Sunday, September 20, 2015

I Wish You Joy

Most people don't understand that very funny people are often extremely serious.

I, on the other hand, have taken notice of this misunderstanding my entire adult life. It is a subject of interest to because I myself have been branded "serious" more times than I can count, and yet people don't usually elaborate whether they are making an observation, or just accusing me of doing something wrong. (Sometimes the two go hand in hand.)

I remember walking the halls of my junior high school many many years ago, just minding my own business, and having other students yell out "Smile!" to me as they passed. I was usually taken aback, as I did not realize at the time that my face needed adjustment; I did not realize that their day was so greatly affected by my display of emotion, or lack thereof. I did get the impression that I was doing something wrong, but I was not sure what that might be. I now realize that my only crime was not living up to others' expectations, and, perhaps, bringing to the forefront of their awareness the idea of existential dilemma. But I shy away from granting them too much credit for thought.

I agree that I am a rather serious person. But I have never felt the need to "smile" to cover this up, as if there is a required way of being when out in the world. I suspect that the commenters in the halls of my junior high were, at their best, just wanting me to be "happy", and at their worst, trying to comfort themselves. But why were they even bothered by my seriousness? Let me clarify that what I mean by serious is that I think about things--a lot--and I observe just about everything that is happening around me. Now, I suspect that I do this because I am curious about things, but there is another reason; the narrative of my life required serious editing once I hit my teenage years.

This edit necessitated a great deal of thought, since I did not have much to reference from my public education or catholic upbringing that might have been helpful. I learned to label this practice "seriousness" not because it lacked humor and smiles in the hall, but because it often included solitude and brow furrowing, while lacking a certain carefree frivolity. In other words, I smile when I have something to smile about. Is this a rule? No, it is not. But I have found that frivolity, especially the carefree version, mostly works against contemplation--while being perfectly suited to social engagement. In days of yore there was not so much engagement in my seriousness, because contemplation is best done alone, but don't mistake that for a lack of humor.

Because I am funny, goddammit.

Louie CK, sad clown
It seems that Joe and Jane Public are genuinely shocked to find out that their favorite comic is in fact a very serious person. Everyone I know seemed shocked when Robin Williams committed suicide, not understanding how someone so funny could be depressed enough to want to end his life. Well, the question I have for you at this point is: Where do you think funny comes from? True humor comes from pain, and the best comics mine their own to come up with it. Currently, Louis CK is at the top of this game, so if you like him, you know what I mean. I suspect that Robin Williams was not able to mine his pain so well in the long run, and perhaps that is why he was depressed. I also suspect that this is why his humor was not funny to me, since it relied on shtick more often than pain. I saw him as a clown, not a comic. But even clowns take off the mask eventually.

Back when I was acting, I was a comic actor who occasionally did drama. When I was required to be funny, I would literally do anything for a laugh, unselfconsciously. My aim was to use my insecurities for the audience's benefit, and ultimately, for mine. To me, it was about triumph--by using my pain to make people laugh, my pain no longer hurt me so much. It was still there, it just had little to no power over my choices. If you confront your worst fear in front of others and survive, you may find it can no longer terrify you. I like to think that I was absolutely hysterical in my comedy roles (sometimes I was, sometimes I wasn't), because I had a lot of pain to mine, and the control I had onstage over my audience was preferable to the control that my pain had over me for so many years.

I am not acting anymore. Instead, I have gone into the rather serious profession of psychology, which suits me to a tee. But lately I have noticed that I am missing the art of humor a bit. Mind you, this is not an indication that I no longer have pain to mine.

I recently attended my final meeting with a men's process group that I had been participating in for nearly a year, and some of the members were sharing feedback with me. One of the guys said to me that he would miss my contributions to the group--that I always got him thinking. But he also said that there was one "side" of me that he regretted never seeing--he never saw me "laugh out loud". I blinked with surprise, realizing that he was right, at least about how I presented in the group; suddenly I concluded that my seriousness was taking over the entire house. I have been so intent in the last couple of years on building a private practice and so careful about not spending money that I have choked off a lot of "fun", so to speak. I have stifled my magic, semi-retired my sexuality, locked up my laugh, tampered my colorful creativity.

This was done in the name of my career, which is very important to me, and I do enjoy what I do. But I realize that, beyond the need to support myself, this career has taken on a disproportionate amount of importance primarily because it is the one thing that is all mine, or so I think. I feel on one hand that it is all I have, and on the other hand I feel that I don't even need anything else. Have you ever had the sense in your life that you have complete control over something? Though it can never truly happen, we can still get the feeling from time to time. And for a person like me, where for many years I wanted nothing more than to be left alone so I could take care of myself, this feeling is comforting and powerful. I think I was willing to sacrifice everything else for this level of control. In the process group, I suspect that they were more aware of the cost to my life than I was, and I also suspect that this is what they were trying to tell me during my final meeting. (This, by the way, is the value of group therapy--becoming aware of how you present in life.)

Control is alluring for many reasons, but I don't think it was always alluring in the way it is now. I see control today as a constructed response to a cultural effect: the lie that there is an order to things that benefits us. Since order, or not, is a result of cause and effect (not divine intention as many believe), there is often a little tiny part of us that spends some of the day in a bat-shit crazy panic. You might know this as anxiety. The antidote to that panic is feeling a sense of control or knowing. But when you replace an illusion with an illusion, it just delays the inevitable breakdown and reassessment. What usually works for me is to stare randomness of order in the face and form a response where I make out as well as I can, given what I know. Sometimes I err on the side of caution in this process, becoming very serious in the act. I would do well to remember that laughter never hurts when one is confronting a lack of complete control.

Before the therapy group ended for the evening, this same man said one more thing to me, which I appreciated the most. He said, "I wish you joy." He did not say that he wished me "happiness", because then I would have asked him to define his terms. He said "joy", which is an emotion, and not a fictional state of being. In this moment, I felt that he truly "got" me. Has anyone ever wished this to you and really meant it?

The dictionary definitions for joy are inaccurate and vague, linking it to feelings of happiness or success, without ever really describing what it is. That is like describing green by linking it to a marker pen. So let me give it a try.

