointed advocates, activists, etc.
  • If you have any advocates or healthcare workers caring for you – social workers, legal assistance, nurses, doctors, legal advocates, case workers – ask them for suggestions

A great collection of resources for therapy for people with specific needs (such as a polyamory-friendly therapist) is the MetaFilter wiki page on therapy.

What is therapy anyway?

Therapy/talk therapy/psychotherapy is when a patient talks regularly with a counselor or psychotherapist to figure out new ways to think and act so that they are happier. In particular, many of us have developed beliefs and habits about how to be happy and safe that seem to work in the short run, but that end up making us feel unhappy and unsafe in the long run. The therapist helps you recognize these unhelpful beliefs and habits and change them (or at least stop acting in ways that reinforce them). As my favorite advice blogger, Captain Awkward, puts it: “I think every adult could benefit from a look under the emotional hood at some point in their lives.

Many forms of therapy use your relationship with the therapist as a testing ground for trying out new beliefs and actions. In the U.S., a fairly common frequency for therapy is one hour a week or every two weeks. Therapists who use classical Freudian psychoanalysis (what you see on TV shows or movies most often) like to meet for an hour 3-5 days a week.

The forms of therapy differ, but generally they all work better when you are truthful with your therapist, attend appointments regularly, and do any assigned homework. (Conditions that make any of these tasks hard are harder to treat.) The most important thing is to tell your therapist what you are thinking or feeling about therapy or about them, even if it is things like, “I am afraid of you,” or “I feel sexually attracted to you,” or “I want to say what makes you happy,” or “I hate coming to this appointment” or “I’m embarrassed to be in therapy.” It’s the therapist’s job to not take comments like these personally and to use it to help figure out your beliefs. (If they respond to you saying these things with, e.g., anger, or by seducing you, or making you feel guilty, fire them and find a new therapist immediately.)

Can I go to therapy if I don’t know what’s wrong?

Several people have asked me if it is it helpful to go to therapy if you don’t know what’s wrong, or can’t put your feelings into words. The answer is most decidedly, yes. People often go to therapy because they feel vaguely dissatisfied, or incomplete, anxious, depressed, unhappy, empty, tired, hopeless, unimportant, isolated, angry, sad, ashamed, or any number of feelings. People often feel this way even when their life seems objectively great – great job, great family, great friends, etc. If you have figured out why you have those feelings and can put that into words, that’s wonderful – you have a head-start on working with the therapist to figure out what to do about them. But if you don’t know why you feel the way you do, therapists are good at helping you figuring out why.

Can therapy help me?

Oversimplifying wildly, here are the requirements for therapy to work as I understand them:

  1. Self-motivation: Do you want to change badly enough to do scary hard things?
  2. Self-criticism: Can you accept and internalize criticism?
  3. Self-discipline: Are you willing to put in the effort to change, even if it is hard or scary?

It’s okay if you’re not that good at accepting criticism or at consistently applying yourself, as long as you’re motivated to get better at those two skills for reasons you find compelling. But if you’re going to therapy in order to appease or manipulate someone else, but don’t actually think you need to change, it’s less likely to work. Most of the work of therapy happens outside the time that you meet with your therapist, and you are unlikely to do that work if you don’t see how it benefits yourself. This kind of motivation normally fluctuates – I’ve several times taken a break from therapy because I didn’t care to work on my problems at that particular time. I came back when I was motivated to do the work again, sometimes years later.

Several psychological symptoms or disorders interfere with one or more of self-motivation, self-criticism, or self-discipline. These include (but aren’t limited to) depression, anxiety, difficulty staying focused, narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder (ASPD, better known as psychopathy or sociopathy).

If you have depression, anxiety, or difficulty staying focused, therapy will be harder but still doable with effort and advice from your therapist – after all, these are some of the most common reasons people go to therapy.

Narcissistic personality disorder presents as extreme outward confidence, disregard for the feelings of others, and obsession with personal image. One of the less well-known aspects of narcissism is the inability of the narcissist to accept and internalize criticism. It is difficult to improve at any skill if you can’t directly face and accept feedback on how you are doing it wrong. As a result, someone with narcissism has great difficulty changing anything about themselves for the better. Narcissism is notoriously difficult to treat. (If you’re seriously wondering if you are a narcissist, that is an excellent reason to go to therapy. The answer is probably no, but either way, talking to a therapist is a very good idea at this point.)

People with Antisocial personality disorder (better known as sociopathy or psychopathy) have difficulty caring about or understanding the needs or feelings of others, are impulsive, and have difficulty imagining or caring about negative consequences for their behavior. Many people with ASPD are quite content with their personality and actions and see no reason to change them – although some proportion of people with ASPD decide to be a positive part of society anyway and it’s not clear why they are different. Some proportion of ASPD cases are due to permanent impairment of specific brain structures; they can use therapy to learn different behaviors but won’t ever recover that specific brain function. Other folks have neurotypical brain physiology and acquire ASPD after experiencing intense abuse and trauma. Therapy can sometimes help them recover full function.

Other things that can make it harder to get benefit out of therapy: a mental illness, an addiction, an allergy, not getting enough sleep, and being in an abusive relationship. Often, therapy will have the side effect of helping you to solve or reduce these problems, but fixing them may also take medication, diet changes, social support, and time.

What if I can’t afford to pay for therapy?

I’ll assume if you’re asking this question you don’t have access to state-provided healthcare, such as citizens or residents of Australia, Canada, or many European countries. To start finding therapy in this case, my understanding is that you usually ask your general practitioner or primary care doctor for a referral. The rest of this answer will focus on countries that don’t have this.

The easiest way to get therapy (even in countries that provide it for free through the government) is to have enough disposable income to pay the market price for therapy. If you have the money, go this route. If you don’t have the money, you’ll be amazed at the number of ways to get therapy at below market rate. Here are some of the ways to get therapy at a lower price.

You may have private health insurance that covers therapy. However, relatively few therapists accept the extremely low rates paid by insurance, and those that do often have long waiting lists. If you have more money than emotional energy or time, I recommend not even trying to get therapy paid for by health insurance. Otherwise, go to your health insurance web site and look for information on using your mental health benefits. They will probably have an online directory of providers who take your insurance.

Your employer may have an Employee Assistance Plan that covers therapy, usually a specific number of sessions, like six (which is laughably low but better than nothing). The nice thing about EAPs is that usually there is a hotline that you can call and say, “Help me get a therapist,” and they will do the work. This is extremely helpful!

For the case where you can’t afford full price for therapy, but you could afford, say, 25% – 75% of normal costs, many areas have a school for training counselors with students who need patients to practice on. They usually charge need-based sliding scale fees. Many individual therapists will also charge on a sliding scale basis – just ask when you first speak to them. Many therapists also list their price ranges on their Psychology Today profile. Another option in this price range may be online counseling services like In Your Corner.

If you can’t afford that, many community service organizations provide free counseling as part of their services or can help you find free counseling. Homeless shelters, halfway houses, LGBT youth centers, and addiction centers are some places that will be willing and able to help you find free or very low cost therapy.

What if I don’t have the free time to go to therapy?

If freeing up the time to go to therapy seems impossible, here’s my suggestion: move heaven and earth to go to one appointment and tell the therapist why you don’t have time for regular therapy. Then they will be able to suggest ideas for how to make therapy possible for you, based on their far more extensive experience working with many different patients. Remember, it’s not a matter of having time for therapy, it’s a matter of prioritizing therapy just slightly higher than other things in your life that you spend a couple of hours a week on. If therapy is key to you staying alive and functioning, then it’s worth exploring the options.

Some useful options for some people with little money and an uncertain schedule and certain types of problems are the various twelve step programs that branched off from Alcoholics Anonymous, especially the program for the friends and families of addicts. Twelve step programs are free (funded by small voluntary donations from those who can afford it) and usually have meetings at a variety of times in major metro areas. They also have meetings within prisons and hospitals and even phone-based or online meetings. These programs can also be helpful for people who can afford therapy, and many therapists recommend joining the appropriate twelve step program in addition to therapy. Check out the list of twelve step programs on Wikipedia to get an idea if one of those is a good match for you. Note: there is significant research questioning the effectiveness of twelve step programs compared to naltrexone for ending alcohol and narcotic addictions. I agree that twelve step programs don’t work for everyone and attendance shouldn’t be court-mandated; at the same time, some twelve step programs are helpful for some people and are definitely cheaper than most therapy.

One last plug for trying to make therapy work in the face of obstacles from my favorite advice blogger, Captain Awkward: “I recommend therapy here a lot. And I will keep doing it. Even though it is often prohibitively expensive. And/or difficult to locate. And/or difficult to acquire once you do locate it and can maybe afford it. I have a very strong bias in favor of therapy/counseling/mental health services because I have found them to be personally extremely helpful to me and to people I love – some of whom are alive and breathing because they sought out mental health services in time to save their own lives.”

How do I know when I should switch therapists?

Sometimes you aren’t done with therapy but you need to work with a different therapist. This can happen for a lot of reasons. The easy reasons are things like: you develop a symptom or a condition that the therapist doesn’t feel qualified to treat, you move away and they aren’t willing to do therapy over the phone or Internet, or you can no longer afford to pay this therapist’s rate. The less obvious reasons are when therapy isn’t working for some subtler reason: you’re still showing up to therapy and doing homework, but things aren’t progressing. Are they not working because you aren’t ready or doing the work, or is it because you and the therapist are a bad match for each other, or is it because the therapist is bad at their job?

