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[Life History]

My Life History

Where it All Began

I was born in Sydney in the southern Spring of 1972. My childhood was isolated: living on the corner of two arterial roads prohibited me from hanging out with other kids, and I am an only child. This meant that I spent most of my time doing one-person activities; my favourite was playing with Lego, and later on, computers. I also had a fascination with traffic lights, most likely because of the set at the busy intersection outside my window. This fascination lead to my interest in infrastructure in general, and is related to me being somewhat of a public transport activist today.

I grew up in a pleasant working class suburb called Top Ryde, one of the oldest communities in the country. Around the time I was born, its traditional Anglo descendants had just finished adjusting to the newly immigrated Italians, who had built grand houses, guarded by lion statues, amongst more familiar 18th century cottages. I watched the area continue to transform as I grew up, as new Asian Australians installed shopfronts with curious new scripts, and new cuisines complimented existing milk bars, fish and chips shops and pizzarias. Today, the area's latest immigrants are from India and the Middle East, and everyone seems to get along reasonably well.

School was hell, especially high school. My isolation prevented me from learning much in the way of social skills, and surely nobody can derive socially acceptable behaviours in that cesspool of stereotyping that we call high school! This was especially true for issues relating to sex, sexuality and relationships, topics that I seemed to have more of an interest in than even your average zitty 13-year-old male. My parents applied classic Dutch liberalism when dealing with sex, which didn't mesh well with that conservative old suburb—Sydney may be one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in the world, but this was 20 years ago, and that Italian immigration had brought Catholicism along with it. As for relationships, all I had to go on were the glimpses of television I was allowed, which of course were particularly out of touch with the reality of a suburban Australian school in the 1980s.

The Three Turning Points of Adolescence

Not seeing much television was a function of how ridiculously overprotective my parents were, especially when it came to going out. Even just hanging out with friends after school was taboo until well into my teens, and even then, the only way I could have any real autonomy was to lie to my parents about where I was going. I realised this at about age 15, and it was quite a turning point: it allowed me a chance to learn some of those social skills I was lacking, so something of a social life started to bud. I mixed with fairly ordinary teens, who I'm sure my Dad would have labelled the 'wrong crowd', simply because they weren't being raised like he was in Europe during World War II. But slowly... painfully slowly... I learnt enough norms to reduce the torment from the other kids. But even after the extreme harassment subsided, my high school years continued to be the worst of my life.

Even today, Top Ryde has no rail connection, but my new and tentative-feeling social life made the most of the 24-hour bus service. But I was still 15 when plans to build an underpass where my house was came to fruition, and we were forced to move. I ended up in the far-flung suburb of Baulkham Hills, a much newer area that was built at a time that nobody in Sydney was really thinking about urban planning, if anybody ever did. It therefore didn't have a rail connection either, and the bus service was run by private enterprise, only serving the needs of commuters (and just barely). It was quieter and leafier and our yard was bigger and had a swimming pool, but it put my socialising on hold again. There wasn't even a corner shop within walking distance!

At about the same time, I got my first modem. This provided me with at least a virtual escape from my suburban hell, and was the second big turning point of my adolescence. Through BBSes, I was able to meet people who were nicer and much more interesting than most of what school had to offer. And while it took a few years, my online friends eventually decided to do something completely radical: meet in real life! We geeked out and explored the world together, discovering everything from quirks in computers and telephone exchanges to disused subway tunnels with graffiti dating back to World War II. They were people I could be myself around, particularly on a BBS called Arcadia. Social norms didn't matter all that much; we just made up our own and did whatever we thought was fun.

But the biggest turning point was when I started going to university—that changed everything. I didn't have to deal with those fuckwits at school anymore, and I excelled academically because I could study on my own terms, instead of the impossible-to-satisfy terms my Dad gave me. (Did I mention that, back in third grade, I was second in the whole grade? My Dad said that was nice, but that I should be first in 4th grade. I wasn't.) I gained access to the Internet in 1990 and met many more people through IRC, including a woman I dated for three years.