As I said, joy is an emotion. So what does that look like? JOY is living fully. JOY is celebrating what or who is in front of you, whether you know what it is/who they are or not. JOY is being surprised by someone's love. JOY is seeing the effect of your caring towards others. JOY is holding the hot jerky movement of a baby. JOY is the pleasant activation of various senses individually or all at once. JOY is feeling appreciated. JOY is giving and sharing, knowing that you won't run out. Joy is creating art. JOY is eating summer strawberries from your garden. JOY is listening to music as a primary activity, not as background noise. JOY is grass on you bare feet, swimming naked in the ocean, riding you bike in a cool summer rain, doing yoga in the sunshine.

You might call these things happiness, but I don't. I see happiness as a marketing term, made up in order to sell things; it refers to a "mood state" or a "personality" (he is a happy person) that has little to no relation to an experience in the moment. Rabbi Irwin Kula, the writer of one of my favorite books, Yearnings, says that "Being happy isn't only about feeling good, but also about doing good." I like to think that he uses the term "happy" as I use the term "joy", because I like the definition. The form of joy he describes is one of many things we can feel throughout the day, and its contextual and transitional nature is why it feels so welcome when it happens. It is not an expectation, in the way I see culturally defined happiness, so it often surprises us in the best way. And it is relational, whereas happiness it often associated with personal happiness--something you feel about yourself, by yourself. Joy can be felt in solitude, but even then it is still the result of a relationship with nature, silence, or gratitude. And doing good, going back to Kula's definition, is a relational activity. "Happiness is," he writes, "therefore not just a feeling or emotion but a profound connection to the world (italics mine)." I strongly suggest reading Kula's book to learn even more about joy, love, relationship, and more. I recommend it to nearly everyone I know!

In a recent attempt to have a profound connection to the world, I attended a men's weekend gathering in the mountains below Big Bear through the group CalComMen. My intention for going to the event was to renew, through community, my creative and playful leanings. As I have said, I can be a bit serious, and since devoting myself to taking exams and building a practice, I have certainly nudged out play, at the very least. I saw this camp experience as an opportunity to leave the world behind and fan the creative flames and let play run the house for a few days. 

It worked. I hiked without lights in the mountains. I swam nude. I wore blue eyeshadow to the "Rainbow Dance". I read nasty haiku in the Talent/No Talent show. I canoed. I participated in a heart circle. I played bongos in a drum circle. I connected strongly to other men--young, older, cisgender, trans, big, small, and otherwise. And in the course of the weekend, during my re-ignition, within a community, I came to fulfill the generous wish bestowed on me by the caring process group member. I experienced joy. Sometimes it is required that we move out of our familiar context in order to have a new experience of ourselves. Nature can often be the ideal place to move into.

Back in the flat-lands of Hollywood, the tingle of joy has not deserted me. Its glow warms me and reminds me that it is readily accessible via connection and play. The other morning it rained in Los Angeles, and you know what I did at 6am when I woke up? I walked outside and let the rain hit my skin. It was wonderful. It was joyful. And as it was wished upon me, I wish the same upon you.

Now get out there and play a little...with others.

Me--serious from a very young age.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Time to Talk About Dad

I have written a lot about my mother. For some reason, she beckons to me as a portal from which to explore myself and my responses to the world.  If I may be so bold, I contend that my relationship with her is the birthplace of my initial relationship skills. This is, of course, a plus/minus statement, in the way that most statements about families tend to be. But I have come to a place where I don't expect it to be any other way, and at this point I am far enough from my lived experience with Mother to mine it for literary inspiration without getting covered in soot. Thank you, Time.

My father, on the other hand, holds a more slippery position in my evolution. I suppose it is past time to give him some due--not that I would deny his right to it--it is just harder to categorize the benefits derived from our relationship.

Dad worked for Safeway for years
Fathers have had a rough time of it, haven't they? From an evolutionary standpoint, it is a fairly modern definition of paternity that dominates the landscape today; the father role used to be, like most everything else, something that was shared by many. I would suspect that things changed around the time that agriculture came around (the new blame dump--and you're welcome, mothers of the world!). Since the time that land ownership became a "thing", there needed to be some structure to the passing down of property. Suddenly, paternity, and the heirs produced by the same, became very important and localized, and the idea of sharing receded from being a community value to serving the immediate blood family circle. This, of course, was a shame, but for my purposes it serves just as a meditation on history so that I can frame the impact of my father's legacy.

The consensus on this legacy? I give it a 5 out of 10.

This is not a bad thing, so before you jump to conclusions about my level of appreciation, let me clear things up a bit. Mother scores a 10 on the scale, but that is not necessarily a wonderful thing. A scoring of 5 is quite remarkable in its own way, in that the impact of a 5 is influential while evading lasting damage. A score of 5 is, for my father, perhaps the greatest compliment I can offer him. It means, essentially, that I got out of it alive and well, with more than a few stories. That, in itself, is a success!


Dad had no fucking idea what to do with me once I turned 15, so he focused on my brother, who suffered quite a bit as a result. (Dad never practiced wrestling with me, but he did with my brother, who remembers the competitive nature with something other than a "warm" memory.)
By brother, Dad, and me.
Dad instead left me to my mother's devices, which worked, unless it didn't. I was studious, and quiet, and quite sensitive, which does not exactly generate enthusiasm in a father who lettered in practically every high school sport that was offered. But do not assume that my father ignored me, or was disgusted by me. Not in the least. I suspect that instead he feared me a bit because I represented something he did not understand, something that had the potential to reflect badly on him, but that was nonetheless connected to a part deep of him. I was able to be sensitive while my father was not. He had to be a man very early on, while I got to skirt the issue until after I had done some "research" on the subject. He was proud of me, but I doubt he was sure why, since my accomplishments weren't flashy. I would like to think that he was in awe of me, and that is why he kept his distance, but perhaps that is just a story I have made up. (I like it though.) 

I do know that he loved me as a son--as his son, and that his encouragement showed in his eyes rather than his voice; his kisses to the top of my head and salutations of mijo that reminded me I was his son and this meant something to him. What it meant, he never told me, but I like to imagine that I personified the freedom he rarely granted himself. For all my passivity, I was quite fearless at times, and the more I corralled fear, the more he was corralled by the same. My ascent matched his descent, and there was little I could do about that but embrace my time just as he did his, many years before.