Here are some red flags for therapist relationships that aren’t working out and should probably be ended:

  • The therapist creeps you out (no need to put it into words or get more specific)
  • The therapist attempts to make you feel guilty
  • The therapist makes any kind of sexual advance (or accepts your sexual advances – they are in the position of power and should never accept your advances if you make them)
  • You find yourself unable to stop lying to the therapist
  • The therapist talks about themselves for more than a few minutes per session
  • The therapist does things that make you feel you need to care for the therapist (e.g., becomes visibly upset and requires soothing from you)
  • The therapist “one-ups” you by sharing information about themselves that inhibits you from speaking about your own comparatively minor problems
  • The therapist is unable to hide their anger in session with you
  • You feel belittled or smaller or beaten down after sessions
  • The therapist relies on information provided by your abusers or an unqualified third party (e.g., a parent defining what is wrong with their child)
  • The therapist dismisses your feelings (this is different from searching for underlying feelings or first feelings that turn into your current feelings, a normal activity)
  • You find yourself “accidentally” missing appointments (though this could be a sign that you need to end therapy entirely too)
  • The therapist says things or takes actions that make you feel like you are broken or weird
  • The therapist tells you that something is concerning or bad, but does not help you address it
  • The therapist doesn’t make an effort to understand things that are important to you, like your job or online community
  • The therapist has difficulty remembering important facts about you between sessions
  • The therapist can’t hide that they don’t share basic values with you, such as feminism
  • You find it very hard to tell them that therapy isn’t working for you in some way
  • The therapist offers advice outside the boundaries of the therapy relationship (e.g., about sports or nutrition)
  • You are comfortable and unchallenged in most of your sessions
  • Your take away from most sessions is that you are a really great person who is doing nothing wrong and doesn’t need to change anything but for some reason you need to keep coming to therapy
  • You feel like you are able to fool or charm or manipulate the therapist into doing what you want

Overall, you should feel like your therapist is supporting you in doing difficult, painful, but necessary work. If seeing your therapist makes you feel worthless or helpless or more self-critical, or if they simply affirm you without helping you grow in ways that are difficult for you, you’re not getting the help you need.

Here are some normal (but not necessary) experiences in a relationship with a therapist that is working:

  • You cry. A lot. In session, out of session, on the way to sessions, at work, at home, everywhere
  • You feel sadness and grief more intensely than you have in years
  • You feel strong guilt and anxiety (but not as a direct result of the therapist’s actions or words)
  • You are simultaneously dreading and looking forward to your next appointment
  • You get angry with your therapist in the session (but they do not express anger towards you)
  • You avoid appointments because you don’t want to talk about a specific subject
  • You have to drag yourself into the appointment
  • You sit silently for most or all of the appointment
  • You want to say something to your therapist but you are afraid to and spend the whole appointment avoiding saying it
  • You want to please the therapist and be the perfect patient
  • You don’t want to make your therapist feel sad by telling them unpleasant things you have experienced
  • You deliberately insult or shock or act rudely towards your therapist
  • You show up late to appointments
  • Your therapist reminds you of someone important in your life (mother, ex-husband, etc.)
  • You feel guilty for taking up the therapist’s time
  • You feel like you should be making faster progress
  • You are really tired after an appointment

You can also be having any of these normal experiences with a therapist who is still a bad match for you, just don’t think that these experiences alone are a bad sign.

How do I know when to stop or reduce frequency of therapy?

Spending time and money on therapy has diminishing returns at some point for many people, and at some point you can have a perfectly fine working relationship with a therapist but not have any motivation to continue therapy. Some signs that it might be time for you to reduce frequency or end therapy are:

  • You start forgetting your appointments because you aren’t thinking about what you’re going to discuss at the next one
  • You made a lot of progress in one area of your life but you aren’t much interested in working on any other area right now
  • You feel like you aren’t connecting with your therapist after several weeks
  • Your appointments are uniformly boring
  • You have difficulty thinking of things to say (as distinct from having things to say but not wanting to say them)
  • You keep cancelling your appointments because other things are more important

It can be uncomfortable bringing up the topic of ending therapy with your therapist. Keep in mind that they have been through this many times and that for them, it’s like having a student graduate (in the best case). Just say, “Hey, I’m starting to wonder how much longer I should be in therapy. What do you think?” If you are worried that you want to end therapy for the wrong reasons, or shouldn’t end therapy, your therapist is a good person to discuss that with.

I hope some of this advice is useful to you! I love therapy and it has made me a much happier and healthier person – after years and years of difficult hard work and buckets of tears, so don’t give up too quickly. I wish you all the best for your journey towards greater happiness!

The Ally Skills Workshop returns, Impostor Syndrome book, public speaking and more

After taking three months off work, I naturally decided to found another company! Allow me to introduce Frame Shift Consulting, my new consulting firm. I’m continuing to do what I loved from the Ada Initiative – teaching Ally Skills Workshops, advising companies and conference organizers, speaking – and leaving out what I hated – fundraising, line management, and non-profit paperwork. I’ve also expanded the Ally Skills Workshop to teach people in a position of privilege how to support members of any marginalized group (formerly, it focused on teaching men to support women). I already have enough paying work that I’m behind on filling in my company web site, but I’ll be adding more content in between contracts over the next few months.

Woman holding microphone and raising arm in front of a photo of lightning
Calling down the lightning in a lightning talk
(Credit David Balliol, Thomas Bresson)

One of my goals for 2016 is to do more public speaking. I love speaking and people seem to enjoy my talks, but speaking was rarely a good use of my time when I was at the Ada Initiative. I regretfully had to turn down a lot of speaking engagements over the last 5 years. Now speaking is both fun and aligned with my work, so let me know if you’d like me to come to speak at your event! I’m especially interested in opportunities to speak to tech companies in the San Francisco Bay Area and paid speaking engagements anywhere in the world.

I’m also working on a book about fighting Impostor Syndrome, based on our work on Impostor Syndrome at the Ada Initiative. The approach I’m taking is that Impostor Syndrome isn’t a mysterious production of unfathomable personality quirks, it’s the intended result of a system of oppression designed to reinforce existing hierarchies. Once you understand where that nagging internal voice doubting your accomplishments is coming from, it’s easier to take action to reverse it. I’m looking for an agent who does traditional paper books for traditional publishers and knows the self-help market – let me know if you have a recommendation for someone!

I ended a lot of things in 2015 and I’m pretty happy about that. After 5 years of successful advocacy for women in open technology and culture, Mary Gardiner and I shut down the Ada Initiative (Mary is now working for Stripe, the lucky ducks). I stepped down from the board of the feminist makerspace I co-founded, Double Union, which is still going strong. With the shutdown of Magic Vibes, I am no longer involved in any joint projects with Amelia Greenhall and won’t be in the future. I stopped drinking alcohol entirely; I never drank that much in the first place but it turns out I’m allergic (!!!) to alcohol. After 5 enjoyable years of single-tude, I started dating again and am, to my pleasant surprise, in a long-term relationship with a great guy.

I’m really looking forward to 2016: teaching workshops, writing books, and speaking (and not fundraising!!). If you’d like to talk to me about teaching an Ally Skills Workshop, consulting with your organization, or speaking at your event, shoot me an email at contact@frameshiftconsulting.com. Here’s wishing you a great 2016 too!

Between the spreadsheets: dating by the numbers

In my blog post about how to have more fun online dating, I mentioned the spreadsheet I made to help with dating. Yes, a spreadsheet. For dating. Because when you’re feeling romantic, you just want to fire up Excel and input some data! Nothing like an evening of writing formulas to get you in the mood for love!

But seriously, enough people were intrigued by my spreadsheet-dating ways – including the excellent dating expert Virginia Roberts – that I cleaned it up, added some instructions, and licensed it CC BY-SA. You can look at it here, or keep reading to learn more about why and how I made it.

Note: While I’m the only person who has used this spreadsheet, I designed it to be useful for people of all genders and a broad range of sexualities, including asexual folks. If it doesn’t suit you, please fork it and make your own changes!


A couple of years ago, I watched Amy Webb’s amazing TED Talk about how she “hacked” online dating to work for her. Her advice is what inspired me to put some work into online dating, and I put a lot of her talk into my post about having more fun with online dating. Part of Amy’s system was creating a scoring system for everything she wanted in a partner, and refusing to go on dates or continue relationships with people who didn’t score high enough on her system.

Then I read the poorly named “Is He Mr. Right?” by one of my favorite relationship writers, Mira Kirshenbaum. Mira broke down “chemistry” into five requirements: ease and closeness, fun, safety, mutual respect, and affection and passion (see this summary of an earlier version of the five elements by Lisa Wolcott).


I decided to combine these two concepts – creating a spreadsheet full of things I wanted from relationships, and then figuring out which ones were important (“dealbreakers”) and which were optional (“extra credit”) by rating how they affected the five elements of “chemistry.” I showed it to several Double Union members who came to our “Quantified Relationships” meetups, who gave me a lot of useful feedback and tips. My good friend Leigh Honeywell was particularly helpful with sources, ideas, and encouragement.

What I intended to get was a tool that would tell me whether to go out on dates or continue a relationship with any particular person. What I got instead is a really good tool for introspection and learning more about myself. It turns out a lot of what I thought was important, wasn’t important at all, and vice versa.


My original intention for making this tool was to make me more aware of and responsive to my “dealbreakers” – things that meant a relationship wasn’t possible. But while making and using this tool, I discovered that my own ideas about what was a “dealbreaker” were frequently wrong. I am now in a happy relationship with someone who had six of what I labeled “dealbreakers” when we met. And if he hadn’t been interested in working those issues out with me, we would not be dating today. But he was, and working together we managed to resolve all six of them to our mutual satisfaction. Talking to my friends, I found that this was a pretty common experience.

So I added a third category, in addition to dealbreakers and extra credit: things that you need for a happy relationship, but if your partner doesn’t have them, it is possible that if you both work together with good will you could come to some kind of solution. I called these “workables.” But remember: both of you have to be willing, motivated, and able to resolve these issues. And it will take time and patience. But also, many of what you would consider dealbreakers will end up being acceptable as long as you have the five elements of chemistry.

I don’t think you should use this spreadsheet to start or end relationships. The “scores” in particular are just helpful tools to think about people you might date, in addition to all the other information you have about the relationship. I do think you should use this spreadsheet as a way to explore what is important to you, what your relationship patterns are, and how much effort you are willing to put into a relationship.

