Friday, May 11, 2018

Mom's Recipe Box


Do we ever really know our mothers? I certainly didn’t, not really. By the time I was born in 1962 she was already 40 years old—she lived a lifetime before I ever showed up. In addition, she had been married three times before she married my father, and had a 20 year-old daughter from her first marriage. I think that mothers' lives can be easily divided into two categories: before our birth and after our birth. A simplification to be sure; but it is not a reduction, just the establishment of a point of reference.

I knew her, obviously, after my birth, and so I knew her as "Mom". While that is a title that contains a whole lot of context, it is still limiting as far as a definer. It wasn't until I became an adult that I got to move past her role designation and explore the woman behind the title. 

Ruth, my mother, was born in 1922. Each decade of her life would show her cultural changes she could not have possibly imagined, and yet she seemed, at least to me, to adjust naturally into each period of change, as though she were a product of the time rather than a precursor. The truth is that she was a product of the times, as much as I am a product of not only the 70’s and the 80’s when I was growing up, but also a reflection of recent years. With my mother, however, there were certain roles that did not change so much over time.

Mom did the cooking in our household (just like moms did in most households back then). I seem to remember that the only place where men could cook was on a BBQ, involving meat. Mothers rarely were seen cooking outside, they were relegated to the kitchen, and back in those days that is just the way it was. Nobody seemed to mind much, but then I don’t recall anyone ever asking the mothers what they thought of it.

When I think back on my mother’s cooking, I have an overall sense of pleasantness. I liked her food, though truth be told she cooked from scratch only half the time. These were the days when convenience foods showed up and came into vogue—the grocery frozen aisle held all kinds of modern miracles that simply required "heating up". I remember with fondness the many nights of Swanson pot pie dinners—I could not decide if I liked chicken or turkey the best—but I do remember that the beef pies seemed “exotic” to me for some reason. For many years I only knew vegetables that came thawed from a box or limp and plae from a can. Salads, a staple of my adult diet, were universally made back then with iceberg lettuce and served with bottled dressings (I preferred 1000 Island--I never even knew that dressing could be made at home!).

When my  mother did make something “from scratch”, it often involved soup mix from an envelope or chunk pineapple from the can. My favorite of her from scratch recipes was her tacos, for here she would go all out by frying the corn tortillas herself to make them crisp/soft. The shredded beef was from a can, but it was just the way things were done! She would put out shredded cheddar cheese and lettuce and pair them with canned refried beans. I loved it, and make my tacos similarly today, though I cook the meat myself and also add sour cream and taco sauce.

***
Imagine my surprise and delight when, after she died, I discovered a recipe box among her things. I suppose I knew that she used recipes, but as a child I was so seldom involved in the act of preparing food that I never really thought much about it. When I opened the recipe box I found newspaper clippings, typed index cards, and hand written recipes all in a loose alphabetical order. Look! There is the Two-Toned Fudge she always made at Christmas (I have since continued the tradition). There is the Hawaiian Chicken she would make with rice on special occasions! Boston Baked Beans! Upside Down Peach Cake (when did she make that?)! Macaroni 'Seafarer" Casserole (what the hell?)!

I am not sure why, of all things, I decided to keep the recipe box, but I am glad I did. It is comforting to see her cursive handwriting on the cards--each section is a chance to explore what she thought might be an interesting family dish. There were certainly many other things of hers that we had to go through when she died, and for me I wanted to get through it as fast as I could. How do you dissemble a person's life? I still don't know the answer to that question. What I do know is that every item we agreed to discard felt like a slap to my mother's face. Does that resonate with you?

She had a bunch of condolence cards from 45 years ago when she lost her daughter Marla to pneumonia. I was born one month after Marla's death, so I never met her, but her life and the effect of her death were all around me growing up--in the photo album pictures, the home movies, in my father's alcoholism and my mother's over-protectiveness. As I read some of the cards, I realized that Mom had kept them all these years because she probably could not bring herself to throw them out. How could she? And now here I was holding them in my hands, trying to decide on whether to keep or toss these reminders of a child's tragic death. 

I threw them out, and it killed me. I hate to even think about it. But they were my mother's sacred reminders, not mine. Now that she was gone, who needed to be reminded of what happened that day? I certainly didn't.

Have you ever had to throw away a loved one's valued keepsakes? I hope you never have to.


***
The recipe box was a part of my own memories and so I chose it, along with the wedding dress my mother made for when she married my dad. These items have her touch on them; they are reminders of two of the skills I most noticed about her when I was growing up: cooking and sewing. Though I am sure that whoever goes through my things when I die will discard both the recipe box and the wedding dress, I am okay with that, because the memories should end with me. Nobody else would care about them, I think.


This Mother's Day, I am making Mom's Chicken Cacciatore for a group of friends. As a kid, the very name of it was almost too much for me--it must be foreign! But I have fond memories of the dish and how it made me feel as though we were very cosmopolitan for eating it. I will add a few ingredients to snap it up, after all, I have moved past cooking with soup mix, and my friends and I will remember our mothers over shared food and drink. I think she would have approved, and she would have been happy to let someone else do the cooking for a change.



Sunday, March 18, 2018

THIS IS MY BOYFRIEND



"Can you please stop at Sunset to drop off my friend?"

***
The other night I thought about wearing my blue hair wig to a Fisherspooner show here in Los Angeles, but I thought better of it. I have a bit of trouble showing my "freak" in mixed company, and I was not sure what crowd would be at the show.

I was right to be cautious. While Fisherspooner is rightly looked at as a queer act (based partly on the number of mostly naked mens who populated his stage show in versions of g-strings and harnesses), one can never be too careful about self-expression these days. Upon arriving, I noticed that the majority of the crowd was indeed queer, but also quite "normie" in that they easily could have fit in at the local Target without getting a single double-take. There were, of course, a couple of dolled up drag queens and one or two who-gives-a-shit fashion boys who bravely carried the torch for the rest of us closet freaks. But that was okay. At 55, I don't need to wave my flag for all to see anymore.

I was dressed, nevertheless, in a way that some might call "stretching it", were it not for my level of fitness and good skin. If you aren't sure of what you can pull off and what you can't, what can you be sure of? So despite my outfit I was confident of my safety on the stretch of Hollywood Blvd. that houses the Fonda Theater. I was queer, but not uncomfortably so. This is how I prefer to walk through the world.

***

I have written before about how my personal becomes political merely by being a gay atheist. I mean, I am pretty much a target for half the nation from the time I walk out the door by virtue of those aspects alone. Fortunately, the half of the nation that has it out for me is not too sharp in the skill of decoding subtlety, so most days I return home unscathed and unthreatened, just another white guy returning home from the world.

I like it this way. I prefer to wage war with actions taken within the confines of my apartment; actions that are effective despite being less demonstrative than, say, marching in the streets. Have I ever mentioned that marching in the streets strikes me more as individual empowerment than as a tool for systemic change? No matter--to each his or her own. But if you have not picked up on this yet, these days I would rather fly "under the radar". This is out of respect to both my safety as well as the well-being of those who care about me. (Don't they say that true war is not waged in the battlefield, but rather in the boardrooms?) In other words, if I am going to fight, I am going to fight smart. I have no intention of getting hit by a stray bullet or an errant bayonet. That's no way to go, I say. I still have way to much to do.

***
So the night of the concert, after I had left the theater, I found myself in an unanticipated situation when my boyfriend asked to ride with me in the LYFT to Sunset Blvd., where he could then easily walk back to his place. It wasn't his presence in the car that was unsettling, it was the fact that now I had to let the driver know that we were dropping someone off on the way to my place. I did it sort of like this:
"Can you please stop at Sunset to drop off my friend?"
You may have spotted the gaffe, but if not please allow me to point it out to you. I had just publicly referred to my boyfriend, my gay boyfriend, as my friend.