A male child moving into young adulthood must be difficult for a father, since there are inevitable shifts in power--in my family Dad's decreased while Mom's solidified. You know what I mean? By the time I was 16, homosexuality became the shiny new love that pulled me from the family, while my father was increasingly lured by alcohol, and thereafter the power shift was complete. He then lived out the rest of his life as a shadow, attempting to reach former glories by standing on a bottle of whiskey. He didn't have a chance at this point, and I think that this is when I loved him the most; he became human instead of being the cigarette ad who used to kiss me goodnight in my childhood. 

This is also when I hated him the most. Ain't love grand?

Smoldering as a teen in 1944, bottom row middle
The hate I felt for my father was based in grief. I was losing him to alcohol, and I was left to become a man on my own. He could have taught me so much. My father was an All-Star athlete in high school, as well as being the best dancer and a definite ladies man. He was kind, funny, and affectionate.
Dad and Mom early in their marriage

He was quite handsome, but because I was born when he was 34, I never really knew him as a young man--he had already learned to accommodate his virility to white culture--realizing that a dark-skinned Mexican man would have to do more than play sports well to gain respect. He succeeded in this, gaining not only respect in business, but also the hand of my mother, who at the time was a tall, striking redhead, and perhaps the only person who could keep up with him on the dance floor.

With his baby girl, Marla

I didn't hate my father forever, though. As an adult, I learned that his dependence on alcohol strengthened after his young daughter Marla died, a tragic story that affected everyone in the family. For all his outer strengths, he was ill-equipped to manage this inner crisis. I often wonder who he would have been had Marla lived, and respectively, who I would have been. Even still, the gay thing was sure to separate us, at least until we ultimately united as fellow "black sheep" of the family. You see, as my mom and my brother both embraced mormonism (lowercase intentional) for the illusion of control and safety, I was soon joined by my father on the family time-out bench. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "You a drunk?"
Him: "Yeah. You homo?"
Me: (scooting over) "Yeah. Have a seat."

Finally, after so many years, we found a place to connect.

Mom and Dad making the best of it. 
My father died six months after being diagnosed with cancer in his lungs and in his brain. He was stubborn as hell, so he would not go to the doctor despite having seizures and fits of rage, so by the time he was diagnosed the cancer was inoperable. When he died my mother, now free of the alcoholism that had ruined her marriage, waited just a couple of weeks before throwing out all the furniture they had shared, replacing it with all new things that she wanted in the house.

Ain't love grand?


As Father's Day comes and goes every year, I think about the relationship my dad and I would have if he were living now. Don't we all wonder that of our parents? His life was sparked in a different time and the flame of its peak burned bright and early. He was, like my mother, both a product and a prisoner of his times, but he is 50% responsible for creating me, and I like to think that in some way I am now living the life he would have liked to have lived. I owe him my life. And for that reason alone, his life was not, as my mother's furniture replacement indicated, disposable. His pain and his triumphs showed me the levels to which we can rise or descend, and our joining toward the end showed me the depth of his vulnerability and forgiveness. He was my father, and he loved me, best as he could goddammit. Love does not require understanding or perfection, only willingness. In this area my father's levels never dipped. This comforts me, even to this day. I miss who he was to me during the best of times, but even more so, I miss who he could have been to me during my worst times. We were so close to getting there before he died. So close.

My appreciation for him grows as time continues, not because I drop into a hazy recollection of who he was, but because I better understand the things that kept him from becoming who I wanted him to be. His struggle unites me with him, and his potential was not fully unrealized; it lives in me, his son, and continues to unfold through my efforts to live as a free man. Plus, I am one hell of a dancer.

Ain't love grand?

Me and Dad in my L.A. apartment around 1992

Friday, May 8, 2015

A Letter To Mom: If You Could See Me Now

Circa 1984: Me and Mom
The last time I wrote about my mother was Mother's Day of 2013. And yet as Mother's Days continue to come and go, I find myself feeling further and further removed from it, primarily and directly because the number of years my mother has been dead continues to increase with each passing observance. I guess that is what happens, though, isn't it? You might notice that I did not say that my mother is "deceased", "passed away", or "gone". I wrote that she "has been dead". While that might seem harsh, you would at least grant me that it is the truth. I hate writing it, not because I don't like the word, but because I am using it to describe my mother. Even so, I would bet that it jars me less than it does most, because I have spent years facing and accepting the fact that she is dead, rather than deluding myself into a comforting fantasy of her continued existence, somewhere, somehow, benevolently looking down upon her favored son. Delaying grief via denial is rarely the healthy choice, it is instead only a diversion. Look, she died. It was the saddest fucking day of my life. But even the worst days eventually end, don't they?

Mom in her 80's
What is comforting to me is knowing that in her 86 years, she lived a great deal, part of which included making me. I can't tell you how happy I am about that happening! Her death truly flipped me over and turned me inside out, but it also reminded me that you can do a lot in 86 years, if that is how many years you have. It reminded me that when it is over, it is over, so I had better get busy living. It reminded me that nobody hears prayers after they are dead, so you better say what you want to say while they are alive. It reminded me that no amount of creative thinking can surpass the scientific fact that my mother is imprinted in my very cells--that every gaze, every touch she bestowed was received not only on the surface, but also by the interior. She is, for lack of better terminology, inside me. Who needs heaven when I have her in my DNA?

Whenever Mother's Day approaches, I find myself wondering what Mom would think about my life if she were alive to see it today. She was always proud of me, but boy, if she could see me now. I would, of course, have to catch her up a bit.

May, 2015

Dear Mom,

Good gracious I fucking miss you. 

You have been dead for over six years now. Mother's Day is coming up soon, and yet again I won't have anyone to buy flowers and a card for. Thanks a lot, Mom! What am I supposed to do with Mother's Day for the rest of my life? I feel like the "little boy that Santa Claus forgot". Did you think about that when you shut down your body at the age of eighty-six, long after your mind had
deteriorated from Alzheimer's? Nooooooo. Your excuses won't cut it here, Mom. Would it have killed you to have just once, before you died, thought about how it would affect ME? Look at me, I am raving to a dead person, that is what it has come to. But at least I am not as bad as that guy at the gym who sings along to his private music like he is a pop star. Sigh, what does one do when after they have lost the one person who will give them undivided attention no matter where, when, or what. What does one do?