How to use it

The relationship preferences exploration tool is here. Here is the current version of the instructions; for the most up-to-date version, read the instructions in the first tab of the spreadsheet. Enjoy!

This spreadsheet is a tool to help you figure out what you are looking for in a romantic partner by leading you through a process of brainstorming which starts with examples of specific people, and progressively distills descriptions of those people down to specific qualities you can use to think about potential partners.

While there is an overall “score” for each person, the point of this tool is to help you think consciously about what is important to you, not tell give you yes/no answers to whether you should date someone.

How to use this spreadsheet:

This is a little complicated! There will be an example at the bottom, as well as examples in the spreadsheet.

Anti-archetypes & Archetypes

Start by thinking of several people who are or would be bad partners for you, but whom you have been attracted to anyway. Enter their names in the “Anti-archetypes” tab and write down their major qualities, both bad and good. Do the same thing for people that you have been attracted to and think would make good partners for you, and put these in the “Archetypes” tab. In both cases, you can include people whom you never dated, or even people who don’t exist – fictional characters are totally okay (after all, often our ideas about what real people are like are also totally fictional). You should start seeing groups and trends – several people who share a lot of traits. Group them together and give them a name. Then on the “Anti-archetypes” tab, make a summary of common things you are attracted to in people you shouldn’t date, and vice versa.

Red flags & Green flags

Now go to the “Red flags” tab and start writing down all the qualities or actions that, in retrospect, were a clear sign that you should not date that person. Refer back to your “Anti-archetypes” tab for specific ideas. Pay especial attention to things you find attractive that are also signs that this person will make you unhappy. You can use things you learned from other people’s relationships, from friendships, from work relationships, or books you’ve read. Do the same thing for the “Green flags” tab, but for positive qualities that indicate someone is worth getting to know better.

Bad things & Good things

Once you have a good collection of red flags and green flags, turn them into short descriptions and put them in the “Bad things” and “Good things” tabs. What you are going to do next is find out which of these things are incredibly important, which are kind of important, and which are totally optional. For each quality, you will rate whether it affects you in each of the 5 key components of relationship happiness. For more explanation of what these mean, read Mira Kirshenbaum’s embarrassingly titled relationship book for straight monogamous women, “Is He Mr. Right?”, or read this summary of the 5 components:


The 5 components are: Ease & closeness, respect, safety, affection & passion, fun. For bad things, put a “1” under each component if it would make you feel less of that thing. For good things, put a “1” under each component if it would make you feel more of that thing. Some qualities will affect your feelings for all 5 components; some will affect none of them. Now sort them by their total score. Things that have a score of 1 or more are important. Things that have a score of 0 are nice extras.

You now know what things are really important to you, and which things are totally optional. You might be surprised by what they are! And you should expect them to change a lot as you go on more dates and learn more about yourself.


What you are going to do next is turn the “Bad things” and “Good things” lists into a single list of things you want in a partner over in the “Ratings” tab. For each thing in your bad/good/extras list, enter it in to the “Ratings” tab in a positive form (e.g., “Smells good” and not “Smells bad”). Then decide whether this is required (a score of 1 or higher on the bad/good things list), required but something that might change or compromise on if both of you are willing to work on it (“workable”), or an optional extra (a score of 0). Next decide if you have to know that quality for sure before you will (a) go on a date, (b) have sex, or (c) enter a long-term relationship. (If those aren’t your goals, you’ll have to do some heavy spreadsheet hacking to change them – sorry!)


The final tab is the “Scores” tab. It will calculate numerical “scores” for each person you’ve rated, and whether you know enough to make a decision about going on a date, having sex with, or starting a long-term relationship with them. It also tells you if they have dealbreakers, how many positive things they have going for them, and how much work you’re in for if you decide to continue the relationship. The “Scores” column is intended to give you a sense of overall how attractive each person is, but you shouldn’t take it very seriously.

Here’s an example: Your awful ex Ashley smelled liked old socks. You create a column named “Ashley” in the anti-archetypes list and enter “Smells like old socks” in that column. You notice that a lot of your other bad exes smelled bad too, so you put “Smells bad” in the “Red flags” tab. Then you put “Smells bad” in the “Bad things” tab and rate it. Smelling bad affected your ease & closeness, affection & passion, and fun, so you put “1” in each of those columns. Then you enter it into the “Ratings” tab. Under “Trait” you type “Smells good.” You decide that this quality is required for you to have a satisfying relationship but possible to change with mutual work and effort, so you write “Workable” under the “Type” column. You’ll go on a date with someone before you know whether they smell good, but you have to know someone smells good before you will have sex with them, so you put “Sex” under the “Threshold” column. Now you go on a date with someone named Skylar and he smells delicious to you. Then you put Skylar’s name into the first open column in the “Ratings” tab and put “Y” in the row for “Smells good.” Then you look at the “Scores” tab and see that his score went up by 1 point.

You don’t necessarily need to rate people before you go on a date or at any other time, and most of the time you’ll just make decisions without using the spreadsheet. This is spreadsheet is for when you are feeling uncertain or noticing that you are tending to go out with people who aren’t a good match for you. That’s a good time to sit down and update this spreadsheet. You’ll probably find a lot of things that you thought were dealbreakers, aren’t, and things you thought were optional were actually very important.

Have fun!!!

How to eat paleo at Trader Joe’s (mostly)

This post is about how to eat the Autoimmune Protocol diet – which greatly resembles what people call the “paleo diet” – while shopping primarily at the popular U.S. grocery store, Trader Joe’s. That’s pretty specific – why in the world am I writing this?

About two and a half years ago, I stopped eating wheat and discovered that many of my chronic health problems started going away. It wasn’t a cure-all, though. A year and a half later, I had actually gained weight (I was already overweight) and I started having a new symptom: stomach pain so bad I couldn’t sleep at night. After the doctors ran all the tests and couldn’t find any cause or treatment, I decided as a last ditch attempt to try the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diet, documented in full in this monster book (don’t worry, you don’t need to read it to try the diet).

AIP is a diet designed by Dr. Sarah Ballantyne to eliminate all the foods that are likely to cause inflammatory autoimmune reactions in most people (surprise! Wheat is #1 on this list), and then to gradually reintroduce some of the safer foods until you know what your personal set of “safe” foods is. It also provides a list of more nutritious foods that you are encouraged to eat more of. Following the diet often improves the symptoms of health problems that stem from inflammation, allergies, or autoimmune reactions. However, most people have never heard of AIP, and it resembles the various diets people call “paleo”, so I usually just refer to it as “eating paleo” or “autoimmune paleo.” A year and a half after starting this diet, my stomach no longer hurts, I walk 5-10 miles every day without pain, and I’m in the recommended weight range for my height for the first time since I was a teenager.

The point of this blog post isn’t to convince people to eat the AIP or paleo diet. It’s expensive, takes a huge amount of time, and is unsustainable at a global level. But if you are a person who is already trying to eat AIP or paleo, or if you have an autoimmune-related problem and are considering the AIP diet, and you live near a Trader Joe’s, I wanted to share my tips for buying AIP compatible food at Trader Joe’s, along with sources for things you can’t get at TJ’s. For context, I live alone in a tiny studio in San Francisco, walk to the grocery store several times a week, and am relatively healthy and abled. I make enough money that shopping at Trader Joe’s isn’t a problem but Whole Foods is something I can only afford on occasion.

A word of encouragement

Eating AIP is HARD. At first, you can’t eat grains, dairy, eggs, legumes, nightshades, seeds or seed oils, nuts, sugar, or a long list of food additives. You have to make and eat all kinds of weird labor-intensive food. You can’t eat at most restaurants. You get really tired of chewing. There is So. Much. Chewing. But then I got better at cooking, I bought more cooking equipment, I started adding more foods back into my diet, my palate adapted to not eating sugar, and everything got easier and more fun. Probably my jaw muscles got stronger too.

I’ve been eating the AIP diet for a year and a half now, and I love food more than I ever did before. Now opening my fridge gives me pleasure. I eat whatever I want when I’m hungry (within the diet), and I stop eating when I’m full. Food almost never goes bad in my kitchen. I’m excited about eating every meal and I eagerly try new foods and recipes. Eating food I didn’t personally cook makes me feel like it’s my birthday. I absolutely still do think fondly of eating an entire bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter cups or a giant hot croissant fresh from the oven, but knowing that I’ll immediately feel sick if I do eat those things keeps me on the diet and feeling well.

The compromises

I couldn’t actually afford to the time and money to eat fully AIP in two particular ways: I can’t always afford to buy organic produce, and I can rarely afford to buy pastured meat or eggs. Buying higher quality meat and eggs (e.g., organic, free-range, or partly grass-fed), even if it isn’t fully pastured, seems like it has been enough of an improvement over fully conventional meat and eggs to be worth it. Also, once you have tasted an organic free-range brined chicken or a grass-fed burger, it’s really hard to go back to the 100% conventional U.S. stuff – it tastes pretty bad in comparison. Delivery of pastured meat isn’t feasible for me because I travel so often. Also, I’m not eating as much organ meat as the AIP diet would prefer.

The cookbook

Eating AIP without a cookbook is hopeless. Besides the challenge of making food without most of the ingredients you normally put in food, there are lots of foods you really need to eat that have complicated prep techniques. The main cookbook I used was The Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook by Mickey Trescott. Mickey also does one-on-one diet coaching via Skype – highly recommended if you’re stuck on fixing particular problems or debugging particular foods. For example, I was having mixed results reintroducing rice, and she told me it was normal to have no reaction to whole white rice, but have problems with brown rice or rice flour. I don’t know why that is, I’m just glad she helped me find what works for me!

Meats and bone broth

Eating AIP involves a huge amount of meat, which is a pain to cook and store. Trader Joe’s has a surprising number of pre-cooked meat products that are AIP-compatible, even during the first most restrictive phase of the AIP diet. If you choose the right meats, you can make your own bone broth without going out to buy bones themselves.