Believe me, it was noticed, not so much by the driver, but certainly by my boyfriend. He proceeded to repeat back to me, "Your friend? Your friend?", until it became obvious to me that it must also be obvious to the driver that we were, in fact, gay boyfriends, and that I had just referred to my gay boyfriend as my friend.

Oh the pain.

Despite my best efforts to fly "under the radar" long enough to get safely home, I had now been outed by my own best efforts to stay in the closet with this LYFT driver.

I cannot and will not blame my boyfriend. He was 100% right in pointing out the mistake, and I can only thank him for doing it with a sense of humor instead of outrage. But the question lingers in my mind: "What the hell was going on with me to say such a thing?"

***

I have lived thus far without too much overt damage from the effects of homophobia. All in all, I would say that I have fared far better than most. Oh, I have had my share of indignities, to be sure. In grade school I was teased because of my "sensitive voice", my close friendships with girls, and for wearing V-neck sweaters as shirts (it was a look, dammit!). I suffered the self-loathing that results from my Catholic teachings that homosexuality is a sin just a smidge less evil than, say, murder. I recall to this day the feeling of my stomach nearly turning in on itself as my 17-year-old self reluctantly answered my mother's question of whether I was a homosexual with a shaky I think so, followed by wanting to throw up. I came of age during the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, when my 20-year-old sex drive was forcibly smashed into submission by the utter terror at possibily catching a deadly and horrible disease that the government did not care about and nobody yet knew anything about, including how it was spread. I was openly told by my brother, while struggling through my first year at the U.S. Naval Academy, that my being gay was the cause of my father's alcoholism and the reason the family was falling apart. I was once lectured by my sister, who informed me that my "need" for family acceptance was not nearly as important as our mother's peace of mind, because, well, I was smart and could take care of myself (she was half right). I remember standing, after a show, outside the Celebration Theater in Hollywood when a passing driver threw glass bottles at me and my friends while yelling "Faggots!" (fortunately, their aim was as off as their intellect, and they missed us). I remember being verbally assaulted and physically threatened by a passerby while discreetly leaning against my then-boyfriend in front of his apartment building one night in Hollywood. But still, I have fared better than most.

Those are just the overt examples. The covert homophobia is not so situational. It is, rather, systemic, affecting gay men and women everyday in a variety of ways, even if it is affecting them from within their own emotional lives.

When I referred to my gay boyfriend as my friend, in my mind I tried to tell myself that I did it to protect him, that I was keeping him out of harm's way in case our LYFT driver was not as progressive as I might hope. But that is not the truth of why I said it. The truth is that I was motivated by shame--the same shame that I felt over 40 years ago when my voice was ridiculed for being senstive, the very shame that caused me, years later, to manipulate my speaking voice into a more masculine tone. It was the same shame the made me re-think the blue hair wig on the night I went to see Fisherspooner, despite how great I look in it. It was shame that influenced me to put my boyfriend's feelings second to my fear of being judged. I wanted to avoid seeing the driver's eyes checking out his gay passengers in his rear-view mirror. I wanted to avoid whatever I thought he would think. I wanted to be just two passengers--like any passengers he might drive that evening--I didn't want to be political simply because we are gay and my boyfriend needed to be dropped off on Sunset Blvd. on the way to my place.

I wasn't protecting my boyfriend. I was protecting myself.

***
I decided to write this essay because, though I am not proud of what I did, I want to be proud of what I do now. I love my boyfriend. I love being gay. I love that he is 30 years younger than I because there is nothing like his 20-something-year-old lips. I love how he accidentally coughed into his mimosa the other week and sprayed me with the beverage inadvertently. I love how when he tries to act sexy he ends up resembling a drunk Lana Turner. I love that he loves me and that we are both men and that we have had sex together so many times that if there is a hell (there isn't!) I would have a front row seat at the foot of Satan himself. I love that he went out of his way to understand why Borderline, by Madonna, is such an important song to me. And I love that at the ripe age of 55, I can finally love someone without hating myself.

I did not demonstrate my love for these things the night I asked the driver to let my friend out at Sunset Blvd., but we are never "done", are we? That night I may have diverged from my goal of affecting systemic change, but in this essay I hope to get back on track. And I will never again refer to my boyfriend as my friend, not because the designation "friend" is a lesser descriptor, but because it does not tell the world the truth of who he is to me, or the truth of who I am to him. And I am tired of shame keeping me from telling the truth.

THIS IS MY BOYFRIEND.




Saturday, December 30, 2017

23--On The Borderline


Have you ever wondered what your life would be like had you been born in a different year?

I did not choose to be born in 1962, obviously. Despite popular new age thinking, nobody can actually "choose" their birth date any more than they can "choose" their parents. That is just more wishful thinking for people who have trouble with the idea of randomness. However, I often think that had I chosen the year of my birth, it would have been 1951. In choosing this year, I imagine certain charms about being raised in the 50's, well, as long as you were not a person of color, or gay, or a woman, or poor. But I could be mistaken, for I was not there. I just like how it seems that people conducted themselves with more decorum back then, at least in public if not in private. I suspect it would have been a good childhood at the least.

But childhood is not the primary reason I would choose to be born in 1951. I think that, throughout history, childhood has been a mixed bag of love and shit, regardless of the greater culture. The main draw would have been becoming a teenager in the mid to late 60's, arguably the most important time of cultural change in the last century. Imagine it: growing up during the emergence of rock and roll and the gradual shift from repression to expression. I think about being 16 years old and being shaped and shaken by songs from the likes of The Beatles, The Turtles, Buffalo Springfield, The 5th Dimension, The Mamas and the Papas, Jefferson Airplane, The Monkees, and more. I knew songs from these artists during my time, but I was just a child then and they meant little to me other than being catchy and melodic (imagine ever taking catchy and melodic for granted--how I long for it in today's music!). But were I a teen when these songs were released, they would have shaped my development as a young adult in a way that diverged from what I had known.

The new expression of youth in the late 60's
In my alternative life I imagine leaving my parents' home and moving to New York or San Francisco in 1968 and emerging myself in the counterculture as a way to form my own identity apart from how I had been conditioned. I realize that even the counterculture was, or would shortly become, its own culture, but at the time it was a radical throw-off of traditional views, gender roles, and perspectives. It would only become a culture itself once it was discovered that money could be made from it, as the case was with the commercialization of Janis Joplin, with the record company pushing her to be a fashion icon and the voice of the hippies (this ultimately killed her far more than her drug use). In this timeline, I would have been able to avoid the draft and the Vietnam War, since they drew draft lotteries only on men born between 1944 and 1950. While the show China Beach has its charms, it does not make me nostalgic for that particular experience that I did not have.

Had all this happened, I would have eventually, say around 1972, begun to live my young adulthood in the singer-songwriter heaven that was the early 1970's (they say the 60's ended with the Manson killings in '69--party over!). Carole King, Carly Simon, Billy Joel, Janis Ian, Dan Fogelberg, Neil Diamond, and more. And I would have hit my adulthood stride just as disco took over the late 70's--what a time that must have been! In reality, I was in my late teens back then, and though I was indeed a huge disco music fan, I was too young to get into anything other than the young adult disco in San Diego (Stratus was its name!). At least it had a lighted floor like the one in Saturday Night Fever, but I am sure it lacked the cocaine-fueled creative and sexual vibe of adult clubs in New York. Believe it or not, I did once get into Studio 54 before it stopped being a dance club in the mid-late 80's. I was visiting New York during a break from college. I remember standing in line and miraculously getting in, but beyond that my memory is vague. I just remember feeling that I had arrived, when in fact all I had really done was arrive.

***
I often wonder what my parents must have thought of the 60's and the 70's. Mom was born in '22 and Dad in '28, so their formative years occured during the late 30's and early 40's. What a shock the late 60's must have been to them! Or maybe not, now that I think about it. For most of the country it was actually "business as usual", with the hippie culture being isolated to small groups of youth in San Francisco. The counterculture was fringe enough that most folks just mildly adjusted their hairstyles and clothing, not their behavior, to keep up with the changing norms. But still, think of it! The fashion, the music, the sexual norms were quite different from what was happening in the 40's--I regret that I never asked them about this while they were alive. At the least it must have been awkward, at the most a relief.