University Years

Uni students dealt with sexuality more maturely as well; it was quite in-your-face at every Australian university I saw. But it wasn't the notice boards with graphic images of bum-fucking men that caused me to seek gay and lesbian organisations—I wasn't really interested in that particular sex act. I had, however, occasionally gotten it on with other guys, and I enjoyed it enough to start questioning my sexuality. To cut a long coming-out story short, I eventually found my way to the Sydney Bisexual Network, and in due course became one of the main organisers of the group. I eventually got involved again with university gay and lesbian groups, which were starting to rename themselves to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups, largely by my influence. I went to a few national Queer Collaborations student conferences, wonderful gatherings with vivid debate about queer theory by day, and lots and lots of sex at night. I even filled the union-affiliated role of Sexuality Officer in 1994, which is the same as a women's officer, but for queer issues instead of women's issues.

I wasn't your standard student politician, though—for one thing, I was passing all of my subjects! At least, that was true once I switched from electrical engineering at the University of Technology, Sydney, the 30-storey poo-coloured building that they call a university, to computer science at the greener pastures of the University of Western Sydney. I was failing a couple of subjects in the former course and only just scaping past past others, but kicking arse in computer subjects, hence the change. Computer programming was natural to me, so it's no wonder that that's what I eventually made into my career.

Despite going to uni in Kingswood, way way out west, the bi group turned the City into my stomping ground, Newtown in particular. Baulkham Hills was vaguely in between, so my parents' place became astonishingly convenient, and I continued to live there for a while. The family Kombi van became my primary means of transport, a vehicle that Americans would call it a VW van, and my friends called the Dak Dak. I've pretty much inherited it, and I still drive it when I visit Australia; friends have been keeping it on the road while I've been living overseas. I still plan to convert it to run on gas instead of petrol (i.e. LP or 'natural gas'), and do it up in general.

Seeing the World

I first lived overseas 1995, when I took part in a university exchange student program with California State University, Sacramento in California, USA. Since most of my family is in Europe and North America, I travelled a lot in my childhood, but this was the first time I'd actually lived in a foreign country. It was also the first time that I realised that the film Revenge of the Nerds was a documentary: state university life in America is more like high school in Australia. Also, the U.S. legal drinking age is 21 (no, really!), so all the 20-year-olds around me were acting as if it was the most wonderful drug in the world, pathetic behaviour that I grew out of when I was 16. Thankfully, I found a few non-dickheads, mostly in my usual haunts of the computer labs and the campus LGBT group.

Once again, the LGBT group at Sac State only put the 'B' in its name after I came on the scene. I quickly filled one of the group's 'officer' roles, and befriended two of the other officers, a lesbian couple who were happy to have me crash on their couch, away from the insanity of the 'dorms'. (Did I mention that the U.S. word 'roommate' literally means sharing a bedroom?)

The Biggest 'Growth Experience'

It's impossible to abbreviate what happened in the years that followed without leaving out many important details, but I'll abbreviate it anyhow...

One of the aforementioned lesbians and I completely fell for each other—Kevin Smith's film Chasing Amy does a fairly good job of describing what that was like, at least before the ice hockey scene. We kept in touch after I went back to Australia and started a long-distance relationship. (Since, so far, I've been comparing most of my 20s to films, I refer you to Emma-Kate Croghan's Love and Other Castrophes, if you want to see what my life was like as a mid-90s Australian uni student.) Despite that film title, I didn't see my life as catastrophic at all, but my involvement with said lesbian (who by then was calling herself bisexual) proved otherwise.

After 2½ years of seeing each other only when I could afford to fly one of us across the Pacific Ocean (every nine to twelve months), I moved back to California to be with her. We got married—we were that serious, and it sure made immigration a whole lot easier to deal with. But once I'd made that move, she started changing the rules of our relationship, emotionally abusing me, and once I'd finished paying her way through university, she walked out.

It took me years to get over that. I still don't have words to describe how it feels to leave absolutely everything I knew and loved behind for an abusive relationship that eventually fell apart. It would've been grossly disappointing even if I'd been treated with any real respect. But it did give me a new-found freedom, away from a controlling wife, and from parents who, even at age 20, I needed to lie to in order to have a life. I moved into a cute little one-bedroom apartment and started what I call the 'revolving door' phase of my dating life; several people at a time and a new partner every month or so. It was dysfunctional in that I'd been hurt so badly that I couldn't be emotionally intimate with anyone, but it gave me some idea of what would work for me in relationships.