Pre-cooked meats and seafood

The big winner here is the pre-cooked carnitas, over in the deli case next to the fresh meats. Don’t worry about how fatty it is – eating AIP you end up having a hard time getting enough fat in your diet and you’ll be grateful for a fatty cut of meat like these carnitas. The next big one is pre-cooked bacon, though my local TJ’s stopped carrying it and I now make a special trip to CostCo to buy it. Pre-cooked bacon is crucial for sticking to the diet for the first few weeks – if you’re low on calories and time, pull out the pre-cooked bacon and dates and keep eating till you are full.

The Chicken Apple Sausage is technically AIP-compatible, although you notice that the maple syrup added to it makes it unpleasantly sweet after a few weeks on the diet. I much prefer the Garlic Herb chicken sausage. The smoked salmon is usually AIP-compatible. The prosciutto is also good; I buy the Stockmeyer because it is cheaper and lasts longer, although it isn’t the traditional soft style of prosciutto. Tuna fish, sardines, and similar stuff is available in the canned section.

If you successfully add nightshades back to your diet, you can try a lot more of the pre-cooked chicken sausages: Sweet Italian and one with bell peppers. They just introduced a pre-cooked Beef Sirloin that is quite good if you’ve reintroduced black pepper. Also in post-black pepper land are the cured sausages that don’t need to be refrigerated – I like the Volpi brand best. Watch out, a lot of the cured sausages have sugar and milk powder in them, and many people end up with headaches from them (as I do if I eat too much of them). However, they make great emergency or travel food since they don’t need refrigeration until you open them.

Counter-intuitively, the “Just Chicken” line of pre-cooked meat is usually not at all AIP-compatible – it has tons of additives. Also, it tastes gross compared to your home-roasted organic free-range brined whole chicken that I’ll tell you about in the next section. Some Whole Foods have an organic roasted chicken with no additives if you’re looking for pre-cooked chicken; the ones I’ve seen are comparable in price to the high-end uncooked chickens Trader Joe’s sells. But you are risking entering a Whole Foods – I can’t get out of there for less than $40 for only half a bag of groceries.

Uncooked meats and seafood

The most expensive and important meat I buy at Trader Joe’s is the Organic Free-Range Brined Whole Chicken. I put half a lemon and a dried sprig of thyme inside, truss it, and roast it on a rack set in a pie dish covered in tin foil for about 90 minutes in a 400F oven, flipping it twice. I use a meat thermometer to figure out when it’s done (160F next to the breast bone). Once I made this chicken, I could not stand eating lesser chicken, especially not those frozen chicken breasts in a bag. This chicken is horrifyingly expensive (about $16 in SF) but I justify it because it’s a good source of bones for making bone broth (and did I mention that it tastes amazing?).

I also buy conventional bone-in pork chops – they taste way better than boneless pork chops and also create bones for broth. I fry pork chops in a pan to get that crisp brownness, even though it makes my apartment reek like bacon for hours. Another good option is the grass-fed ground beef, which comes both fresh and frozen in pre-made patties. I also like the frozen Mixed Seafood – add some bacon, bone broth, and asparagus, and it’s an affordable and super easy meal to make.

I detest cooking and eating most fish, but if you like it, TJ’s has tons of frozen seafood that is AIP-compatible. I used to buy ground turkey and make sausage patties out of it, but it was relatively tasteless no matter what I did and I stopped. If you’ve reintroduced nightshades, try the Sweet Italian Pork Sausage. That’s another great source of hard-to-find dietary fat. I cook them all at once and put them in a plastic container in the fridge.

Do go buy cooking twine – I never owned any until I started eating AIP. And I really like buying fresh thyme and drying the part I don’t use right away to put inside the chicken. I use the cooking twine to hang it till it dries and keep it in a glass jar after that. It’s great crumbled on pork chops, too.

Organ meats

TJ’s doesn’t carry a lot of organ meats, which are a source of a lot of important nutrients. The whole chicken I buy has no giblets. I tried buying and frying chicken livers from Whole Foods, and maybe I needed to give it a few more tries, but – yuck. Then I realized I could buy the chicken liver truffle pâté from the deli case (note: contains small amounts of milk and egg and is topped with caregeenan) at TJ’s and eat it on slices of Granny Smith apples (or cold steamed broccoli, believe it or not, or yucca crackers). I eat about one of these containers per two weeks. This is good enough for me for organ meats, though I’d love an easy source of chicken hearts because I hear they taste amazing.

Bone broth

Bone broth is a crucial part of AIP that you really can’t skip, and it also an enormous pain to make or buy. Bone broth isn’t “just stock”; it’s the product of cooking bones long enough to get most of the nutritious stuff out of the bone matrix. How long is long enough? NINE FUCKING HOURS. This is why I caved very early on and bought a scary pressure cooker, which only takes three fucking hours (plus pressurizing time) to make bone broth at high pressure. Here is my complete bone broth system:

  1. Buy whole chickens and bone-in pork chops.
  2. Save the bones after cooking in a gallon plastic bag in the freezer (remember to take the lemon out of the chicken carcass but leave the thyme).
  3. Save the drippings from the chicken in plastic containers, also in the freezer.
  4. When I have a full plastic bag of bones, roast them in the oven for 20 minutes at 400F on a foil-lined pan (this browns the bones and makes the broth taste good, otherwise it’s gross).
  5. Put the bones and the frozen drippings in the pressure cooker, add a bay leaf and about a tablespoon of salt, and fill with enough water to cover the bones.
  6. Cook on high pressure for 3 hours (mine only goes to 90 minutes, so I have to reset it once, and sometimes I let it sit overnight on “simmer” and do the rest in the morning).
  7. Pour contents into a strainer sitting in a large stock pot.
  8. Remove the strainer and ladle the broth into glass jars sitting in the sink (leave at least an inch of room at the top of each jar).
  9. Put all but one jar in the freezer (they won’t explode if you leave at least an inch of room).
  10. Every morning, put 1/3 cup of bone broth in a mug and add boiling water and drink it (you can skip a week or so every now and then with no trouble).

Bone broth is amazing. After I started eating bone broth everyday, I had a mildly gross experience as the new stronger layer of skin started growing in (stop reading and go to the next section if skin stuff makes you barf). I’ve always had patchy skin on my knees, but a few weeks after starting the bone broth, I noticed that a layer of skin on my knees started peeling off and underneath was – non-patchy skin. I haven’t had patchy skin anywhere on my body since. Imagine what’s happening on your insides!

Updated 26 August 2016: Whole Foods now sells pork and beef bones for fairly cheap – you can find them in the freezer near the butcher department. $10 worth of bones fills up my pressure cooker. Chicken wings are also a good source of cheap bones, which is good because I really don’t like pure beef or pork bone broth. For a couple of months, I was buying chicken carcasses from the local halal butcher but they stopped carrying them. I also noticed that Costco sells $5 whole roasted chickens which seem like a pretty good deal even if you’re throwing the bones away.


Eggs aren’t in the introductory AIP diet, and I personally couldn’t reliably eat them until I entirely gave up on trying to reintroduce alcohol (sigh). But if you can eat them, eggs make a huge difference. I recommend the organic free-range TJ’s brand eggs. The shells are thick and the insides are thick and viscous in the way that indicates high quality. I especially like poaching eggs: Boil 2 quarts of water, take the pan off the heat, add a splash of vinegar, swirl the water, drop the egg in from the cup you cracked it into (or two at once), and put the lid on it and wait for 6 minutes before lifting it out with the slotted spoon you used to swirl the water. It’s also worth getting to be extremely good at making scrambled eggs.

Cooking oils

Cooking oils are a pain on AIP. You’re not supposed to use oils derived from seeds, like canola or safflower or sunflower. And you’re not supposed to heat olive oil because something something mumble carcinogens or something (cold olive oil is fine). Initially I just used coconut oil for everything – TJ’s carries it in a jar. It tastes a little funny with some things and it’s annoying that it’s hard below 75F, but it works. Then I finally rendered my own lard (bacon fat) and WOW. Bacon fat is amazing. Once you’ve had scrambled eggs cooked with rendered bacon fat, or steamed spinach with a little bacon fat, or chicken sausage fried in bacon fat – you’ll never go back.

I like to render my own fat using Bacon Bits and Pieces from TJ’s – chop them into 1/4 inch-size pieces and put them in a stock pot on low heat with a 1/4 cup of water for about an hour, pouring out the fat through a strainer into a funnel into a jar as it renders. You also get a bunch of incredibly delicious home-made bacon bits which I usually eat within 24 hours. One of my friends likes cooking bacon in the oven a couple of pounds at a time, and pouring the fat off that. But you can also buy lard in grocery stores that carry a lot of traditional Mexican foods, or order it online from Amazon (you should buy pasture-raised but conventional is okay). Leaf lard is the most prized lard – it has the least flavor and is used by dedicated bakers who say it makes the best pie crust.

Vegetables & fruits

Many vegetables and fruits are AIP-compatible, but I’ll list the ones that I didn’t eat as much of until I went AIP. If this list sounds boring and gross, remember this important fact: when you stop eating processed sugar, your palate gets more sensitive to sugar. A piece of steamed broccoli or a roasted brussel sprout will taste deliciously sweet and flavorful. A raisin will seem overwhelming.

The most important fruit while you are transitioning to the AIP diet is Medjool dates: they will satisfy your sugar cravings, fill you up on calories, and they go great with bacon, prosciutto, and coconut. Maybe I was over-cautious, but about a month into the diet, I started losing weight more quickly than the recommended 1 pound a week. The only way I could slow it down was to sit and eat dates and bacon and coconut every night for half an hour. (Remember what I said about all that chewing?) Dates also keep well and I spent about 6 months with a bag of dates in my purse at all times. Now dates seem too sweet to me and I only eat them occasionally.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Medjool dates contain mostly invert sugar, which has a lower glycemic index than regular sugar, but some other dates have higher percentages of sucrose, such as thoory and deglet noor dates. Sucrose turned out to be one of the things that doesn’t make me feel great in large quantities, so I cut down on the fruits with high levels of sucrose. I stick with Medjool dates, even though they tend to be more expensive and squishier than the rest of the dates. Also they are the only date my TJ’s carries.