What I find interesting about the time my parents came of age is that there did not seem to be a separate "youth culture" during those years. All the pictures from the 30's and 40's show young people dressing much like adults did at the time, or at least "adults in training". It seemed as though it was the opposite of today, where adults attempt to look like young people--back then everyone appeared to be anxious to grow up!

Teens in the 1940's
I found out that the word "teenager" was not even invented until 1941--it came to be as a result of the outlawing of child labor. Suddenly young people had a time when they could just be young before worrying about going to work and a new developmental category was created! But even still the new teenagers had not yet created a unique culture--they were mostly practicing to be grownup, albeit with a bit less sophistication and sex appeal.

That changed in the 60's, primarily due to involvement in music and politics--suddenly young folks had a voice that differentiated them from adults, and they developed a look that went along with that difference. Perhaps that is why it was business as usual for most adults--they were not part of the revolution. And as a child, neither was I.

***
Had I been born in 1951, well then it would have been a different story altogether. Even if I had been missed the draft, I would not have been out of hot water completely, as I would have most probably succumbed to the next deathtrap: AIDS. I surely would have enjoyed the sexual freedom and exploration of the late 70's and the hedonism and ecstasy of the disco age as an adult, but like many who were in their late 20's and early 30's during that time, I would have had a hard time avoiding the virus that affected so many who were part of that lifestyle. 

I was in my early 20's at the time, which probably is the reason I am still alive today--I was too young to have been exposed due to excessive sexual activity. By the time I had opportunities to have sex the rumors of "gay cancer" were already spreading, so I abstained completely from sex for a couple of years. I remember being terrified--this was a period when nobody knew how it was spread. By 1985 nobody (except the government) could deny that there was something seriously scary going on. AIDS cut the 80's in half the way that disco cut the 70's in half, though with far less celbration, obviously. At the time it felt like my adulthood was paused before it even got started.

Want to hear somthing controversial? Sometimes, when I am wistful, I imagine giving up my life in exchange for the "full experience" of the late 70's. But these are just the musings of someone who was not there, and someone who did not get sick, and someone who did not know many people who did get sick and die. There can be a sort of romanticism in nostalgia for what never was, and we are allowed to go wherever we want to go in our minds, but in the light of day I am grateful to have sidestepped that particular timetable, because at the very least I made it to the age of 23.

***
A pic from the weekend we met in 2015

I met K when he was 23, and I was 53. Through ups and downs, we have known each other for over two years now and have been officially dating for just over a year as of this writing. I did not want to date a man more than half my age, for a million reasons. But the one reason that applies to this essay is the cultural reason--too much happened in the 30 years between us--it can be quite difficult to share perspectives from one time to another.

As an example, K's 23rd year was nothing like mine. He was working toward an actual career, having already received a master's degree. He had been in one major relationship with another older man, but that did not end well. His sexual experience was fair, but limited, although he had already explored some "outer limits" of his sexuality. In contrast, in my 23rd year I was hoping to be a professional dancer, but I was working various shitty service jobs to pay the bills. It was 1985, a great year for music but a horrible one for sex, since AIDS was now a full blown nightmare in the gay world. Up until then I had a number of lovers and sexual experiences, starting from the age of 16. There is no way my "23" could be the same as K's. They were 30 years apart. But perhaps some bridges could be built.

Music can create such a bridge. In 1985, the year I turned 23, my favorite artist (along with nearly everybody else's) was Madonna. My favorite song of hers at that time was "Borderline" from her debut album. Though it was first released to the world in 1983, it was not until June of  '84 that the song showed up as a radio single. It was a smash, charting 30 weeks on the Billboard charts, and was so enduring that it actually delayed the release of her already finished second album (Like A Virgin). The song's massive success was greatly aided by the accompanying music video, which was directed by Mary Lambert, and shot in Los Angeles in early 1984. That video actually changed my life, as it was my first narrative visual exposure of Madonna, and it perfectly presented her as a fashion and lifestyle icon. It was set in the street and showed the multiracial scene she surrounded herself with, and her confidence and style was fully formed in a way that we all would strive to emulate. I had never seen anything like it before.

Besides being unnaturally photogenic, Madonna's video presence spoke to a part of me that was oddly familiar with the unfamiliar--do you know what I mean? Have you ever seen or heard something that is unknown, but feels known? Not as in a past life sort of thing, but as in "this has always been within me" sort of thing. "Borderline" awakened me, so to speak, both activating and displaying the attitude that I would adopt to get me through the second half of the 80's. The video showed me that, despite death (or perhaps because of it), life was all around the fringes of the street, and it's main fuel--love--would not be reduced or diminished. It showed me that I could be aggressive toward my fears; that I could chance taking huge bites out of life as long as I looked great while doing it. Fashion was the armor and style was the weapon against everything that scared us back then. It may sound silly, but most of us were quite literally grasping for something to hold us above water. Madonna's music and image gave us something to be excited about, and her brazen hipness prepared me for the upcoming years--years that would become even worse before they become better. We all were, without a doubt, on the borderline of something.

I watch the video today and I swear it does not look dated--she was that good (and Mary Lambert's directing instincts were spot on). Unlike many other artists of the time, Madonna didn't just wear the look, she was the look. I have tried to convey the importance of this song and video to K some 30-plus years after its moment, and I could tell that his listening was, well, more polite than convinced. They say that if you have not lived an specific experience, that you can grasp it intellectually, but not experiencially. I suppose that I wanted him to share my experience of the song, but that could never happen. The time of my experience of it has long passed, but remains fresh in my memory. I wonder if I would react to the song the same way were it released today? I do think it is a well written song, but I am too attached to it to truly be objective.

Weeks later, K came to me and told me that he finally "got" why I loved it so much. He had listened to it enough that he got pulled into his own experience of the song, 33 years after the world first heard it. A bridge had been built.

***
Me in the mid-80's with "Randy". Check out the 'stache!
In the British science fiction series "Black Mirror", there is an episode in Season 3 called "San Junipero". (K actually shared this episode with me, and I am very glad he did because it generated a lot of thought.) I will not spoil it for you if you have not seen it, but the basic story is set in a a fictional 1987, where two elderly and ill women are able to meet and virtually "be young again" via advanced technology. The show, beyond being well written and acted, reminds me of why I have nostalgia for the 80's. If you were young in the 80's, you cannot pretend that you are still young anymore. The women in the episode are artificially inserted back into their youth, it is the only way they can act on what they are thinking. But that technology is fictional--this could not really happen. For me, I cannot revisit the way I looked and acted in the 80's, at least not without looking like a grand fool. I cannot act as though nothing has changed. Everything has changed. It was a period that does not translate into older age, therefore it is a period that will forever be trapped by within its own timeline. Perhaps that is why Madonna ditched the hair rags and rubber bracelets only two years into her career--she knew it would not last and wanted to move on ahead of the others.

K is 26 as of this writing. He is still fully in the midst of his youth. The experience of a 55 year-old with a 26 year-old is far different than the experience of a 26 year-old with a 55 year-old. At times I would try to explain to him that he could not know what it was like to be my age--that it was more than what his fantasies told him, that it also involves some aches and sagging muscles and lost erections on occasion. Not very sexy at all, perhaps. He gets me to rally around his youthful interests once in a while--I had a blast at a Kesha concert that I never would have attended on my own. But what finally worked in getting him to understand who I am now was helping him to understand who I was. This is why it was so important for him to "get" the significance of the "Borderline" song. That song tells him more about my experience in the 80's than any verbal discussion. How does it do this? It conveys the mood of the time. It is experiential. He was able to feel the time, as much as he possibly could without having lived through it.