Comedian Louis C.K. has a joke that says how a lot of things happen after you die, just none of them include you! I think that is funny. Well, a lot of things have happened in my life since you died, and while none of them include you, they all are a reflection of you. In fact, my whole damn life has been full of choices influenced by our relationship. My life is because of you, then was developed with you, then was in reaction to you, then in response to you, then in respect to you, then in celebration of you, and finally, in honor of you. 

You are gone, but I won't let go, so I suppose we should at least catch up. 

The first thing you must know is that I finally passed my exams and am now a fully licensed psychotherapist. It was a ten year process, but I love being a therapist, Mom. I have learned so much about compassion and patience, and sitting with someone's pain. There is more to being a therapist than sitting with someone's pain, of course, but that is certainly a big part of it. Nobody "sits" with another's pain anymore, I notice. People assuage, they comfort, they utter bland reassurances, they run away, they publicize, but rarely does someone simply sit, witness, hold, and honor the process. If this weren't necessary I would be out of a job, but it is, so I am not. Our culture does us a great disservice by shaming pain, or maybe the blame should be on the free market for selling happiness as the highest state of being. Whichever it is, I am here to confront the problem and ease the pain.

I feel a sort of "love" for my clients, but it is not the usual kind of love. It is a love based on caring and service, knowing that it may not be reciprocal. And yet I am only able to feel that for my clients because of what I have concluded about love in the outside world. A great deal of that I learned from you. You taught me that love is not easy, but it is also not often a choice. You taught me that love feeds hope, and that it feeds life. Love softens death, and calms the tiger. Love can be quiet, or it can be loud, but it is most often quiet because it does not need to be loud. (Lust is loud, but love is quiet.) You also taught me that love can breed fear--fear of loss, disappointment, need, and change. Fear shows up in the therapy office all the time. I sit with clients who want so badly to control love, and I tell them that they can neither control it nor deny it without disastrous results; so the best policy is to walk with it, notice what it wants to show you, then make some sort of choice. 

Mom preparing a Christmas dinner
Remember that time when I was a teenager, Mom, and I was in so much conflict about my homosexuality that I was acting out like a total ass? You asked me why I was doing this, and you wanted to know what happened to your "Tony". I answered you by saying that I was trying to get you to stop loving me so much (I felt like a fraud of a son). To this day I remember your response. You looked at me and quietly said, "If you think I can do that, then you don't know anything about love." And truth be told, I didn't. I didn't realize that no matter what I did, no matter who I was, no matter who I wanted, that  you would never stop loving me. Never. Not even a bit less. Even if I felt, at that moment, like I did not deserve it. 

On that day, with that response, I learned something about love. 

You have probably guessed that I don't dance professionally anymore, Mom, but I certainly do dance in my apartment. Music is still a driving force in my life--you passed that on to me. In fact, I think of you every time I play Shirley Horn or Cassandra Wilson or Harry Connick Jr. When I listen to music I wish that you were there with me, because you knew how to listen to music--you listened with your body. I remember that time when I took you to see Cheryl Bentyne perform, and you and I were moving in our seats to her glorious vocals, like some secret language between us. At one point we noticed a man sitting in front of us who was staring straight ahead, motionless, with a grim mouth.
Mom in her 80's in Montana.
It's all about those shoes.
I knew at that moment that we both felt sorry for that man, so unable or unwilling to let go to the music, as though he were immune to a magic that was affecting all those around him. You got the music, Mom, and when it was playing we didn't need to say a thing. 

You would love my apartment, but you would blush at some of the artwork, because there is a penis or two in the pieces. But I would not hide them when you visited, because the paintings are beautiful, and I am not ashamed of my appreciation of penises, and I suspect that at some point in your life you appreciated them too. You would be comfortable in my home, and we would have fun, visiting coffee shops and farmer's markets for sure, but most of our meals would be eaten here since I would cook up a storm for you. Do you know how much I love to cook, Mom? I even know how to make your Chicken Cacciatore. My comfort in the kitchen started from watching you--the way you set a table, your willingness to vary the menu, your insistence on serving a salad with every meal. Granted, what you cooked was based in the 70's aesthetic, meaning home cooking as well as plenty of TV dinners, casseroles, and pot pies, but you were a product of the culture, like everyone else. And your homemade tacos were the best.

You would notice that I have hundreds of books in my place, and almost as many pieces of clothing. The book titles might confuse you, but you would like the clothes in my closet. I buy things that flatter the long legs you "gave" me, and like you, I have remained slender. I favor style over fashion. Don't you think for a minute that I didn't notice everything about your attention to detail and beauty. I took it all in, and have applied it to my life and surroundings. 

My friends love me and show me great care. 
Mom at her sister's wedding.
She was in her 50's here.
I am sure that I would have them over one night and make a big fuss about you visiting. You might be a bit embarrassed, but I could not help myself from showing you off. My friends always seemed to love you, but the boyfriends not so much! You could be cold at times with those who required my love, but you just felt that nobody was good enough for me, and I confess that you have me convinced of that myself. You didn't really do me a favor in that department, Mom, but what can I do at this point. 

Not that it matters that much. I am getting older, which means that I am simplifying, slowing down, and enjoying my own company. Granted, for me slowing down means that I run at the speed of most thirty-five year olds, but it is a slow down nonetheless. It is welcome though, because for so many years I never stopped. I couldn't stop--I wasn't ready to be with myself. But now I am, and I wish I could show this to you. 

Anyway, Mom, I have to go finish another essay I am writing. It started out as a Mother's Day post, but I think it is turning into something more political. It is always good to cloak your opinions in sentiment, I like to say. I am a writer, and I have a lot to say, and some people like to read what I have to say. You would be surprised at how big my mouth is now, but I am pleased to tell you that there is less anger coming out of it now than when I first found my voice. I smile more now.

But oh, the world gives me lots to talk about, Mom. It is, in many ways, a grand mess. There are some horrible people doing horrible things to others in the name of who knows what, but I suppose that has always been going on. You would not like it, I suspect.
1970--I was eight.
You would not understand why people are glued to phones all day, why dating has become something like thumbing through the Sears catalog, or why Kim Kardashian is famous. Meanwhile there are just as many rooting for love and simplicity, who refuse to listen to the story our culture has written. I wonder which camp you would be in, Mom, but not so much. You were always ahead of your time, while still being rooted in it. I wonder who you would have been had you been born in the 50's or the 80's instead of the 20's?   