Other good fruits for keeping up the calories: bananas, fresh figs, peaches, nectarines, plums, grapes, and mangos (though most of these are high in sucrose, so pay attention to how you feel when you eat lots of them and try to always eat protein and fat with them). Fresh mangos in the U.S. mainland are usually super gross; try the frozen pre-cut mangos in the TJ’s freezer (now in organic, too). TJ’s also sells frozen figs sometimes – delicious! Unfortunately, figs give me headaches, fresh or frozen.

Other frozen favorites: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, nectarines. Early on, smoothies made with frozen bananas and other fruit using an immersion blender were crucial to consuming enough calories to avoid dangerous weight loss (you’ll get REALLY tired of chewing). I would buy fresh bananas and freeze them in plastic containers when they got ripe. As your need for calories lessens, apples, pears, and persimmons get more attractive. Applesauce is important: apples have a low glycemic index and it is a treat to eat something that you don’t have to chew. I like the Gravenstein applesauce at TJ’s but the regular is fine too.

Avocados are crucial: one of the few sources of fat in an AIP diet. I generally have at least 5 avocados in varying states of ripeness in the house. If you buy them 4 in a bag, you can put two in the fridge for a few days so they don’t all ripen at once. Once they ripen, put them in the fridge until you are ready to eat them. I like to halve them, slice them in the skin (be careful with the knife), scoop them out with a spoon on to a plate, and drizzle white balsamic vinegar on them and sprinkle some salt. Super amazingly good! They also make a good breakfast: my canonical breakfast is bacon, half an avocado, two pre-cooked beets, and a cup of hot bone broth.

Pre-cooked frozen asparagus was a major staple for me for a while. You always have a ready-to-eat vegetable in the fridge, and you can defrost them and wrap them in prosciutto. They also go great in a mixed seafood stew or as an addition to scrambled eggs. Pre-cooked beets are also good – slice them and drizzle with vinegar or lemon juice. Speaking of lemons, I eat far more lemons now than I used to, go ahead and buy the bag of lemons and keep them in the fridge.

Brussel sprouts are amazing – if you cook them correctly. The difference between a delicious brussel sprout and a disgusting mess is about one minute of cooking. To get yourself off to a good start, make brussel sprout chips and sprinkle them with lemon juice. If you’re a good paleo person, you’ll substitute bacon fat (lard) for the olive oil, but start with the olive oil version first just to see how good they can really be. I also like steaming brussel sprouts, but the key is to remove the outer leaves and trim off the ends before cooking – the outer leaves have the most of the bitter gross part of brussel sprout flavor. Also slice larger brussel sprouts in half so they cook all the way through without turning the smaller sprouts to mush.

Microwave-in-bag vegetables sound like they will be terrible, but microwaving actually works well for many vegetables. Haricot verts are my favorite microwave-in-bag veggie at TJ’s, but they also sometimes have broccoli florets and pre-seasoned asparagus. You can microwave brussel sprouts in the bag, but if you don’t take them out and trim off the ends and outer leaves, they will taste disgusting. You can put them back in the bag and microwave them after, but if you’re going to all that effort, it’s not hard to boil a little water in your steamer while you’re preparing them.

I don’t think you can do paleo without massive amounts of sweet potato. Sweet potatoes are not a member of the nightshade family, so you can eat them right from the start, and they are a good source of sweetness and carbs while you’re getting used to a lower carb diet. Don’t buy canned sweet potatoes; they are gross and usually sweetened. You can roast sweet potatoes whole and keep them in the fridge for a quick snack. I’m particularly enamored of the new purple Murakami sweet potatoes. Regular orange sweet potatoes tend towards stringy wetness; Murakami are dry and mealy – a little too dry IMO but a wonderful change from the norm. Did you know that if you peel and dice purple sweet potatoes, toss them in melted bacon fat, add a little thyme and salt, and roast them for 30 minutes at 400F, they taste remarkably like cupcakes? It’s one of the few paleo foods I have a hard time stopping eating. (I tried cinnamon but it tasted nothing like a cupcake; it’s some weird effect of the thyme.)

One thing you will seriously miss on this diet is anything – anything at all – that is crunchy. (Treasure those homemade bacon bits.) The only AIP cracker I can find is yucca crackers, which you can’t buy at TJ’s. I get mine at Mission Heirloom over in Berkeley, which has a gorgeous outdoor patio. You can get Mission Heirloom food delivered, but I can only imagine it’s hideously expensive. I’m currently searching for a source of AIP-compatible taro chips, but it’s hard to find anything fried that doesn’t use a seed-based oil.

Coconut products

Coconut products are an important part of the AIP diet, especially in providing that hard-to-get fat. A lot of salad dressings, sauces, smoothies, and desserts use specialty coconut products. You’ll find it a lot easier to stay on AIP if you get all the obscure coconut products and have them in your pantry.

Trader Joe’s only carries three AIP-safe coconut products: Coconut oil, coconut flour, and coconut sugar. The rest of their coconut products contain either sugar or thickening agents. Once you’ve figured out which thickening agents (xanthan gum, guar gum, etc.) are safe for you, you can start eating more of TJ’s coconut products, but don’t start until you’ve done the full AIP protocol and are ready to test for allergies to thickeners. (Turns out one of my most debilitating reactions was to a thickening agent in TJ’s coconut ice cream, which I’d been eating weekly when I was having really bad stomach pain. Oops.)

For the rest of the coconut staples – shredded coconut, dried coconut, coconut concentrate, coconut aminos – I order online. Amazon has everything, but I found that dried coconut was significantly cheaper when I purchased it directly from the original retailer. You’ll need to make your own coconut milk AFAICT – I never did find a source that didn’t include thickening agents. But all you’ll need is shredded coconut and cheese cloth to make your own.

Fermented foods

The very best fermented food at TJ’s is the fresh raw sauerkraut they sell in the deli case. This stuff is amazing. I made homemade sauerkraut and while it was vastly better than every other sauerkraut I’ve ever bought in a store, it didn’t measure up to the TJ’s at all.

I tried very hard to drink kombucha and water kefir (not available at TJ’s, I bought starter online from Amazon and used coconut sugar), but it turned out I’m so sensitive to alcohol that even the low amount in these foods was too much for me, so I don’t have a ton of advice here.

My system for making water kefir (which was super yummy) was this: buy two 0.75 liter bottles with integrated stoppers, two 0.75 wide mouth jars, cheesecloth, and water kefir starter, all from Amazon. Using coconut sugar from TJ’s, follow the instructions to start the fermentation in the two wide mouth jars and put them on top of the fridge. Every day, take the jar that has been sitting longer and pour it into a strainer sitting in a funnel in a bottle. While doing this, boil a little water in your electric tea kettle and stir it into two tablespoons of coconut sugar in a tall cup. When dissolved, add enough cold water to the cup to keep the hot water from killing the starter, and pour it and the kefir grains that ended up in the strainer back into the jar. Fill up the rest of the way with cold water and recover with cheesecloth and put it back on top of the fridge. If you like, go to Rainbow Grocery and get pure fruit juice concentrate and put a tablespoon in the bottle before you strain the kefir in it. Take the bottle you just filled, close the stopper, and leave it on the counter for one day to carbonate before putting it in the fridge. This way I always had a bottle of delicious sort-of soda every day.

You can make your own kombucha too but I never tried. It’s pretty damned expensive in the store and relatively easy to make once you get your system down, so I recommend making your own if you like kombucha.

Since I can’t eat dairy or even trace amounts of alcohol, I ended up trying a bunch of more or less expensive probiotics. I eventually discovered that VSL#3 works well for me, which is unfortunate because it is wildly expensive and needs to be refrigerated. I suggest trying everything else first, including eating naturally fermented foods.

Miscellaneous other useful foods and tips

Date sugar is a great low glycemic index sugar that I’ve only bought at Rainbow Grocery. I suspect you can get it at Whole Foods too, and it is also available on Amazon. I make a mean peppermint hot chocolate using date sugar, cocoa powder, coconut concentrate, and peppermint oil. Alcohol-free vanilla is useful too; I don’t recall where I found mine but it wasn’t TJ’s. Try Rainbow Grocery or Amazon. Generally any strange flour – lots of AIP recipes call for tapioca starch or arrowroot flour or something equally obscure – can be found at Rainbow, Whole Foods, or Amazon.

I bought a lot of resealable plastic containers and baggies, and always keep at least two or three kinds each of cooked vegetables, cooked meat, and fruit ready to eat and in plastic containers in my fridge. For the first few months, I would be suddenly hungry at unpredictable intervals, and the best way to not fall off the AIP diet for me was to always have ready-to-eat food in my fridge. When I head out for a few hours, I throw a couple of the containers and some apples in my purse and I have lunch. When I travel, I take an entire bag full of plastic containers and baggies with me (customs is a pain).

Many people recommend batch-cooking on the weekends to make enough food for the rest of the week. For me, what worked best was cooking for 15 minutes here and there throughout my week. For example, while I’m making breakfast, I’ll also take 10 minutes to steam some broccoli. Or I’ll get home, turn on the oven, and roast some sweet potatoes while I’m reading Twitter. Or I’ll make 6 servings of carrot salad while I’m making lunch, and put the other 5 (okay, 4) servings back in the fridge. I eat mostly plain whole foods that have been lightly cooked, so this works well for me. I found that putting an hour and a half into a stew with a lot of different ingredients that requires lots of prep work didn’t pay off for me in the pleasure of eating. Eating cold steamed green beans out of a plastic container makes me surprisingly happy! But if that isn’t enough for you, by all means, batch cook on the weekends.