Love can be a tricky thing. Being in love, a phrase I am not fond of, is usually about who we want the other to be. Loving someone, as I like to think, is about who the other is now, who they used to be, and who we help them to become in the future. Much more interesting to me! Meeting me when I was 53, over halfway through my life, meant that K had a lot more understanding of me to do than I had to of him. It must be difficult to join someone after they had already lived most of their life. But by exploring who I was in my 20's in the 80's, he has been able to catch up a bit. Thanks, Madonna.

I cannot ever be 23 again. That time is permanently a part of my past--it is a part of many peoples' past, and it is lovely to think about on hot summer nights. During these moments, the melancholy sadness of spent youth is replaced by the golden warmth of memory. And memory can be a wonderful filter to look through. I can walk across the bridge made of shared musical experience to join closer with my young boyfriend--not to join him in youth, but in a mid-ground where we both feel ageless for a bit, at least until we cross back over the borderline.




Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Personal Is Political, Unlike Coq Au Vin



"The Personal Is Political" is not my turn of phrase. I borrow it respectfully from the Women's Liberation Movement of the 60's, as it was first brought up in a paper by Carol Hanisch. You can read the paper, and her explanatory introduction, HERE. Please enjoy my first and possibly only post from 2017,,,

***
As I write this essay, I have Coq Au Vin cooking in the crockpot for a dinner I am sharing with a friend tonight. Have you ever made anything in a crockpot? If you have, then you have noticed how the smell of the cooking food infuses every space in your home. I can assure you that this is the case in my home at this moment. The recipe that I am making makes use of packaged beefy onion soup mix as a "cheat" step, but the finished product tastes the opposite of a short cut! Nevertheless, the apartment smells as though I am brewing a cauldron of onion soup. The beefy kind.

I want you to also get a visual sense of what is going on. My apartment is in the front of the building, and the patio door faces west toward the setting sun (in the evening, of course). My front door is opposite the patio door, but facing south, and opening into the drive that separates the two buildings of the complex. Here in Los Angeles, the wind mostly blows from "off-shore", meaning that it blows in from the ocean from west to east. Because of this, I often get a good breeze blowing through my place from the patio door toward the front door. If I have both of these doors open, the smells from whatever I am cooking waft into the drive, and every tenant with a nose is made aware of what is happening in my kitchen.

Fortunately for me, this phenomena has resulted in more mouths-watering than scrunched-noses, if I am to believe the reports. Were I to prepare a dish that was not favorable to a particular tenant, I would assume that I would receive more of the latter than the former, as tenants in this building are not shy about sharing their discomforts with me.

***
I sometimes feel as though my ways of thinking are similar to a slow-cooking pot of Coq Au Vin, with the significant difference being that my thinking, when expressed, gets more scrunched noses than watering mouths. I tend to be a private person, meaning that I like to keep the "doors" of my thoughts closed to most. Even my essays are more about "themes" than my life in particular. But over time I have come to accept that thoughts, like smells, often travel underneath, around, and through closed doors to the public space beyond the private.

What I mean to say is that, like it or not, I am a political person by the very nature of how I think, move, and live in the world. The very act of holding a man's hand in public or not saying "amen" during a church funeral or wedding service are choices that, despite discretion, get noticed by others. And this noticing then influences how others respond to me, even if all they know about me is what they gather from the observed act. And the reason that the act gets noticed at all is merely because it is often not what most people do. That makes it political.

What happens when we see, hear, read, smell, or taste something that is not immediately familiar or within what we know? Do our mouths water, or do our noses scrunch up? We all know the answer to that one, I suspect. My best friend and I are true foodies, and there have been many times when I have found myself in a restaurant with him where he will ask me to taste something I have never had before. In these cases, one of two outcomes happens: either I blind-taste the item and give my system a shock of unfamiliarity; or he will tell me what the item is "similar to", priming me to expect a flavor/sensation that I am acquainted with. Whether he primes me or not, I generally have more mouth-watering experiences in these cases for the simple fact that we tend to dine in good restaurants.

But what about when people are not primed?

***
Atheism is one of those ways of thinking that people are, more often than not, not primed for. In 2017, fewer and fewer folks are scrunching up their noses at, say, homosexuality, or transgender people. We see them on TV, and sometimes even in our families. We hear about them in the news and read about them in the magazines (does anyone read magazines anymore?). But atheism is still relatively in the closet, meaning that the darkness prevents clear viewing, or even simple acknowledgement at times. I have no doubt that the U.S. would more readily elect a gay or lesbian president before they would elect an atheist one, and if ever a gay or lesbian atheist were elected, I would fully prepare for the pitchforks to come out. In the same way that homosexuality used to be linked with perversion, atheism is often associated with not having a moral compass. The idea of a man loving a man is easier for America to digest than the idea of a man not loving god.

Just because you don't understand something does not mean that it is okay to judge it. How many times do I say this to the couples who come to my psychotherapy practice for help?

Let me clarify that I am commenting on the issue rather than complaining about it. I have nothing to complain about! As a cis-gender, white, masculine, tall bio-male, I pretty much have the world at my fingertips. My oddities are not in plain sight, unless you are paying very close attention (it never happens!), so I suffer very little compared to most. Additionally, my atheism is a choice, whereas my attraction to men is not. But regardless of a feature being from nature or choice, I notice that only those on the "shortlist" get a free pass.

What is on the shortlist?
-being heterosexual
-being and/or looking male
-being and/or looking masculine
-being and/or looking white
-being Christian or a variation of that (preferably)
-believing in God, not just a god
-being cis-gender

What is not on the short list?
-being gay, lesbian, bi, asexual, or any variation that is not straight
-being agender or non-binary
-being of color, particularly if you are "dark"
-being trans
-being genderqueer
-being Muslim
-being atheist

Notice that the last two on the list are choices, but often identify a large part of a person's identity.

For this essay, I am focusing on being gay and the choice to be an atheist, but only as the context from which to present a perspective on how who we are and what we do often becomes political, whether we want it to or not. Besides, it is what I know, so I stand a greater chance of being nearly right. And I like being right.

***
What does it mean for the personal to be political?

I did not know myself until my personal actually became political. How did I know that this was happening? Well, people started being upset with what I did, who I was, what I said, and how I said it. I know that happens to everybody some of the time (and perhaps some of the people all of the time), but the difference between regular upset and when the personal gets political is that with the latter the upset is really upset! When others would get upset with me for how I said something, I take full responsibility for that. I readily admit that my "how" needed working on over the years, but that was the pendulum swinging from zero to full speed.

Initially, politicization began because I was "sensitive" as a boy (not allowed!), or so I was told again and again, and as I got older it showed up when others found out, or suspected, that I was gay. I remember one time as an adult when I was in Hollywood with a guy I was dating, chatting and saying goodbye in front of his building at the end of a date night. We were leaning into each, but not making out, just showing the kind of close physical contact any couple who were dating might do at the end of the night. Suddenly, some guy on the sidewalk yelled at us, "Oh my fucking god, are you two faggots?" At first I thought it had to be a friend of ours, making fun of us in the way that gays sometimes do, but then it continued. "Are you guys kissing? I think I am gonna be sick! Do you like suck dick and fuck ass too? That's fucking disgusting!"

Now, this was Hollywood in the early 2000's. Not exactly the place where one would expect intolerance and hatred to show up. I looked at the guy, who was walking his dog with his girlfriend, and I replied with the first thing I noticed about him that I could attack. "Well, I may by gay, but at least I am not fat."

Dear readers, I want you to know that the thing about a good retort is that it not only hits the target, it obliterates it. I caution you to not go after any seasoned homosexual, because in all likelihood he will obliterate you with his retort. (Sorry, lesbians, you do not generally have this particular skill--but don't worry, you have other gifts.) This skill is not about being being queeny. This is about attack, and knowing, from years of observation, what people's weak spots are. Do not underestimate this ability, or you will likely perish under its effect. 