But what I really want to tell you, Mom, is that beyond the gifts and graces that you gave me, I have really become a self-made man. The life you would see around your son these days started with you, but has blossomed through my own efforts. I have always had a vision of a good life, even when it did not feel so good; not a life full of material goods and success, but one full of people, laughter, support, food, sharing, care, celebration, simplicity, respect, music, nature, and love. That has always been my vision, and this is the life that I want to show you now. In the truest sense, I have made something of myself, Mom. I have become a kind man, and I wish more than anything that you could see me now. You would smile and be proud, knowing that you did alright. You did alright. But above all, I did alright. 

I carry you within me every moment. Happy Mother's Day.

Your son,

Summer 1980--Saying goodbye

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Age: It's All In or Nothing

Can you guess which stage I am at?
A brief break from my "This House" series...

On a recent day, a young man, who I was getting to know, was in my company. As we lay face to face in only the way that people "getting to know one another" do, I asked him if he ever thinks about the fact that I am fifty-two years of age. He told me that he does not think about it--he does not think about it at all. He then asked me if I think about it, and I confessed to him that I do indeed think about it. I told him that I think about how it would play out to get "involved" with someone younger than I, given that there is a possibility that right now, unbeknownst to me, there is something inside me, getting ready to ramp up, that may lead to my death.

So, yeah, I do think about my age.

I know it's not romantic, but I think about these things--just not in the way you might expect. Age, as a concept, is a sticky one, isn't it? Better yet, it is slippery. Over the years, the topic of age has slipped all around the place, never landing for long in one perspective. When I was a child, anyone who was in their fifties was old! They were often grandparents, and overweight, and certainly not sexy, not sexy at all. But then something happened. In the 70's people started taking care better care of themselves, at least exercise-wise. They cut back on smoking and drinking, at least compared to the 60's and earlier, and they ate better. Natural and organic foods started to show up, and aerobics became popular.

Along with these changes, many public figures refused to "get old". It seems that for many, it is no longer acceptable to "age" when you don't "have to", and many people remained active, relevant, and sexually appealing after forty. Nowadays, of course, there is procedural assistance, and many people in their fifties and older have faces devoid of wrinkles! So what does it mean to age? Is there a difference between wanting to be healthy as one gets older, and wanting to look forever young? (Hint: Of COURSE there is.)

I used to be very very very active, so active that it was nearly ridiculous. In my twenties, in San Diego, I would take dance classes all day, work in a bar until 3am, nap for a couple of hours until my day job at 6 am, then go back to class when I got off .
Me in dance class in my 20's
I would rehearse for shows while teaching dance and choreographing for my own group, then race up to L.A. to take more classes. In my thirties I was doing it all in L.A. while working catering gigs, often racking up 18 hour work days on events. For one job I would start at 5 am and do deliveries all day only to return in the evening to load up a party, deliver and set it up, run the floor, then break it down and return to the kitchen at 2 am. Then in my forties I worked full time at Whole Foods Market while taking 12 units per quarter in grad school, eventually adding an internship that was basically an unpaid part time job.

Me doing ALC in my 30's
All through this, I took pretty good care of myself. I always consumed below moderate levels of alcohol (and other stuff), and as I learned how to cook, I ate healthier. I have been working out since I was fourteen years old, and have cycled all my life. I do yoga and I drink lots of water, I get regular sleep, blah blah blah. But now, in my fifties, I am tired! I am not exactly sitting in a rocking chair though. I am building a psychotherapy practice in a crowded field and an economy that values physical beauty over mental health. I have no back up plan, no safety net. I still bike or take public transit everywhere, and I still work out at least three times a week and do yoga. But for me, that is slowing down! I like being at home at night, not running around town doing who knows what. There is SO much going on just outside my door but I am more interested in what is happening behind my closed door, with myself as company.

The potential of romance was a big factor in my past nutso activity level. Though I was a hard worker and loved most of what I did, I was also aware of an underlying hope that one of the many activities I engaged in would lead to meeting "The One". Can you imagine such a crazy idea? But here is the thing about that, from my much lived-in perspective: I just don't care about that anymore. The reality about the idea of The One is that it is only a story, and nothing more. This story is true for some, not for others. It was true for me until it wasn't any longer, in other words, there were a lot of unfinished first acts. There were some great loves, some shitty loves, some okay loves, and some really good sex mixed up in all of it. But for me, the only "one" for me has turned out to be, well, me. I wrote about this earlier so I won't rehash it now, except to repeat that I am not quitting--just stepping off the road and sitting on a sidewalk bench. There is plenty of room for someone to sit next to me, if they wish.

The story of The One has great power. In fact, you might be able to see how religion, at its core, is the ultimate story of The One, since it properly places Perfect Love right out of reach, thereby sustaining desire, hope, and pursuit. Many religious folk do their best to bring the story down to earth in their own human pairings, and many succeed quite well. My niece recently got married to the first boy she has seriously dated, and since they are Mormon, they see their marriage as being "for eternity".

As a story, this works for the Mormons precisely because it is so over the top. If you are going to invest in the story of The One, you MUST be all in or it won't work. If you doubt one parcel of it the whole thing could start to crumble--except for the Jews, whose faith is strengthened through questioning and investigation. My lovely niece is sure to have a happy marriage, happier than most, because she is wholly invested in a story that nearly erases doubt and extraneous expectation. But that doesn't make her belief the truth, or the way she got married the correct way--at least not for everybody. I am sure she loves her husband (as much as one can love their first), but the church tells her what to expect from a marriage, and I suspect that she, like other Mormon wives, fully accept this dictate*. They have to, otherwise they might look at their husbands and say, at some point, "Who am I and who are you?" Questions like that are not always great for storybook marriage, but they are fantastic for living a life like mine.

For me, the choice between options was yanked away when I realized that gay people didn't get to participate in storybook marriages. At first, I was lost, and tried to find my prince despite not being wanted in the kingdom, but now I cherish my chosen life as much as my niece cherishes her dictated life. I am "all in". But both are still based on stories. The only difference is that I am more of a co-author of my story, and at this point I have killed off the character of The One (even though nowadays the storybook marriage is available to me). It just doesn't work with my storyline.