When testing food additives, it’s worth buying them separately in the store and trying them alone, especially the thickeners which rarely are used alone. I found guar gum and xanthan gum in pure powdered form at Rainbow Grocery. Start looking at various non-dairy milk-like products to find ones with only one or two thickeners for easier testing.

I eat lots and lots of fat at every meal, and I could not have stuck with this diet if I hadn’t. This diet is pretty scarce in carbohydrates, and bodies can only convert so much protein into usable energy per day. I had to replace the rest of those missing carbohydrate calories with something else, and the only source left after protein is: FAT. Don’t worry, fat doesn’t actually make you fat, high glycemic index carbs make you fat – the low-fat diet relentlessly promoted by the U.S. government had no empirical basis and was probably highly influenced by the U.S. farm lobby. Take a look at these guys if you are worried about your health on a high-fat diet.

AIP only deals with a subset of food sensitivities. Sarah Ballantyne’s monster book reviews most other food sensitivities. For people with FODMAP sensitivities, you’ll need to modify the AIP diet heavily (only half an avocado per day? no brussel sprouts???). Another class of food sensitivities manifests as headaches when you eat particular foods (for me, some cured meats, figs, blackberries, most wine).


I had to buy a fair bit of new kitchen equipment before I could cook AIP food. Here’s what I had to stock up in addition to a fairly minimal set of kitchen tools for someone who lives in a city and doesn’t cook that often:

  • For roasting: Cooking twine
  • For rendering lard: Fine strainer, funnel, jam jars
  • For bone broth: Large strainer, many glass jars (pickle, spaghetti sauce, applesauce, etc.), pressure cooker (optional)
  • For smoothies: Immersion blender
  • For fermenting: Bottles with stoppers, cheesecloth, large open-mouth jars
  • For many things: Large but relatively short stock pot (so you can also stir-fry in it easily), lots more plastic containers

Good luck!

That’s most of what I learned from one and a half years of cooking mostly AIP while living in a studio in San Francisco! Feel free to add your tips and tricks in the comments below. Best wishes for your new cooking adventures!

How to have more fun while online dating

Updated Dec. 4, 2015: I did a podcast with dating expert Virginia Roberts about this post. Also, I’m now happily in a relationship with someone I met on Bumble. Enjoy!

Online dating is hard and scary, am I right? Most of the advice for online dating focuses on how to find and get a partner, which seems like the right focus – get it over and done with ASAP, right? But as I followed that advice and started working on my profile and contacting people, I realized that for me, the bigger problem was preventing myself from getting so discouraged that I gave up dating entirely. Looking at the bitter, angry comments on many other profiles, it looks like I’m not alone in feeling that way. Most people will have to go on a lot of not-right dates to find someone who is a good match for them, and if you’re a straight woman, you’re even more likely to get a lot of insults and threats along the way as well.

So I decided to spend some time trying to make the process of dating itself more fun. Here’s what I learned.

TL;DR for the impatient: Pay for professional photos, put a lot of effort into your profile, pay for extra features, only go on dates you will enjoy even if it turns out you’re not attracted to the other person, be picky, reject people quickly, never give reasons for rejections, don’t think about people who reject you, reframe bad experiences as great stories to tell your friends, pay attention to red flags, use helpful tools, try the new dating app Bumble if you are a straight feminist man or woman.

The full-length version is pretty long, so I split the tips into the following categories:

Disclaimers: This isn’t a “10 tips for getting a great partner, like I did!” kind of post – the only claim to success I’ll make is that I’m having a good time dating right now. I didn’t do any research on what dating is like for people who aren’t similar to me, so you should know up front that I’m a 37-year-old straight white feminist cis woman who doesn’t have or want kids and is looking for a long-term monogamous relationship in the San Francisco Bay Area. The platforms I used were OkCupid and Bumble, so you will have to translate to your favorite online dating platform. I’m not including any safety-related tips because more than enough of that kind of advice already exists for straight women.

With those caveats in place, I hope this post helps a few more people enjoy themselves while online dating a little more!

Preparing to date online


Don’t date until you are ready to date

Plenty of people join an online dating service for some reason other than wanting to find partner(s): fear of being alone, wanting to conform to expectations, plain old boredom, whatever. I get it – I once started online dating because I had a serious crush on an unavailable coworker. I should have joined a sports club or adopted a dog or poked myself in the eye with a stick repeatedly instead.

Here’s the thing: if you aren’t actually ready and willing to date, you are not going to have fun with online dating. Online dating is hard work, emotionally, and takes a lot of time. If you’re not really into it, you’ll resent the time and emotional energy you put into it, and that will put you in a bad mood. (You’ll also waste the time and effort of the people who respond to you, but I encourage you to think about being kind to yourself first.)

How do you tell if you are ready to date? Often the same way you know you are ready for other big life changes: you spend a lot of time both thinking about and taking actions that prepare you for it. For me, I knew I was ready when for several months I consistently spent several hours a week reading about or researching dating and relationships, and consciously reduced my commitments so that I would have time to put into a relationship. Another way to figure this out is to go to a therapist. (My advice on finding a therapist: search on Psychology Today’s therapist directory, make appointments with three therapists who mention CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), and go with the one that seems pleasant but professionally distant.)

Work consciously and intentionally on your profile

Most online dating starts out with looking at each other’s profiles. This should be a self-evident truth: When you put effort into having an attractive, well-designed profile that accurately reflects who you are, you get more contacts from people that you are attracted to – and this increases your enjoyment of online dating as well as your chances of finding your partner(s). But even if this is as obvious as it seems to me, many people feel self-conscious or deceptive about putting effort into creating a good profile (and heaven forbid that you spend ACTUAL MONEY to do so).

For straight women, this ties into the common trope that women should be effortlessly! feminine! and attractive! We woke up looking this way! And definitely never intentional or calculating about anything to do with your love life. For straight men, I think it’s more related to the constant pressure from other men to not try too hard to be attractive to women in ways that require significant work, thereby lowering the standards for all straight men (think of this as “dating on the curve” for straight men). You can thank toxic masculinity for that one!

I’m here to give you permission to create the best profile you can, and damn the self-consciousness! If not for yourself, then do it out of compassion for all the poor people who will otherwise have to read your lackluster, lackadaisical, borderline-offensive profile.

Some useful tips for improving your profile from other folks:

I have a story about the last point, which describes how if you live in an extremely left-leaning area and are left-leaning yourself, you want to lower the importance of OkCupid match questions that have to do with abortion, gay rights, gun control, flag-burning, etc. When I did my first search on OkCupid after answering questions the obvious way, one of my top 5 matches was a guy I already knew. He was a 93% match – and he was a total jerk in a way I used to find attractive but had spent several thousand dollars on therapy to stop finding attractive. I was devastated: Had my match questions somehow revealed my true soul? Was I doomed to date jerks forever? Or maybe he had changed as much as I had? (I looked for recent social media posts and the answer was: no, he was still a jerk.) After using the advice in these articles to change the importance of the questions related to those areas, our match percentage dropped dramatically and he sank into the noise. PHEW!!

Eventually I realized that, in a place like the Bay Area, it is socially shameful to be anti-abortion or anti-gay rights, so a man who lacks compassion or kindness and would anywhere else be anti-abortion or anti-gay rights would be in favor of those things in this culture. You have to use smaller, less socially fraught signals to figure out what people’s personalities are like in places like the Bay Area.

Pay for professional photos

I cannot overemphasize the importance of getting professional high-quality photos. Most people need professional photos to look as good in their photos as they do in person. If you are one of those people, you are presenting an unfair and inaccurate version of yourself with non-professional photos. So stop misleading your potential dates and go get professional photos that accurately represent your looks, your style, and your personality!

For me, the difference between a dating with amateur photos and dating with photos taken by a professional portrait photographer was like day and night. Before, I was going on dates mostly with people I was not attracted to. After professional photos, I suddenly started going on lots of dates with people I was very attracted to – and who were attracted to me! I know my better photos weren’t misleading because my dates also gave me a lot of compliments about how much I looked like my photos, and I started getting asked on second dates.

If you are thinking, “But I want someone who is attracted to me for my personality and mind,” I hear you. If it helps, you can view the photos as an unfair, unnecessary filter which you want to get as many prospects through as possible so that they can find out more about your personality and mind. For me, I realized how important photos were (for straight men at least) when I found a straight guy’s profile whose text consisted only of, “Does anyone even read this? I know you are just looking at my photos.” So, for straight men, let me add: yes, I am reading your profile, and it is important too.

How to find a photographer: I searched Yelp. Almost all reviews on Yelp for photographers are about wedding photos (same problem for flowers and cakes) so I looked at the photographer’s web sites to see if they did online dating portraits. In San Francisco, the going rate was about $400 for an online dating profile package with a 90 minute session. This seems expensive, but think about how much money you’ll spend on bad dates instead – and you can often use some of the photos for business, too. (The number of straight men on OkCupid who use their business headshot as their main profile photo still astonishes me.) Obviously, if you have professional photographers in your personal network, asking them for recommendations is a good way to go.

The Heartographer has some great tips on preparing for photos and finding a professional photographer. She also has an idea for getting good pics for cheap that would work with or without a professional photographer: get a bunch of folks who need dating profile pics to go to a nice restaurant with good light, and take photos of each other laughing and talking to each other.

Don’t hide your “worst” features in photos

Both OkCupid’s dating blog and Captain Awkward agree: whatever it is about you that makes you stand out physically, it should be evident in your photos, whether you view it as a positive or a negative. OkCupid says that the straight women who get the most messages are ones whose photos are polarizing – a significant number of straight men think the photos are very unattractive, and an equally sizable number think they are very attractive, with very little “meh” in between. I know I’ve had this thought before I contacted someone: “Hey, they are super good looking to me but I bet lots of other people think they are weird-looking and won’t contact them – maybe I have a chance!” Captain Awkward gives the same advice for a different reason: it’s demoralizing and no fun to present an edited version of yourself on the Internet and get rejected in person. And you are missing out on all the people who are attracted to the thing you think of as your least attractive feature. (People are different, okay?)