When I called the guy fat, you should have seen his face. He has just verbally attacked me and my date with a vulgar, homophobic outburst that was not provoked by anything other than two gay men "being gay men". But once I called him fat, he acted as though a line had been crossed. He approached me with hatred in his eyes and all of a sudden I realized that I might have to defend myself. Fortunately, I continued my rant toward him, and I am not a small person, and the opposite of fat, so he stopped short, perhaps renegotiating his chances of success in a confrontation. I do not know if I would have beat him up, but I do know that some of the things I said to him hit like a punch. I do know that I was ready to protect myself and my guy.

Fortunately, I did not have to. My date recognized the attacker as a tenant of the building they both live in, and he warned him that he intended to report this to the manager, a gay man who had zero tolerance for homophobic behavior. The guy backed off, but the damage was done. My date and I were both shaken, and the "shame" of being gay, reinforced by the verbal attack, forced a wedge between us. Who wants to be with the enemy?

***
Growing up, my family celebrated all holidays together, as most families did until, I don't know, they didn't. When I became an adult and moved out of the house, I felt there was an expectation that I would continue to celebrate holidays at home, and I did in fact do this at the beginning. My mother, as I have described in earlier essays, relied on homemade dishes as much as she did canned items, so our holiday celebrations were a mix of cooked meats, homemade gravies, cooked frozen or canned veggies, and store bought rolls. My mother was, truth be told, really good at warming things up for dinner, but that was par for the course in the late 60's and early 70's. Frozen Dinner Night was considered a special treat--so that should give you an idea of the times.

As an adult, I sensed a shift in the family dynamic, but I also recognized that I seemed to be the only one willing to admit that things were changing. I was also aware of the differences in how my brother and I were treated regarding our dating lives. The personal became political when I dared to comment on this difference, which consisted of pointing out that his girlfriend was granted validity by the family, while the anyone I was dating was treated like an "imaginary friend". Not real. My love life, which I was expressing in the only way that was natural to me, was not considered "real", while my brother could fuck whomever he wanted and reward her with a prime seat at our holiday table.

The personal had become political in my family, and I spoke up about it, as anyone would, but was immediately reprimanded for being selfish, needy, and inconsiderate of "other's" needs. Didn't I see how hard my mother had worked to make dinner? (May I remind you that she mostly warmed things up?) Why did I have to turn everything into a gay thing? Why was I causing trouble? Why couldn't I just stay quiet? I thought I was just talking about how I felt, I didn't feel like I was being political. But this is the point. For those for whom their personal is political, that label is provided by others.

Now just to show you that I can see both sides, I will admit that I was not the only one in the family whose personal was political. My mother was a woman who had been divorced three times before she met my father--not acceptable in those days! And my father was a dark-skinned Mexican man who married a white woman in the late 50's--enough said about that! But my parents differed from me in one aspect: they did not embrace the political nature of their choices, they ignored it. I, on the other hand, could not ignore it, primarily because I was not allowed to do so, and secondarily because the source of my political nature was not a choice. The world reminded me, on a daily basis, that who I was and what I chose to do about it was unacceptable. And because I could not pretend that this was not happening, I pushed back. I became political.

***
Pushback has an iffy chance of being successful, but then that also depends on what it is you plan to be successful about. In my case, pushback succeeded in making my family upset with me, and it succeeded in my feeling even less understood than before, but more justified in my loudness. On a deeper level, though, let's face it--pushback rarely works. This is because it is an effect of marginalization rather than a solution to it. In other words, it is still part of the problem! The only time it actually changes things is when it is done in a way that cannot be ignored: the early actions of ACT UP during the AIDS crisis; the Occupy Wallstreet movement (at least until it became just another reason to hang out and get stoned); the initial thrust of the Black Lives Matter movement. These examples of pushback were so loud that they resulted in change--for a while.

And yet what other choice does one have when their personal becomes political? Well, the approach that I am currently experimenting with, somewhat successfully, is just to "live my life, being me". While this might not strike you as revolutionary, I have noticed that I am able to be an agent of change on the micro level rather than the macro, and that this change--one person at a time--is not only longer lasting, but also willingly undertaken by the other instead of forced. Change is happening because I am giving others an experience of being myself, a political person, without shame and without agenda. The ones that notice this have an opportunity to be influenced by it for the better. This is why my current approach is not part of the problem, but a solution. So far, so good.

It works with most. But there are some in my life where the political has outweighed the personal. Not surprisingly, those I am referring to all happen to be family. Ah, family--what to make of it? We are thrown into the mix with these people without a say in the process, at least until we become adults and have say. In my case, that say has resulted in me not talking to my brother in 3 years, one of my nieces for the same amount of time, and one of my female cousins. The crime? Being political. But truth be told, there is more to it than that. I really don't like any of these aforementioned relatives. I have, in the past, but I don't like who they are now, and I don't suppose that they are that fond of me either. However, in my defense, I was at a disadvantage from the start due to my being political in ways that "bother" them. At some point, ya gotta make a choice, folks. And I chose to be responsive to what I was feeling. I have no regrets. I wonder if they do?

***
 Coq Au Vin is not the only dish I make in my crockpot, but it is one of my favorites for the simple reason that it is ridiculously easy and crazy delicious. Isn't that the point of crockpots, to make life easier? When I make this dish with the packaged beefy onion soup, I realize that I am taking a shortcut that, most likely, will not be noticed by those who share the meal with me. What they don't know won't hurt them.

I have not yet found any similar shortcuts when it comes to being an authentic human being. In my experience, this process has to be done the hard way, because authenticity is not a given in modern culture and is often chosen in response to feeling the effects of its opposite. As much as I dislike the people who have made my personal political (and the cultural narratives that create the divide in the first place), I also must be grateful for the push this gave me toward my own authentic expression of self. Meaning, I am not interested in hiding what makes me political anymore. I don't pursue provocation (much), I just live my life as I am, and that, some might say, is the most political of all actions. Those who still find me to be political are, I suspect, not only living their own lives, but also the lives of others. Otherwise, my personal would remain personal. This intrusion on their part is controllable, unlike the scents from my slow-cooker Coq Au Vin. How I wish that others could live their lives as tempting invitations, like the scent from my cooking, instead of as unwelcome intrusions, like the actions of my brother, niece, and cousin. When this happens, their political becomes personal for me.

But as they say, it's no skin off my ass. I have a full time job assessing my personal without worrying too much about another's political. But this is also a tightrope walk, as the political is becoming more dangerous in recent months. I am beginning to suspect that my responsibility is greater than just living my life, but the form of that responsibility is vaguer than the urgency to figure it out. I tend to prefer changing systems instead of individuals, as there is a greater chance of success with systems at times since individuals need to affect change on themselves. But both are valid. In the case of my brother, niece, and cousin, I think we consider the other to be a lost cause, so I long ago shifted my focus from individual change to the deconstruction of religious brainwashing, racial separation, gender inequality, climate change denying, and homophobia in all its forms. Perhaps I am being petty, but you can't say I ever denied being human. I admit to holding grudges where they are earned, but I let them motivate rather than stagnate. Can you blame me? My personal is political.



Friday, December 30, 2016

A Familiar Life


Cats have nine lives, supposedly. But from what I have noticed, they don't change one bit throughout any of them--they do the same shit every single day of their passive-aggressive lives. I know what you are saying right now: "The nine lives thingie is about them never dying, NOT the idea that they change lives!!" 

You went back to add the second exclamation point just to make sure that I got how dumb I am for saying that. But it didn't work. I know that cats don't change lives! They don't even change what they do because they don't work! Dogs work!

I saw a bit on the Today show where they were introducing puppies who were soon to become service dogs. The trainer was explaining how the puppies got to have a few weeks of "just being puppies" before the training would commence--but she assured us viewers that once it did start they would be having a good time because "the dogs LOVE their jobs!" Really. Stupid dogs!

Cats would never fall for that trick. But don't think that cats actually have the better deal. Cats may not get suckered into work that is "fun", but they sure as hell can't escape their miserable lives either. At least not until the tenth attempt, but by then, can it really be called living anymore?