My storyline requires regular editing, because, you know, things change! This gives me an advantage in that I don't get hung up on things being a certain way, forever, because they aren't. If you don't like that fact, then I guess you have to make up a story that makes you feel more comfortable (like the Mormons). No harm there, I suppose, unless they feel that their story needs to be everybody else's story (they do). With my story, I have the support of science, which means that it is not just my story, but the story of nature and physics. Argue with that, bitches!

That is why, when I find myself lying face to face with a young man, I cannot just stick to the story that I am also young. I do think about it! It is easy for a young person to have a story that says "age is just a number", but for someone of age, that is not necessarily true! Young folks see a sixty year old as old, while sixty-five year olds give themselves another five years before they will admit to joining that club. My question is, what are the boundaries of old age based on?

Age is not just a number, age is aging, but aging is not necessarily getting old. What aging looks like is up to the individual, biology and heredity, the culture, and the environment. I will agree with most that "you are as old as you feel". Most days I feel pretty "young", while other days I feel "older", but perhaps I am just tired--a state of feeling that I pretty much bulldozed out of my life for many years, but now openly welcome with a lovely afternoon nap or an evening relaxing at home. I do know that while I want to feel good, I have no desire to be thirty-five anymore. It is too tiring, and not as interesting to me now as it was at the time. I like my life now, and if that life includes occasions where I can take a nap one day, then lay face to face another day with someone who reminds me what it "feels like" to be younger, then so be it. It's something worth thinking about, don't you think?

*Great article here about how religion gets 'em through social consent.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"This House" #3: The Bloom on the Tree

There is a war going on in Hollywood between nature and man, and in the areas where man has the advantage, nature is truly beaten down. Nowhere is this more evident than with the trees along Santa Monica Blvd. east of Highland. These poor damn trees, you would think that they would just give it up, but then that is not in their makeup, so they struggle on against all odds: excessive pruning, street pollution, vandalism, lack of space, water, and care. They remind me of fish that have been pulled from the sea and continue to flop around as though still submerged, gills opening and closing to water that is not there. These fish act as if the water might just be out of their reach, rather than it being completely removed, but perhaps that is just in their nature to "think" this way. I am quite sure that fish do not have a concept of being "out of the water", and in the same way, I suspect that trees lack any sense of being "out of nature".

Many trees thrive out of nature, granted, if their caregivers approximate a nature environment, but there are not any examples of these trees on Santa Monica Blvd. east of Highland.
A lovely tree-lined Pasadena street
These trees are not the trees of Pasadena, or the trees of Hancock Park, nor are they the trees of Silverlake. Instead, they are trees that fight for life as though they have no choice but to fight, and for that, I love them. Every Spring, which in Southern California starts in January, these survivors burst with a display of blooms that defiantly declare their intention to go at it for another season. It amazes me that these lovely delicate blooms are capable of appearing from within the soot-covered, gnarled, mutilated branches of trees trying to grow out of concrete holes.

Poor chopped tree
The newly planted trees along Vine St. actually have it worse, if that is possible. The city had spent several thousand dollars planting Jacaranda trees along Vine between Santa Monica Blvd. and Sunset. One night last summer vandals proceeded to damage 32 of the trees by cutting the tops off and leaving just the trunks--a random act of such careless violence that it causes one to question the very culture we live in. I would ride by these trees and almost feel as though I were in mourning, it was so sad to see. The city did not want to replace them until they could be sure that the vandalism would not be repeated, meaning that the trees were not replaced at all.
Happily, with trees being trees, many have survived and have sprouted new branches from their chopped stumps, and it is hoped that the imbeciles who caused the damage last year have now moved on to other distractions (who says there aren't silver linings to stupidity?) I get the sense that the trees along Vine, after the acts of violence, just continued to do what trees do, which is continue to grow in any way possible, even after being damaged and left for dead.

Perhaps someday the city planners will start over from scratch, pouring new sidewalks and pulling the gnarled old trees to replace them with fresh, strong new saplings. We are obliged.
A West Hollywood walking lane
 This has already been done further west in the privileged areas of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. With greater care and numbers, the trees have a collective chance to thrive, which also means that the city and its dwellers have a chance to thrive as well. You see, none of us are really "city dwellers", we are all just displaced nature dwellers, and just as we sweep the walks and paint our houses, we are obliged to care for our green kin.

From time to time I get a therapy client suffering from the effects of depression, and I usually love these clients. You might think that it would be depressing to see a depressed client for therapy, but I find that it is often the opposite. They would not be in therapy if they wanted to continue being depressed. So even though there is at times a slower pace to the progress, there is certainly intent to drive it forward.

The way I see it, depression is not something that is a "part of us". I hate the phrase "He/she is depressed", because it immediately limits the expressive capacity of the person. I see depression as something that affects people rather than something that they are (similarly, we say we are suffering from a cold, not we are the cold). While I do agree that there are certain hereditary aspects and chemical conditions that invite greater vulnerability to the effects of stressors, I strongly favor the theory that depression is a response, not a disease. What supports this? The fact that clients can locate times when depression does not affect them. How then can they be depressed?

The term disease is generally used for any condition that can be biologically sourced, and that would include conditions of the brain. But just because something shows up in one's biology, it does not immediately indicate that it started there. I favor the disease definitions that include environmental stressors as sources of depression, but for me I would go further and say that depression is a condition directly sourced in the environment.

Our biological bodies know what to do "in nature". They are amazingly efficient biological structures that run really well when given what they need. However, it would not be a stretch to assert that in modern life, our bodies rarely get "what they need". What are those things? Well, the simplest answer is good food, natural sleep, fresh air, clean water, daily movement, basic shelter (note the qualifiers). What else? We need people. Not just any people, though, but people we feel safe around and whom we are attached to. When we don't get those things, we look for substitutes, if we can find them. But the substitutes never fill the place of the real thing longer than a temporary span of time. Eventually, our bodies protect themselves by shutting down the need, which can have a physical and mental effect: anger, isolation, anxiety, paranoia, and depression. This is the basis of the idea that depression is a healthy response to an ill society, and you don't need me to tell you of the ills of society.