Have fun with your profile

At the same time that you are doing the research on how to write a good profile and getting professional photos, your profile should also be fun for you to write and read. I see a lot of deadly serious profiles out there, which is fine if you yourself are deadly serious all of the time. But most of us are at least a little playful, and are just writing Serious Profiles because finding a partner is Serious Business. The idea is that the more important something is to us, the more serious our writing about it should be.

I disagree. First, your profile is supposed to give people a representative idea of what you are like as a person. If you are funny and quirky and make jokes, you should do that in your profile too. But more importantly for the purposes of this blog post, filling your profile with in-jokes and Easter eggs will help you have more fun while dating. When someone finally got my obscure reference to Jem and the Holograms, we had a great time talking about the Rio/Jem/Jerrica love triangle, and I was also pretty sure that person would be more positive about women. And when you reread your profile (which you will be doing a LOT), you will smile every time you come across one of your jokes.

Avoid obvious harassment triggers in your profile

Any woman has put the word “feminist” in the first sentence of an online dating profile knows what I’m talking about here: you want to get across the important parts of who you are, but you also don’t want to field a bunch of nasty messages from resentful entitled dudes who have nothing better to do than neg women on online dating sites. How do you filter out the guys who won’t like the real you without also getting a bunch of garbage messages?

I recommend having a profile that at first glance and on the surface level is very upbeat! and! shiny! But it is filled with subtle references and hints that stand out to the kind of person you are actually looking for (which ties in with the “have fun with your profile” advice above). My favorite example is from one of the iterations of my OkCupid profile: I quote the tag line from Jem and the Holograms, and down near the end of my profile, at the end of a long list, I mention that I’m looking for smart, artistic, feminist men. If some bored troll is skimming it, he won’t get the Jem reference and he’ll skip right over the long boring list in the middle of my profile. But the people I do want to meet take the time to read my whole profile and get my references, and then I know that they put some effort into learning about me when they mention them.

The same thing goes for profile photos and hot button questions: if some part of your profile triggers harassment, don’t hide who you are but find a way to say it in a more subtle way, one that will take too much knowledge and brainpower for the average harasser to notice.

Focus on two services

A lot of dating advice says to use two online dating services. This was true for me: More than two is overwhelming, but only one is too limiting. Pick the two that seem to be best marketed at the kind of person you want to date, and focus on them.

Use Bumble not Tinder

Bumble is a new dating app fairly described as “the feminist Tinder.” Bumble was started by Whitney Wolfe, the Tinder co-founder who was run out of the company by sexism and settled for an undisclosed amount. It is very Tinder-like – location-based, photo-based, swipe left/swipe right. The cool thing about Bumble is that in male-female matches, only women can initiate conversations (and they have to do so within 24 hours of a match). With other gender combinations, either person can initiate. The great thing about this for women is that you are much less likely to get harassed by a match, so you have a better experience overall.

I was aiming for a long-term relationship, but I also kept hearing stories about people who met on Tinder and then ended up dating long-term. I was also getting a little annoyed with how incredibly serious many of the people on OkCupid were. At the same time, I heard lots of awful stories about harassment of women on Tinder and of course I didn’t want to support a product run by sexist jerks. So Bumble seemed ideal, especially when a friend reported that the men on Bumble were way hotter than Tinder.

My experience: Bumble is GREAT! Highly recommended! So far the straight men I’ve asked about it seem to enjoy the experience of being contacted by women, so the rules seem to work well for straight men and straight women.

Screening dates


Use power tools

Dating sites are more enjoyable if you sign up for some of the extra features – which often cost a little (but not too much) money. For women, I especially recommend anything that lets you filter your incoming messages. I check my filtered messages on OkCupid once a week – all the messages from people who are outside my age range or immediate location, almost all poorly written or clear copy-and-paste – and then I think about how happy I am that they weren’t mixed in with the mostly great messages I got the rest of the week. The ratio of filtered to good messages is about 10 to 1, and I think I would be far more demoralized if more than 90% of my “You have a new message!” notifications were junk.

Some power tools are free: The OkCupid for the Non-Mainstream Chrome extension lets you surface useful information from a person’s questions right up front.

Figure out your “league” and mostly contact people in it

You don’t want to waste your time only messaging people who won’t go on dates with you, but you also don’t want to miss out on a potential mutual attraction to someone you think is too attractive to be interested in you! For me, it took a while to figure out what my new “league” was – that is, the general ballpark of overall attractiveness in a potential date that would likely result in mutual attraction. I hadn’t dated for 5 years and I’d changed a lot since the last time I dated – A LOT. It didn’t help that I had a terrible profile initially; at one point I pretty unhappy with my apparent pool of prospects.

But once I’d fixed the major problems with my profile, I was pleasantly surprised at how many people I thought were too attractive to be interested in me actually returned my messages and went on dates with me. The lesson here is: keep improving how well your profile represents you, and keep messaging a range of people, including the people you think are out of your reach, until you get a good sense of what sorts of folks to concentrate your effort on. Then keep messaging a few of the ones who seem out of reach anyway.

An important consideration here: Researchers recently showed that couples who knew each other only a short time before beginning to date are more likely to be similarly physically attractive (as rated by third parties) and couples who knew each other longer were more likely to be different in physical attractiveness, presumably because you got to have more information about their other qualities. So your “league” will vary depending on your physical attractiveness, your other kinds of attractiveness, and how much you know about each other beyond your photos. On one of those pictures-mostly apps, being similar levels of physical attractiveness will matter more. On services with more context, or when you have been friends for a while, bigger differences in physical attractiveness within couples are more common.

But what I really want to say is: if you are a woman raised in our culture of brutal, constant attacks on women’s appearance and worth, don’t immediately rule someone out because you assume they are too attractive to be interested in you.

Switch up your search parameters

After a couple of months, I had contacted most of the people who came up in my very specific and detailed search on OkCupid. Faced with the option of waiting for new people to sign up or changing my search, I changed my search. It was interesting to find out how many people had never, for example, filled out the “Relationship type” field but were monogamous. (When I asked, they said they didn’t realize there were so many polyamorous straight men on OkCupid that monogamous straight women would desperately want to filter them out.) I also tried searching for people solely on one characteristic I knew I found attractive (which is how I ended up scheduling three dates with 6’4″+ surfers in one week – fun!). Since I paid for extra features, I could use more advanced search parameters, which also led to more fun.

Invent your own CRM

Online dating services have terrible CRM – customer relationship management. That is, it is hard to keep track of people you have already looked at, people you have messaged, people you have rejected, etc. This is on purpose because the goal of an online dating service is to make you spend more time on it, not efficiently search through the likely prospects.

Make up a system that will help you keep track of these things, even if it isn’t how the service wants you to use the features. My system for OkCupid is:

  1. If I think someone is attractive, I “like” them and bookmark them.
  2. When I have more time, I review my list of bookmarks. If I decide I shouldn’t message them after all, I remove the bookmark (but leave the “like”).
  3. When I am feeling up to it, I send messages to people I have bookmarked and then remove the bookmark (but leave the “like”).
  4. I “hide” people who are no-gos.

This way, when I am scrolling through matches, the “like” serves as a marker that I’ve already contacted this person or added them to my to-contact list or decided not to contact them at all.

You can also use the features of the Chrome extension “OkCupid for the Non-Mainstream” to do CRM.

Avoid the haters

After my experience with being a 93% match with someone I already knew and thought was super mean, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to detect mean people through their dating profiles. What I found was surprising.

The obvious ones are people who are critical or judgmental of others in their profile. If someone has a list of things a prospective partner must not be, or complains about other people’s profiles, give them a miss (unless you are into mean people). What was less obvious is that people who were bitingly sarcastic about themselves in their profiles were also mean to other people. It’s a popular idea in psychology that the way that you treat yourself is the way you treat others, and vice versa; as far as I can tell from online dating, that’s true.

Some specific warnings for meanness from profiles of straight men:

  • Hates selfies. Anyone who makes a snide remark about selfies – his or yours – gets put on my ignore list right away because selfie-hating is a sign that he hates things associated with women or women loving themselves (conscious or not). Ironic selfies of himself are not great but okay, as most men have to go through an ironic selfie stage on the way to becoming a selfie-lover.
  • Mocks either you or himself for being on a dating service. Anyone with the joke, “We can tell your family we met at [other place]” on their profile is negging both you and himself – but mostly you.
  • Getting specific about his partner’s personal grooming in his profile. One guy seemed perfect for me – funny, good-looking, social justice activist, great writer – but then the third paragraph was a long diatribe about women’s personal grooming that ended with how much he hates picking hairs out of his teeth, KNOW WHAT I MEAN NUDGE NUDGE. Yuck.
  • “Message me if: You have a job” or similar “you must be this awesome to date me” list. It’s okay to only want to date women with jobs, but this form of it is rude and judgmental. He is taking out his anger about feeling insulted by being approached by someone not worthy of him by being mean or sarcastic to EVERY WOMAN who reads his profile – bad sign.
  • Any kind of rant or rule about responding to everyone who contacts him, or complaining about women who click “like” but don’t reply to a message. This screams entitlement and inability to deal with rejection well.
  • Says a bunch of people gave them advice on how to improve their profile and they didn’t take it – or actively made their profile worse. Or any other form of proudly ignoring kind and helpful advice on how to be more pleasant to potential partners (because he’ll be that way when you give him tips on what you like).
  • Carelessness in their profile. It’s okay to have misspellings or grammatical errors or use odd slang or whatever else represents who that person really is. But it’s not okay if it comes across as “I couldn’t be bothered to present my best self to my potential future partners.” Either they have self-esteem problems or they are genuinely contemptuous of people they want to date or they are so incompetent they can’t put together a profile that doesn’t seem that way.
  • Uses the word “sapiosexual.” This is a person who thinks being “intelligent” (according to very narrow standards having to do with mathematics, science, knowledge of Western literature, etc.) is sooooo damned important and special that it is of equal importance with gender in choosing a sexual partner. This person is almost always heterosexual and always totally full of themselves.
  • No women creators listed in the music/books/movies section (or only white people). They may not be a hater, but at minimum, you will have a loooooot of educating to do on the basics of things like Women are People Too and Europeans Do Not Have a Monopoly on High Culture.
  • Any positive mention of any of Ayn Rand’s books, NO EXCEPTIONS. Even if they just mention that they liked “The Fountainhead” but didn’t identify as an actual libertarian or objectivist by the name itself. I have tested this for you and gone on dates with more than one person like this and no matter how they try to couch it, these people are fundamentally attracted to the idea of a world in which only the strong survive and the weak are left to shrivel and die – and they believe they are the strong people due to their inherent good qualities. (Of course, it is racism and patriarchy that define the “strong” and the “weak” – but shhhh, don’t tell them.) Other red flags in literature: Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club”), Albert Camus (“The Stranger”), and maybe Orson Scott Card (“Ender’s Game”) and Heinlein – depends on how long ago they read them.
  • Insulting women in any way. This often takes the form of slut-shaming or shaming femininity – wearing makeup, having emotions, mocking things teen girls like, etc. – so it takes a while to learn to detect all the forms.