Moving On, and Getting Serious about Polyamory

It wasn't until about the turn of the century that I stopped feeling fucked up. The best step I took was moving to what I've always regarded as my American home, San Francisco. First I had to realise that the relationship that had taken me to Sacramento couldn't be patched up; it's when she tried to guilt-trip me into staying that I knew it was time to leave. I didn't look back. Sacramento has its charms and I really miss the hot weather, but it's too small, conservative and unimportant for me to live there.

It took me a year or so to really feel settled in the Bay Area. I moved from circle to circle and scene to scene, but I felt most comfortable in the ones that revolved around polyamory. It was far from a new concept to me—that relationship I'd had ten years earlier became an open one, and although I tried monogamy once or twice in the meantime, it became clear that it just doesn't work for me. But until I was in greater San Francisco (the 'Bay Area'), I'd only ever met people who casually dated more than one person, and most of them called themselves 'non-monogamous'. The only exception was the poly social group that quickly rose and fell during my final year in Sacramento. The Bay Area has a bunch of intermingling poly scenes: poly Pagans, poly geeks, poly Goths, poly bisexuals, and various little poly groups in the suburbs. I felt, and still feel, understood and respected and attractive around these people, and I was quickly invited to some of the most amazing parties I'd ever been to.

As the revolving relationship door continued spinning, I slowly let my emotional barriers down again, and some of my relationships started becoming a bit more solid. But it wasn't until I met a South African acupuncture student at one of those parties that there was any real depth. She understood and respected and nurtured and loved and listened to me, and swept me off my feet. We talked about moving to South Africa, where she could help fight the AIDS epidemic and I could discover a new part of the world. It didn't turn out that way, but we parted on good terms and still love each other, and the experience showed me it was okay to love again.

Seeing More of the World

Not long after that, I met Jen. Actually, we'd met a few times before, but late in 2001 we finally got together one-on-one, and really, really clicked. We spent Thanksgiving at Yosemite National Park, where we fell in love.

She and her husband, and their new girlfriend, had the same dream as me: living in a poly household, being a social hub in our community, and travelling a lot. There are plenty of poly households like that, but this would combine that base with travel opportunities. It's what we'd all dreamed of.

But there was a catch: I'd just decided that I wanted to move to Amsterdam. Australia, Canada and most European countries allow citizens from each other's countries to have 'working holidays', granting work visas for a year or two, but only to people under 30. I was 29. But all of us had had long-distance relationships before, and they seemed easier since we mostly had professional incomes, even in the aftermath of the Dot Com Crash. And LiveJournal meant that our community already spanned the globe anyhow, and Amsterdam is close to San Francisco... closer than Sydney, anyhow.

One of the big motivations for the move was that my life in California had started feeling too ordered: I had a nice job, a huge room in a beautiful apartment with cool housemates, and life was plodding along nicely. But I wanted adventure. I chose Amsterdam because my parents brought me up speaking Dutch, and Sacramento had put me off the idea of living anywhere but the most progressive cities. So I arranged a working visa and a week's accommodation in a hostel, mailed some essentials to one of my cousins, and set off for Amsterdam, via a road trip that took me halfway across the United States.

The first thing I found was that Amsterdam had a 650-year-old housing shortage, and that I'd arrived right in time for Europe's dot com crash. So I spent the first six months moving from sublet to sublet, looking for work, exploring the city on foot and by bike, and being a LiveJournal junkie.

It was as hard to find 'my people' as it was to find work. I went to social events arranged by various expatriate organisations, balls and dinners and speed dating. I met a few nice people and went out with them occasionally, but I didn't really feel like I could be myself with them. They were all travellers like me and they'd seen a lot of the world, but they couldn't wrap their heads around polyamory—they kept confusing it with swinging—and some of the snotty Poms even still thought bisexuality was a bit strange.

Towards the end of 2002 this started changing; I realised that I should just look for locals with similar interests on LiveJournal. Duh! I started hanging out a lot with a woman from Gaasperplas, and she's now one of my best friends. Jen and other overseas friends and lovers were also starting to visit me, and I discovered that flights to London were as cheap as €9 (!!), so I was able to pop over and visit an old flame who had moved there from Melbourne, and Jen's girlfriend when she was in town. Another friend from San Francisco also moved to Amsterdam at around that time, with his girlfriend, and old lover of mine. (They now live in Sydney, even though said lover once told me she wasn't planning ever to even visit.)