But I will. Profit driven rather than profit sharing, class-ism rather than inclusion, closed doors rather than community, sex rather than intimacy, strangers rather than tribe, independence rather than interdependence, cash rather than barter, narcissism rather than humility, boredom rather than curiosity. Disconnect from food sources, labor, dirt, nature, civility, manners, risk, play, silence, walking, laughing, thinking, simplicity, patience, wisdom, respect. Reliance on technology, walls, comfort, money, status, ownership, power, validation, opinion, dogma, violence, youth. We all play some or all of the game, we all feel the effects, but we all have the ability to choose toward our nature, once we are made aware that we have the choice.

Thriving during the California "Spring"
The clients who come to me complaining of depression remind me of the trees of Santa Monica Blvd., east of Highland. They are "out of nature": clipped, ignored, and not sufficiently cared for. But they are also alive, and their biology is telling them that, despite it all, their nature is to live while alive. When they come into my office they often have their tops chopped off, but they are struggling to grow new branches, and if things go well, within a few months I can see buds blooming from formerly gnarled, soot-covered branches. Because that is our nature, as long as we are alive.

No matter how old I get, I notice that I continue to bloom. Some years I only show a few blooms, but as long as I care for my nature, I will have the ability and the desire to flower in the sun. If I forget how to do this, I only need to walk half a block and let the trees on Santa Monica Blvd., east of Highland, remind me.

Doing what it knows how to do.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

"This House" #2: Relevance and Dementia

Good gracious, what happened to this poor little house. I found this place about a block away from where I live--yet another example of a hundred year old bungalow that is bound for the wrecking ball very soon. As mentioned in previous posts, the neighborhood I live in used to be completely populated by these small homes, and when the culture in Hollywood shifted in the 70's, so did the state of its old homes. Whereas originally there may have been a single family living in this place, as time went on I have no doubt that it housed perhaps multiple families, or even multiple individual renters. As old Hollywood decayed, the new culture re-purposed the old abodes into flophouses for broke actors and/or dealers.

It is a shame, really, but I can't spend time grieving over it, because I am more fascinated by change than homeostasis. This particular house has given it a good fight for nearly 100 years, and I would bet that it is ready to give it up. It is no longer relevant to the neighborhood. I am sure that its wood floors are tired of being stomped on, its old walls are sagging from the weight of holding up the ceiling, and it even seems as if the roof is just about to collapse on the whole thing. If I were to take a guess, I would suppose that the last tenants were perhaps a large family of immigrants, or perhaps even a descendant of the original owner--someone who spent their days behind drawn curtains and dust, peeking out at the new world from old world eyes.

The fencing around the house is the sign of death--the indication that demolition is just around the corner. I always look at the fencing as a sign that the house is in "hospice". Once it is torn down, it will be temporarily a vacant lot such as this one, recently cleared.

I remember walking past this lot only a month ago and there was a doomed home on the site that included a brick fireplace and a backyard with a shed. A shed! My imagination went crazy thinking of the place in its prime in what--1935? I am pretty sure that the next time I walk past this cleared lot there will be some new construction already beginning. I am curious what they will build, since the lot is across the street from this new mod palace:

You know how much a 2bed/2 bath will run you at the swank place? Well, since they are sold as condos, you will be renting from the owner at the tune of $2695/mo. And that is actually not too bad for new Hollywood. It is interesting to me that the website for the building fails to show the surrounding "neighborhood", which includes a mix of old homes, cleared lots, and stucco apartment buildings--but then people don't really "live" in their neighborhoods anymore, do they? They just drive through them to get to their underground garages and beautifully isolated interiors.

My mother would hardly recognize the world today, but I doubt that she would even be looking that closely if she were still alive to look. She died in 2009 at the age of 86 from old age and Alzheimer's, and the world she left was very much changed from the one she entered way back in 1922. Even at the time of her death, she was not what one would call "caught up" to all the modern technologies.

My brother and I tried to get her into "emailing" at one point during her 70's, but she never warmed to it. We thought it would be a great way for her to keep in closer contact with the family--you know how the internet opens up the world for a lot of older folks who are less inclined to get up and out. She knew how to type, so I thought it would be an easy learning curve, but it did not take.

These were the days before Facebook took over the world, so she never entered that fray, but I have a feeling that would have not been successful either. I don't think that it is because she could not figure out the technology of emailing, I actually suspect that she just did not care that much to keep in touch, as she was already beginning her retreat into the more primitive recesses of her mind by her late 70's . Five years later, when she was fully affected by her brain condition, her world had diminished not only in space, but in time. She carried herself through the care home as though she were a 20 year old blushing ingenue, and I was damned if I was going to let anyone break the illusion, if that were even possible.

How Mom probably "saw herself" in the midst of her dementia--young and beautiful again.
I often think that, although I don't favor dementia, this would be a quite pleasant way to end one's (the apostrophe is correct here!) elder years. How wonderful it would be to primarily forget the fact that one's body was shutting down and their brain was eroding. How lovely it would be to instead inhabit an imaginary vista where one's youth and vitality were restored to their full glory! I remember Mom walking down the hall with me, her arm in mine, stopping to flirt shamelessly with any man who might be sharing the same visiting hours. You might think it would be sad and pathetic to witness, but I found it relieving. She had gone back to the world she knew best, where the rules were familiar and her power as a woman was at its peak. Facebook could have grown eight legs and stomped out Manhattan and she would not have cared in the least. A final and welcome bliss.

On the other hand I think that if my mind started to go, I wouldn't hesitate one second to take the gas pipe.

Not all forms of dementia are overt. Retreats of the mind can happen in many different ways, and some are chosen while some are not, but I have a hunch that aging is the trigger for many a retreat of the mind, including some of my own. Lately I have noticed that I am very specific about which technologies I adopt, to the point where I could legitimately be considered "unusual" in my selectivity. I have never had a smartphone, which at this point, ten years into the IPhone, seems a bit ridiculous to everyone but me. I would not even know where to start, truth be told, because I feel so far behind.
But I do feel immune from the constant pull of electronic attention that seems to affect everyone in the city, without regard to age, race, or economic status. I do not have a car, even though I have been driving since the age of 15. I prefer to bike and use public transit, and I prefer to not spend money on such wastes as car insurance, registration, and gas. The last car I owned was sold eight years ago, so I am behind the curve on the new features and options, and would once again have to do some catching up were I to resume car ownership. Once when I was trying to move a friend's car, it took me 10 minutes to figure out how to get the damn thing started.