Humans are not so simple as to be classified solely as stupid or passive-aggressive, though you don't need me to convince you that there are some humdingers who are examples of either or both. I am fortunate to have avoided these two particular experiences completely: I am not stupid, and I am certainly not passive, uh, in my aggression. I am aggressive-aggressive, but you will have to believe me when I tell you that in some circles that is greatly appreciated (if not welcomed). I try my best to direct my wanderings within appreciative circles. I am not always successful, but in those instances, I think others suffer more than I do.

***
How do we come to be who we are? Though the process can be tracked linearly, close inspection will reveal multiple detours and stops, backtracks and potholes, straightaways and hairpin curves. My life has been no exception. At the age of 54, I find that my memory of where I began sometimes gets muddled. Did I really do that? When did that happen? Was that me? Why don't I remember?

Fortunately, I have stacks of old photos, and I found myself going through them the other day for a reason I cannot remember now. But as I flipped through the albums, I noticed having a strange feeling. I knew the lives I was seeing in the pictures, I knew the places, I knew the people. But at the same time it seemed as if it were another life, not mine. What was once known was no longer known, only familiar. It felt like I was re-reading a book I had read a thousand times--enough times to know what the characters were going to say and do.

But these lives, these places, these people, they are not mine anymore. They are just road stops I hung out at on the way to where I live now. Road stops that exist only in memory, and in photographs.

I like who I am now. I recognize who I used to be. But rather than being connected intimately to this past, it is, alas, only familiar.

***

The thing about this picture is that, despite the slope of the lawn, I was securely grounded in my stance. At least I think I was. Since I was around one year old at the time, I suspect that explicit memory was still not fully online. So though I remember the lawn, it is not actually a memory from this incident, but rather from subsequent years of living in the house that this lawn was attached to. I will go so far as to say that, when I look at this picture, I am more familiar with the lawn than I am with the child standing on it. Another way of saying it is that I have no memory of myself at this time. I only "know" it is me because I have been told so, and as such I have made this picture a part of my story, without further verification.

What makes us believe parts of our story that are not in our memory? Do we simply go on the authority of those who are telling us the story? Why do we accept these stories without question? A silly question, I will admit, and yet why don't we question them when it is our story that is at stake? Sample questions could be:
1. How do you know this is me?
2. Why should I believe you?
3. Do you have proof other than your word?
4. How does knowledge of this change how I have previously thought of myself?

***

I don't actually have memory of the picture above, either, even though my explicit memory was clearly online at the time. I do have a sense memory of this picture though--perhaps implicit, if you will--in that there is familiarity associated with what this picture triggers: weekend runs with my father and brother to Tijuana for haircuts and pan dulce; the front tooth that was "dead" because of a childhood accident involving falling on something; the tee-shirts that I wore to school because that is what kids wore in the late 60's.

But the familiarity ends with these associations. My connection with this little boy is no more intimate than that with a character in a well-read novel. The familiarity at this point is based on a known story more than a lived sense. It is a memory of me, but a memory nonetheless. It is no more a part of who I am now than is a meal I consumed a month ago.

***

I remember this shirt, I remember this cake, I remember this living room, as it was in our house. My mother is with me in this picture, as we were going to a school event with a "Mexican" theme. That is as far as my familiarity goes with this one.

What happens when I look into the eyes of this little boy with the outrageous and yet theme-appropriate shirt? I try to "see" me. I know I wore this shirt and took this cake somewhere, but my related-ness with this boy springs more from compassion than recognition. Compassion for how innocent he truly was, how much he loved his mother, not realizing that even here, nearing 50 years of age, she would leave him far sooner than he preferred. Compassion for how Mom helped me bake this cake, and how she put on her "Mexican" blouse so that she would be theme-appropriate as well. Compassion for how much this boy wanted to do well at school, how much he wanted to be liked, how much he really really like this shirt because on some level it represented "fashion". Compassion for landing in this family somehow, and instantly being declared a part of it (naturally), yet never realizing that membership came with conditions.

I think the cake kicked ass in whatever "contest" it was entered into. At least that is how I would like to remember it. If nothing else, we should have won for our outfits.

***
Me on the right with my mom and brother

Now we're talking! Familiarity verges with knowing when I look at this picture. I loved this vest, and you can surely tell just by looking at me. This was the early 70's and Mom made a lot of our clothes, which meant that, on occasion, I got to pick out the fabric I wanted. I picked a doozy here, and I knew exactly what I was doing.

The thing about style is that you either have it or you don't. Fashion can be bought, but not style. Style is part of one's personality, and it springs from creativity and imagination, courage and vision. It is the result of paying attention, and reflecting what is seen with spin and interpretation. 

I had this look down. My brother, not so much so. But take a look at my mother here and you know where I got my sense of style. Poor Mark (my brother). He couldn't even compete with me and Mom. He was such a dork as a child, and he didn't find his footing until he found the ocean waves and paired them with a surfboard in his teenage years. Unfortunately, he also paired them with cocaine, among other things, but I suspect that is because he never really trusted himself as I did. 

To this day I have a hunch he still doesn't. But what do I know about hunches. What I do know is how to pick a good fabric. 

***

The thing about brothers is that it's like being in an arranged marriage of sorts. I didn't have any choice with who I was a "sibling" with. My brother and I did okay for several years (being so close in age), until the day we no longer were okay. It happened soon after this picture was taken. I was on a bus as part of a foreign exchange program between my school and a school in Mexico. I was 14. I can't remember where we were headed when this picture was taken, but I think I was having a good time with my new friends from south of the border. We were all kids, that is all that mattered to us--certainly not our skin color, language, or country of origin.

When I returned from the two week program, my brother had moved all my stuff out of the room that we shared. He told me in no uncertain terms that he didn't want anything more to do with me. He was done. I was brokenhearted. I think he had decided that I was not cool enough for him. Silly boy. Did he not see how I looked in my rainbow zig-zag vest?

Even with my devastation, I had just returned from the adventure of my life up to this point. I had been out of the goddamn country! I had been to Mexico City, and visited pyramids and bars (yes, they let us in!). But most importantly, I experienced my first crush.

***
My first crush.

Meet Scott. I mean, just look at him. At fourteen, looks carry a lot of weight, because, for me at least, they represented perfection and love and all the things I thought I did not deserve at the time. When Scott looked at me while I took this picture, he seemed to be saying, "I know." Of course he wasn't, he was just using that sleepy-eyed charm that I am not sure he was even fully aware of. But I suspect that he did know something.

My familiarity with this time reminds me of a night while we were all in Mexico City. Many of us students had gone out, and we miraculously got into a disco even though we were all frightfully underage. But it was Mexico in the seventies--I think the legal age was six. Scott had not joined us for some reason, so when I got back to the hotel at around three in the morning, he was already in bed asleep. He and I were sharing one of the double beds, and our other roommate, Dean, would sleep on a mattress on the floor. Dean would not share a bed with another boy. His loss was my gain.

As I slipped into the bed, I realized that Scott was literally taking up the whole mattress with his body splayed out like an "X" from corner to corner. He was wearing only underwear, which for me was pretty much like having Satan tickle my balls, and I had to make him move if I were to ever get a night's sleep. I quietly asked him to move over until he finally roused, but then he did something that will be seared into my memory for all my days. Instead of moving over to his side of the bed, he rolled over onto me, with his whole body.

Let's just consider this incident for a moment. Scott was an athlete at his school, and had the strong muscular body of a developing teenager; he was quite the opposite of me, still underweight for my height, and certainly lacking anything resembling a "build". Scott was a god to me, and more than that, on this trip I became his best friend, which was like being given a pass to the good life. And now this god, my best friend, was on top of me, splayed out in only his underwear.

I did what any closeted fourteen year old would have done in that instant--I fucking panicked. I pushed him off me within a moment of his skin hitting mine, and I acted as though I was totally grossed out about what he did, while he acted as though it had all been a grand joke on me.