Satisfy your curiosity

If you’re the sort of person who is curious about lots of things, go ahead and learn more about some topic related to the other person without feeling bad if you don’t end up dating them. As a result of online dating, I have read a book of Turkish folktales, a dissertation on chord progressions, the results of googling for “danish men“, the history of Twitter’s founding, and much more. It was fun and I have no regrets!

Tell stories to sympathetic friends

Even with the best preparation, a lot of bullshit is going to happen to you with online dating. I once messaged someone who recognized me because… his ex-girlfriend had led an online harassment campaign against me. While they were dating. No shit. It was incredibly demoralizing – but then I realized I now had the BEST ONLINE DATING STORY and ended up laughing for five minutes straight instead. The prospect of telling a story really helped when I ended up messaging two guys without realizing they were identical triplets (fortunately the third was already engaged so I was spared that embarrassment).

Make sure your chosen friends are interested in hearing your stories, and try to lighten them up – but don’t try to cope with all the weirdness and awfulness alone. I found that often my friends who were in the longest and most stable partnerships were the most interested in hearing my stories, so don’t make assumptions about who would be interested!

Some of my all-time favorite tweets about my experiences with online dating:

Going on dates


Only go on dates that will be fun even if there isn’t mutual attraction

I made it a rule to only go on dates that I would enjoy even if there was no connection with the other person. I had tea at the only coffee shop in San Francisco with a Bay view, I ate dinner at The Grove, I took walks in Aquatic Park, I finally went to the Cable Car Museum, I took a ferry to Sausalito, and I climbed the Coit Tower stairs. Next on the list: visiting the new cat cafe in SF. Sometimes the fun was just in looking at a very attractive person while he said (possibly hilarious) words.

Very few of those dates led to second dates, but I enjoyed myself on all of them, so I’m happy! Do you have a list of tourist-y things you always meant to do, but never got around to? Or things that are only fun with two people but none of your friends are interested in doing? Make a list and start checking it off. (Keep in mind all the other advice about picking first date activities: in a public place, easy to leave, not a big commitment of time or money, easy to talk to each other, etc.)

Try video calls

It sucks to show up to a date and know within seconds that this person is not attractive to you. I found that video calls were a good way to screen potential dates for two things: whether you would be attracted in person, and how they act when they are outside their comfort zone. Lots of people won’t do a video chat (and you could be one of them), but if it works for both of you, it can be really fun and help you avoid trekking across town only to have your hopes instantly dashed.

If it’s right for you, go ahead and have casual sex

Hey, lots of us enjoy sex. And if you wait to have sex until you’re sure someone is a good long-term candidate… you’re not likely to have much sex. If lack of sex is getting you down, I encourage you to feel comfortable with (safely! thoughtfully!) having casual sex with people who are a good match for you in terms of physical attraction but maybe not so good as long-term relationship prospects (different opinions on kids, where to live, how to spend money, etc.). Many times, you’ll be happier, in a better mood, and more attractive when you do meet the person who is a good long-term match.

After dates


Know what you want and don’t waste time on people who aren’t it

Probably the most influential book I read while procrastinating on actually, you know, dating, was the embarrassingly named “Is He Mr. Right?” by Mira Kirshenbaum. In this unabashedly heterocentric book aimed at monogamous straight women, Mira lays out 5 criteria for a relationship that will last, calling these qualities by the term “chemistry.” Then she gives this advice: as soon as you figure out that your relationship doesn’t have all 5 qualities, dump them immediately and start dating again. Here is her list:

  1. You feel comfortable with each other and it’s easy to get close.
  2. You feel safe being in a relationship with them.
  3. You feel it’s fun to be together.
  4. You have real affection and passion for each other.
  5. You feel there’s real mutual respect.

Mira has a lot of great advice on how to figure out whether your relationship has these 5 things, but I went a little further and actually created a spreadsheet to help me figure out what I wanted in a partner. It has more than 9 tabs, functions that exceed 200 characters in length, and it took me several months to create. I read two books, watched a TED talk, and started a quantified relationships club to get more feedback on it. I’m still updating my spreadsheet, usually after I meet someone who is closer to what I want than ever before, but still not quite there.

If you’re feeling weird about being intentional and specific about your search for a partner, my friend Leigh Honeywell pointed me at this classic comment from Harriet Lerner, quoted in “All About Love” by bell hooks:

Few of us evaluate a prospective partner with the same objectivity and clarity that we might use to select a household appliance or car.

Who you end up in a committed relationship with is a hugely important part of your life. Treat the process of finding that person with the appropriate level of care and respect.

Get good at dumping people

More advice from Mira Kirshenbaum: the difference between women who find good partners and ones who don’t is often the length of time that they stay involved with a partner after they’ve already figured out they aren’t a good match. Her example math: if on average it takes getting to know 10 men fairly well in order to find the one that’s right for you, and you average three years with each relationship, it will take you on average 30 years to meet the right guy. If instead you average three months with each one (just long enough to find out what you are really like after the initial bloom has worn off), it will take you two and half years to meet the right guy.

So that’s why you should dump people quickly when it’s clear they aren’t right. But how do you do it well? Captain Awkward has some great advice: Don’t give any reasons beyond “it’s not working for me,” and feel free to break up by any communication medium necessary (phone, text message, email, whatever – you don’t have to be afraid they will physically assault you to use this perfectly reasonable method). Usually, waiting to break up – say when you see someone in person, but only if they aren’t having a bad day, and only if you aren’t feeling guilty about them taking the time to meet you, and they didn’t bring flowers or buy you dinner, or fill-in-the-blank – is just a complicated avoidance tactic on your part. It has nothing to do with whether it is the “right way” to break up with the person, it’s all about you wanting to avoid having to break up at all. Ignore all of the self-righteous advice-givers on the Internet with “rules” about whether or not you “can” break up over the phone.

On “ghosting”: WTF, I hate that this has become some kind of meme of a bad thing for people to do in the context of dating. “Ghosting” is when someone ends a relationship by simply not responding to any further communication. It is a perfectly reasonable way to end many kinds of relationships, especially ones that up to that point involved, say, a single date or an exchange of emails. It is an especially good way to end abusive relationships – see Gavin de Becker’s advice in “The Gift of Fear” on cutting off ALL contact with stalkers. It is true, it can be a painful and horrible end to a long-term and apparently committed relationship, but that’s almost never the context in which the term “ghosting” is used.

I actively recommend using ghosting if you have had a very small number of interactions with someone – e.g., their second message contains a rape joke, or something like that. If you have met in person and you don’t have any reason to be fearful or disgusted by them, I do recommend officially ending the relationship via some kind of direct communication for this reason: if you constantly feel guilty about all the people you just stopped messaging, it will make you not enjoy dating. Telling someone explicitly that you’re not interested in pursuing a relationship is hard, but you usually feel better as soon as you do it and it doesn’t stick around and poison your online dating energy. It also gives you practice in the all-important skill of breaking up with someone when you’ve been together a little longer and you have figured out you don’t have quite the right chemistry but some things are good and maybe if you just tried a little harder… If you’re comfortable with breaking up because you’ve had a lot of practice, you won’t try to avoid it as much and you can get on with finding that right person for you before your 30 years are up.

Reminder: if someone seems scary or gross or gives you some kind of the willies, definitely DO “ghost” them – further contact is always a bad idea (see Gavin de Becker and The Gift of Fear again).

Reframe or forget rejections ASAP

Being rejected is HARD. The human psyche is not designed to cope with being romantically rejected 3 times a week. Look at all the angry/sad/petulant online dating profiles this kind of systematic rejection produces! It’s hard not to become bitter even when you aren’t getting turned down several times a week.

I used two techniques to cope with rejection: reframing and forgetting. I tried to reframe rejections from “Nobody likes me!!!” to “Now I’ve learned more about what kind of person is attracted to me!” And I made a rule that once I had messaged a particular person for the first time, I could not think about them or visit their profile again unless they messaged me back. I was less successful at letting go of people who rejected me in less obvious ways (by cancelling in-person meetups, usually), but I’m learning to interpret these “nice” rejections more quickly, so I can start forgetting them sooner.

Whatever you do, don’t start theorizing about why you’ve been rejected, or any other kind of exercise in encouraging bitterness. Bitterness is your enemy in online dating – it makes you less attractive, it shuts down risk-taking, it saps your energy. So don’t feed it by thinking about your rejections beyond the simple and obvious lessons learned (e.g., “guys with fauxhawks NEVER like me in person”).

Okay, that’s all (“all”) the advice I have for enjoying the process of online dating more! I wish you an enjoyable and fun time with online dating, and hope we all have a little more joy in our lives!