But as the weather got colder and work prospects grew bleak, staying started seeming unwise, despite having finally found a real social life. I was also starting to miss Sydney, where it was summer, and the economy was better than anywhere in the northern hemisphere. So I made plans to move back. But first, I travelled through Europe on a shoestring: Paris with a lover, Litchenstein because I wanted to see what a tiny country was like, Luxumberg because it was on the way, Switzerland because I'd travelled across it as a kid and it looked nice, and Venice, just because I'd always wanted to go. I also wanted to go to Spain to practice my Spanish, but floods in Venice caused me to lose my rail ticket, so I went back home to Amsterdam instead, tired and drenched.

I few weeks later I was back home in San Francisco, in a community of hundreds instead of half a dozen. It was a mild culture shock. A week after that I was back home in Sydney, amongst my BBS friends, culture shock again. I spent a week or two living with my parents, quickly realising I needed other accommodation before I went insane. One of my BBS friends owns EverythingLinux.com.au, and he had some geek work that kept me afloat while I looked for something more permanent, and another BBSer lived half a block away and let me sublet his spare room. But then I found that a company I'd done work for while at uni had been bought out by a Malaysian company, and there was work for me there. So I ended up living in Malaysia, in my 10th home on 4 continents in two years.

Dreamland and the n

I eventually moved back to the Bay Area, and soon after that the four of us moved into a San Francisco house we called Dreamland. (Think B-52s.) It was just what we wanted: urban lifestyle, lots of fun and interesting visitors, and each of us had additional relationships outside the household. Five people in particular were each involved with at least two of us; they included a triad in the East Bay with a hot tub and a three-bridge view, and one of the friends I'd made in Amsterdam, who had since moved. They dreamed up the term just the n of us, where n was a variable, which for the most part had the value of 9.

I remember Valentines Day 2004 in particular, the weekend San Francisco was first allowing same-sex marriages. We had already made plans for a romantic getaway up the coast for just the nine of us, but when we came back, we went to City Hall to support our friends. I was an official witness for one of the first 100 same-sex marriages in the United States, and we convinced local businesses to supply food and hot beverages for all the couples that were queued in the rain. One of my partners was wearing crazy high heels and slipped in the street, breaking her leg. A massage therapist, she was unable to work for weeks, and of course the U.S. healthcare system didn't provide much care, so we let her stay at Dreamland for a while. The more financially solvent of the nine even helped out with her medical bills, and much support also came from the greater poly community. It's this kind of spirit that makes me appreciate my community so much, even today.

But financial solvency was rare in this post-dot-com crash world. The four of us were struggling to make ends meet, either working very long hours like me (for little pay—I was working for a start-up that was failing to start up and additionally doing courier work to help pay the bills), going into debt like Jen, or being discouraged into depression by the job market, like her husband. It reignited some old issues for those two, causing their relationship to break down, and the four of us eventually decided it was best to separate, to minimise the fallout. Jen and I got two new housemates and the other the others going back to New York. This was all very hard to deal with, and when tragedy struck one of my other partners, the n further unraveled.

It left me feeling gunshy again for a couple of years, low on self-esteem, afraid to reach out for my dreams. But I worked through it, as I always do, and a whole bunch of old issues along the way. And I remain very close friends with some of those n folk.

Today

Jen and I are still together, and I have a couple of other relationships that have enriched my life over the last few years. My partners get along well, but they're not as close each other as in the n; they don't even intermingle all that much. I miss living with people who have so many friends in common.

I also miss Australia. I've had exciting and well-paying jobs in the last four or five years, coding everything from user interfaces for biotech instruments to web sites for games companies. I only chose jobs that have allowed me to travel, so I've visited all six inhabited continents and been to Australia at least once a year. But it's time to stay there longer. This is what Jen and I have been planning all along, but she's had some chronic and quite serious health issues which have made that hard. The way we decide to handle that will determine the next few paragraphs of my life.

 

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Mik Scheper, 27 November 2008
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