Which I suppose it was. Scott was straight, and he was just playing around. But I was in puppy love with him, and I realized that he could never ever know this about me. But if he ever reads this essay, he will now know that I have never forgotten, nor lost my familiarity with, the brief moment in time when he rolled on top of me and ignited my desire.

Perhaps, just perhaps, he has never forgotten either.

***

My family lived on Christmas Tree Circle. What this meant was that every year, for the month of December, the whole block would light up and decorate for the holiday. Can you imagine what this must have been like for a little boy with great taste in fabrics? Talk about being fed unrealistic expectations about the world! At our house, my dad would go nuts with the decor outside, while my mom expressed her insanity on the indoors. I loved it. 

When I look at this picture I see a typical family holiday photo, all in appropriate jammies, yet Mom was still made up with her hair done, as though she actually went to bed like this. She didn't. She used to take her makeup off, of course, but she would also use pink "hair tape" to hold the set in place while she slept. It was interesting to see, to say the least. That look was never captured in a photo. 

My brother had glasses, which I suspect he hated, but he was blind as a bat without them. My dad was, well, my dad. He seemed to me, at least for the first fifteen years of my life, to be a caricature of a dad. How little I knew. 

They are pictured in front of the artificial Christmas tree that Mom put up every year--this was the early seventies, and everyone had artificial trees, at least on my block. They had them for the same reason that everyone ate TV dinners and margarine--it was okay for upper middle class families to do so. I doubt I ever even tasted real butter for the first 18 years of my life. Rest assured that since then, I have caught up on both real butter and real Christmas trees. 

I recognize everything in the picture, but two of these people are dead (Mom and Dad), and the other one I have not talked to in over a year. Are they my family? Were they my family? What was I hoping to capture by taking this photograph? Was I trying to convince myself of my place among them, or hoping to reveal evidence to motivate my escape? We were a pretty happy family at this time, though shortly the shit would hit the fan in the guise of my brother's bad behavior and my queerness. 

But on this Christmas Eve, long long ago, we were still a "family", albeit one that hid its washed faces and pink hair tape. And what I recognize in my mother and father is the reality that being this family was very important. For them, a happy family was the mark of success, a refuge from the battles they endured in younger days. For me, a happy family was...hmmm...was my first conscious experience with abandonment. The smiles in this picture were real--not just for the camera, but they were conditional, which is something I did not realize then. They were conditional on me and my brother enrolling in our parents' version of refuge, and neither of us could do that. Their expectations eventually shattered, in different ways, our sense of belonging in the family; for me at some point it was made clear that my insistence on being treated like family would bring about the very destruction of the same. 

I don't blame them. Anymore. Most families were like this in the seventies: parents from an earlier time trying to raise families, in a way that was familiar to them, during a time of massive cultural change. Their vision of family turned out to be as artificial as the plastic Christmas tree in the background--pretty, but certainly not living. 

I made it out alive, and I tried with limited success to drag my parents along with me in my explorations, but they were too bound to their histories. I wish I had seen this--I would have spent more time loving them and less time trying to change them. Interestingly, this is the same issue that many of my couples clients struggle with in their relationships. My parents did what they thought was right and good for us--at some point the rest was up to us. I can say that I have made a remarkable life for myself, both because and despite all that my parents did. My brother, I am sure, would say the same thing, and I suppose some would agree with him, but I will tell you that he lives in the same house, and still puts up an artificial Christmas tree. You can do the math.

***

Even familiarity can be infused with familiarity. When I was a in my last year of high school, I participated in the senior play. The big dance number was "We Go Together", from Grease, the biggest film of 1978. Grease was, of course, a fond look back at the high school culture of the 1950's. In this picture me and my partner Diana were about to go onstage for the big number. We are somewhat dressed in period costumes, though I think Diana did a better job than I did. I just kind of rolled my t-shirt sleeves up, or so it looks. 

The fifties were fun from a filmic standpoint. I think that in reality, they were really only fun for straight white men. But when you turn anything bad into a song, it automatically becomes a hopeful lesson! Our nostalgia for the fifties during the seventies was a yearning for familiar unfamiliar. We wanted to remember the world as it never was, because it made us feel better about what it was now. So even back then, as a seventeen year old, I was trying to connect with the familiar. 


Who was this boy? Was that me? Do I still have those arms? That smile? Those eyes? (I know I no longer have that hair!)

What is the familiar? When does it become less familiar? Does familiarity have a limit, or is its intensity based on proximity to the event, place, or person? I went into the Naval Academy for two years right out of high school, but my time there is as fresh in my memory as what I had for lunch yesterday, whereas the particulars of the year right after I left are vague. Why do certain times feel more familiar than others that are more recent?

***

In this picture I am saying goodbye to my mother at the airport before flying to Maryland for my first year at the Academy. I had never been to the east coast before, or spent more than two weeks away from home, so this was a BIG deal for both of us. When I look at this picture, she seems to be hanging onto me for life; I seem to be hanging onto her with a mixture of relief, sadness, and anticipation for what was to begin for me at the conclusion of that hug. I was her baby, the youngest, and had a very close bond, yet as an adult I have come to realize that the bond was never as close in reality as I thought it was in my mind. Oh, she loved me, make no mistake, she would have killed anyone in a second had they tried to harm me. But our bond originated out of tragedy--the death of my sister one month before I was born, so her love for me would always weigh heavy with desperation and loss. 

I did not feel like her baby--I was 18, and itching to start an adventure as an adult. I would not know for many years how it took every fiber of her being to not stop me from getting on that plane. Her desperation deferred to my needs regardless of the cost to herself; this is why true selflessness is grievous--it is born out of fear of loss. Not all of my hugs carried so much meaning. This one on the left was simply and completely about affection. 

This is me with Christie Brinkley, of course, circa 1982. She was a guest star on a television special that Bob Hope was filming from the Naval Academy grounds, and I had the good sense to volunteer to be on the crew for the show. During rehearsal week, she was friendly with everyone and we all got chummy, and it was my first taste of celebrity. Not surprisingly, Christie seems more at ease here than I did--she was lying on the ground when I asked for the picture, and she eagerly asked me to join her there, but I was too nervous so I asked her to stand up. She did so gladly, and promptly threw her arms around me as though she had been friends with me for years. This was how friendly and unpretentious she was--she acted just like "one of the guys", but she wasn't. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in person, and little did either of us know that she would soon be touched by tragedy, as only a year later her fiance would die tragically in a racing car accident. Had I known that this was going to happen to her, I think I might have hugged her more tightly.

***

What is music, when you sit and think about it? Is it rhythm? Is it melody? Is it lyric? I remember hearing some story about how the first music was probably created by sticks hitting against stones or something like that. Percussion, you know. That makes sense to me. I like to imagine that the first percussive music was an attempt to externalize our inner rhythm--the heartbeat--but at the same time I also like to think that it is connected to something less romantic but more universal--that rhythm is a part of nature's vibration, and that when we move, we are simply joining in. 

What is the point of it? Why does the body move to a rhythmic beat, sway to a lovely melody? I think that it is the body playing, both with its own abilities and with its relationship with the world. When they say, "get into the groove" they are talking about joining the flow of life--not just what is happening in our little worlds, but what is happening all around. Have you ever watched a flower turn toward the sun? Perhaps this is a similar process, where the organism seeks out, and responds to, that which provides life. I think that music helps us live. I think it provides movement. Movement is life. 

I don't know about you, but I can't think of music without thinking of movement, with each being the effect of, and the stimulus for, the other. It doesn't even matter which came first, because it is impossible to imagine a time when one existed without the other. For me, movement to music was an effortless undertaking. My mother and father were both incredible dancers, and at some point in my early teens I discovered that this new thing called "disco" had a power over my body. I was tall for my age, and to be able to dance at fifteen meant that I was popular with the girls at the school dances--they didn't have to bend over to slow dance with me, an important point for young women who are eager to start wearing high heels. 