Neither of the above peculiarities bothers me that much, since I would never describe myself as a person who is retreating from the world; in fact, I am more in the world now than I have ever been. But I will admit that as time goes by I get the feeling that it is less and less my world. I no longer keep up with the pop music charts, I have abandoned the pursuit of fashion in preference to "quality clothing" that will last for years, and I only recently started watching Parks and Recreation, even though it has been on for seven seasons and recently concluded its series run. I don't really have a problem with any of these descriptions. I do feel that I am less a creator of the current world. But I also wonder if one of the indicators of retreat is having less connection to what is current, or perhaps less caring for it altogether. While I would like to think that I am showing greater discretion in what I give attention to, I am not entirely convinced that this is not really just the beginning of the retreat.

Perhaps time will tell. For me the line in the sand is to never become the person whose sole barometer of the outside world is checking what is featured in the "seasonal" aisle at Walgreens. This is an activity, for your information, that I do currently enjoy! But I do not wish for my world to ever completely reduce down to being that small. Unlike the once beloved but now neglected and discarded old homes on my street, I want to remain relevant, at least to the greater neighborhood.

I want my life to be more than just the seasonal aisle.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The "This House" series begins: "This House", #1

I have decided to try something new with my blog for a while and see how I like it and how well it is received. The idea sprang from my recent walks around my neighborhood--something that I have never done in the 15 years I have lived in this building. It is truly amazing what you see when you are moving at a walking pace, and what I have seen on my walks has inspired me to use my imagination concerning the inhabitants and history of the buildings I am seeing. I am shocked to discover that there are quite a few decrepit buildings within a three block radius, and perhaps that is why there is a buying frenzy going on around here now with 100 year old bungalows being razed to make way for upscale apartment homes and condominiums. To see them side by side is quite the contrast, and I will share some of them with you. 

But that will just be half the story, since those of you who read me regularly know that I like to mix up the personal with the public, and vice-versa, so that will not change. The stories of the buildings will segue into whatever I am thinking about when I write the post. Hopefully the transitions will not be jarring. The point of this new format is to stimulate my imagination, show you the neighborhood, and give me a chance to write more frequent, briefer posts. We will see how well I succeed with the latter! 

And so we're off! And what better way to start than with "my house"...

The apartment building I live in.
One seldom knows where one is going to "end up". When I landed at this Hollywood apartment building in 1999, I was fresh out of my first live-in relationship, and in the middle of the most productive streak of my performing career. I heard about this place from a friend, and my roommate and I were desperate to find an apartment, so once I looked at it and liked it I called him and told him to meet me there with his checkbook.

Even though we were desperate, we fortunately did not have to settle. The apartment was nice, and large, with two bedrooms and two baths. At the time, the rent was $830 per month, an amount that you can't even get a shitty studio for in these parts now. The landlady was a character for sure--an older Polish woman who lived here with her seldom seen and reputedly cranky husband. When she was showing us the place, she spoke with particular pride of the curtains, which she told me she made herself out of old house-robes. Truth!

Shortly after we moved in, the cranky old husband died, perhaps even before I ever actually saw him, and the kindly wife moved back to Poland to be with family. I immediately changed the curtains. We then progressed through a succession of horribly inept managers, who suffered from problems ranging from unemployment to alcoholism to drug addiction and more. For the last dozen years, I have been the manager, and it is one of the best actions I have ever taken. During this time I have lived in a two bedroom, one bath Hollywood apartment with a patio, for NO rent. That's right. As manager, I get free rent in exchange for my manager duties, which are not that time-consuming. Don't call me lucky though, please. Nothing fell into my lap.

Another view. I work hard to keep the plants happy.
This place is now my home, at least for as long as I continue to stay here. I have worked to make the grounds greener, and have overseen many improvements to the units. There are some tenants I would love to see leave, but that goes with the territory. There are 16 units in all between two buildings. In the picture you can just see the building I live in.

1920'S bungalow down the street
Both buildings were built in the 70's, and I hear that they overtook two separate lots that each had a small Craftsman bungalow, just like the ones that are still hanging on down the street. This street used to be all bungalows in the early 1920's when Hollywood was developing, but by the time this building was built, the block had fallen on hard times and was a known drug trafficking area.
The bungalow next door
Fortunately that has changed, and the area is fairly safe, though we do get a lot of nightclub traffic, being just half a block from Santa Monica Blvd. I suspect that within the next 10-20 years all these apartment buildings will be gone and replaced with upscale new buildings catering to all the young city dwellers who want to live "near the action".

All neighborhoods change, all the time, but especially city neighborhoods. It is interesting walking around the area and noticing details I have never seen before.

I notice details.

While we were talking, I took in everything, which is easy to do when talking intently with someone. He has shaggy, curly brown hair, sparkling dark eyes, beard scruff, and from what I can see beyond the lapel and cuff of his tan sport coat, tattoos moving across his upper chest and up his forearm. The nails are natural--not groomed, but not dirty, just natural, which I find attractive in this city of uber-grooming. When he smiled, dimples formed in his cheeks, which was as adorable as it sounds. While talking, he seemed to not have any interest in not talking, and he paid attention as one does when they have an interest in the person speaking.

And then I saw it. At the edge of his right coat sleeve, it stuck out ever so subtly, but it caught my eye, because as mentioned, I notice details. It was the plastic tag from a price label. The label was gone, but the tag remained, there at the edge of his right coat sleeve. And that is when his charm reached overload.

I suspected many things. I suspected that he had just bought the coat that afternoon, which would speak to his intention to set a good impression with a group of strangers. I suspected that he had bought the coat a long time ago, from a second hand store, and neglected to remove the plastic tag. I suspected that he had borrowed the coat and was unaware of the tag being there at all. I suspected that he might wear this coat everywhere, and that there was not much thought about it at all, although I did not suspect this possibility very much, because he seemed deliberate. I suspected that he was there for a similar reason I was--the opportunity to be involved in intelligent conversation with other men about something other than sex. But most of all, I suspected that this plastic label tag was the most important detail of all for me to notice, as it signaled the possibility that this young man is just unself-conscious enough to not notice such details; and from my detail-conscious world, that is just the piece of information to signal possibilities.

I suspect...change is coming in my neighborhood.