My father, as I said, was an astonishing dancer from way back to his own school days, and he used to tell me that dancing is "all in the hips". I believed him, at least as far as social dancing goes. But I remember how early on I yearned to move more than just my hips. The music of the day seemed to be calling me to go further in, deeper, harder, and longer. I could not ignore it, nor did I want to, because for a skinny sissy boy who was known to be "sensitive", the dance floor was the one place where I outshined them all. On the dance floor my body came into power. It just knew

Right out of high school I went into the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, but I left after only two years to become a dancer. Why? Because, as Gloria Estefan sang, "the rhythm is gonna get ya". I studied ballet, jazz, and tap, and I even taught and choreographed at one point. I remember how I used to lay down and close my eyes while listening to a piece of music that I wanted to set to movement, and afterward I would have to go into the studio and see if the vision I had imagined was even possible. I needed to be able to do everything that I set on other dancers, and I would sometimes practice my own choreography in the middle of the night--just me and the music. 

I suspect that my father was envious of my ability to dance--this was one area of skill where I actually had the talent to surpass him. Why he saw this as a threat instead of an accomplishment is beyond me, but I suppose that my dancing caused him to reflect on his own "familiar life", only to realize how detached he was from it. 

If he had looked close enough, he would have seen that he was in me, in my movement, my passion for music and dance. For both of us, movement was not a choice--we were called by music. Besides, I could not dance like he did--nobody could. There was no threat, only difference. I wish he had embraced that difference, among the many others, but at this point in his life it was about hanging on to what was familiar--I suspect he was afraid of who he might become if his past glories became unfamiliar. 

***
Have you ever done anything that makes no sense at all simply because you had to do it? If not, don't wait for fucking ever. Find whatever rhythm calls to you, and heed the call, even briefly. Because what you will get out of it is the ability to STOP, at any time, the mandate that every activity must be tethered to an outcome. What you will get out of it is the experience of having an experience, rather than waiting for one or observing one. The world, at least the Western world, is quickly becoming a place that is watched rather than lived in. The appeal, I suppose, is that watching is less work and more entertaining, so where is the downside? The downside is in excess. It helps to know when to stop watching and when to start living. We all have to find that line for ourselves, don't we. Have you?

***
I think a LOT about love--what it is, what it means, how it looks. The novel I will probably never finish is all about if we can ever know whether what we feel is about the other person or about us, and beyond that, when we can know that it is real. Some say that true love happens when we are more interested in another's happiness than we are ours. To some, this description will sound like co-dependence (a term I abhor), but if you remove that bias from it, it describes the essence of care. Loving another, having concern for their well-being, wanting to make them happy, none of these require that you stop doing the same for yourself; but real love does require that your interest in the other be based on recognizing that they are not you. Why is this important? The way I see it, until you can do this, you are not in love, you are just "in love".

Limerence (being in love) is a real state, but culturally constructed. Attraction and bonding are essential parts of our need as social mammals to attach--the romance part is was made up (courting). But I like to say that you don't have to take the frosting off of the cake, as long as you remember that the frosting compliments the cake, and not the other way around. I observe that most people see it as the latter, and then wake up a year later sick of eating just the frosting. What happens is that, during limerence, we become strongly attached to another, but we don't know who they are. The cultural construct of courting and romance has misled us to believe that attachment equals love, but it doesn't if you go by my definition. What is missing in limerence is bonding, which tends to happen after six months or a year. The key component of bonding, if it develops well, is interest in the other based on healthy differentiation. Bonding is not enmeshment! It is a process of coming together as one while at the same time maintaining a two-ness (Walter Brakelmanns' concept of "Closeness"). If one never moves from limerence to healthy bonding, then the panic begins, as they try to sustain the fantasy connection despite the encroaching reality of disconnection. Bummer.

I knew little about love when I was young. In my 20's I was so desperate to be loved that I would have licked bad frosting off of a dirty knife for a chance at connection. Nowadays, I have a different perspective. I am not so interested in entering the psychotic state of being in love, because that is not so fun anymore--I already feel good about myself, so why go nuts for someone in pursuit of that? Still, it would be nice if my heart were to speed up a bit in response to a person's gaze or touch, I suppose. Is that even possible when the false meaning has been extracted from the process of connection? Can I get back to basics and find an organic excitement that is detached from a cultural narrative? I honestly don't know if this is possible, or even desirable. I suspect that, for me, the longing is for a remnant of the familiar--that which is hanging around until something comes along to replace it. I wonder what that might be...

Me and Randy in the mid-Eighties. Please forgive my moustache!

Randy, on the right in the above picture, was limerence big time for me. He was a part-time model (hot!) who worked as a cook at the Crest Cafe (hot!), a little diner where I worked in as a busboy in the San Diego. We were a ragtag group of young people, high on Madonna energy and the genderqueer expressiveness of eighties New Wave. In our youth, I suppose we sensed a new era of possibility within ourselves and the world, and this was reflected in the music of the time: Culture Club, The Eurythmics, The Cure, New Order, etc. We were change set to a dance beat.

Randy used to make me lemonades at the restaurant and hand them to me over the kitchen counter when I was working. He had dangerously seductive green eyes and would let me know that he did this only for me. He was obviously flirting, and my heart sped up a a bit every time. We began dating (having sex), hanging out with his beautiful sister and their friends, and generally getting drunk on our youth, beauty, and coolness. It was a heady time for me. I thought Randy was so fucking cool, and being with him made me feel cool as well (the limerence was about me!). We burned brightly for a few weeks, but the flame died quickly as we realized that sex could only carry you so far. I used to think that he broke my heart, for I suffered emotionally when we split, but I think now that what he did was break my connection to what he represented--acceptance, coolness, relevance--the things that I longed for that meant that I was a part of the world.

Randy was a "door" for me, an entrance into feeling a part of things rather than apart from things. But he was not the only door--there were many through the years, and I tried to love them all. But more than limerence, what I valued most from these encounters was the feeling that I mattered to someone for a while. This proved to be more seductive to me than even green eyes. It represented original love. I just didn't know that this is what I was looking for. Now I know, and I found out that I had to give this to myself, which I did. Perhaps this is why my favorite companion is me. Nevertheless, I don't regret my messy sexy travels through lives and hearts, and I cherish the memories of the Randys who joined me for brief periods of time. Like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I had to take an external journey before I could take an internal one.

At this point, I suspect that I may be interested in journeying outside once again, but this time I think it will be an unfamiliar path.

***
Reflection is not an odd way to pass the time as the year draws to a close. This essay is more than just a reflection on a year though, it is a reflection of a life. But the reflection is incomplete, as is the life that is reflected upon. I chose to focus on my youth, since that is period is far from the present time, and if you were to ask me the purpose of doing this reflection, I would tell you that it is because it is a prelude to the never-ending question, "What now?" The answer to that question is both beholden to and unleashed from the past, if you can imagine such a circumstance. It is beholden because the answer is influenced by what came before, and it is unleashed because I can choose freely despite what came before.

As the year winds down many people think about their recent choices, and sometimes they vow to make different ones; they "resolve" to change the way they choose in the coming year. It rarely works. This is not because we can't change, but because we underestimate how difficult it really is to unleash from the past. Changing choices is not like changing your shirt; some choices can feel like you are changing your very skin. I prefer to review my choices daily; it is practice in case the results are unpleasant for me or for others. This constant assessment gets me used to movement, and yet even still the status quo calls to me. However, it is getting easier to turn away from it.

Be care-full with your choices--I suggest loading them up with meaning. They make up who you are, and yet they also make sense of who you were. The tether between the past and the present is as fragile and essential as an umbilical cord, and yet the difference is that this tether should not be cut (nor can it be!). My past is both familiar and unfamiliar, but it is mine nonetheless, as is this very moment that has just passed. My goal is to move forward with intention, as much as I can give attention to this, and to be purposeful with retention. I am and I am not who I was. But who I was will always be a part of who I am. Perhaps that is why I so enjoy solitude at times--that is when I can nurture the relationship I have to my history and my future. I like tending to the relationship between the two. It is not advisable to look back on your life only to realize that it is not at all familiar anymore.