Saturday, July 12, 2014

High Fives and Hovering Butts: The Illusion of Touch



(Please allow yourself about 15 minutes to read this post, as there are videos along the way that should be watched when you get to them. Of course, you can do as you please, but I liken my posts to "performance pieces", if I can say that without sounding like a douche, that are best consumed as intended. Enjoy.)

We can never be sure what will move us to tears.

***
On a recent episode of "Cosmos", one of my favorite new shows, host Neil DeGrasse Tyson was discussing some of the smallest elements on the planet. 
One of the topics in this episode was the electrons that inhabit atoms, and how these electrons behave with each other. It seems that something interesting happens when atoms approach one another. The nature of electrons is to repel each other when in close proximity, and since we too are made of atoms and electrons, this means that while we can get really really close to something, we can never really "touch" it. This short video goes through the physics of the idea:



Ideas like this have the capacity to shake the foundations of how we think about the world. (If you ask me, these foundations could use a bit of shaking!) Now I am sure that you will say to me that it feels like we are touching something when we touch it, but what I will say back to you is that we are mistaken in thinking that what we are feeling at the moment is touching. What we are instead feeling is, as the video says, interaction at short distance. In other words, close, but no cigar. 



***
I tend to be a person who is drawn to the quiet rather than the loud; the hidden rather than the obvious; the under rather than the over. 
In June I participated on the AIDS Life/Cycle (ALC) ride, a fundraising bicycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles that is completed over a period of seven days.  On this ride, there are multiple opportunities for all of the circumstances I mention above. They are all present and necessary. Fundraising events, specifically, need to have any number of loud moments or else nobody would even be aware of the need to fund raise. With an event as large as ALC, it is certainly the loud moments that bring me in, but by contrast it is the quiet moments that keep me there. It would be a mistake to underestimate quiet moments as having less power, when in fact the opposite usually occurs. There is a huge difference between Celine Dion thumping her chest and belting a song, and someone like Bernadette Peters standing very still and gently singing, with minimal accompaniment. Both are telling love stories, but only the latter tells it believably. Quiet is powerful. 


***
If you have ever had the experience, as I have, of not being able to get physically close enough to someone in an intimate setting, then you might put more credence in the idea that we cannot really touch another. It certainly feels that way sometimes. But that sure doesn't stop us from trying. Touch is not just accomplished with skin on skin, but also with eyes, smell, sounds, and emotion. All of these are ways in which we literally have an effect on each other, on a cellular level. (If you doubt that cells get excited when they approach each other, try bringing your palms as close together as possible, without touching, and notice if you feel a bit of tingling.) Perhaps it is safe to say that when we are "touched", we have experienced a cellular shift in some way; touch is the act of cells responding to stimuli. Instead of thinking of touch as "contact", you might think of it as "excitation".  :-)

That is why a human gaze can start in motion all sorts of activity on the cellular level. In fact, sometimes a gaze is more powerful
than physical touch. I will often suggest to my couples clients that they try an exercise that involves gazing in each others eyes for a prolonged period of time; they report back that all kinds of feelings and truths emerge from the silent connection. I miss gazing. A form of gazing is cruising, the old school way of indicating your interest to another gay man. It is not done as often these days as it once was, because we are all gazing at something other than each other. 



Can you guess what?



***
On the ALC ride, as we cycled down the coast of California, I encountered dozens of strangers whom I had never met before and will probably never see again.
Bradley citizen manning the BBQ grill!
These were mostly the local supporters who, every year, come out to the road to cheer the riders on. In some cases, they even hand out goodies, such as fresh strawberries or licorice sticks, and in many locations they band together with other community members to offer a BBQ, bake sale, or ice cream social. 
Since the ride has been going on since 1994, some of these people have been doing this for years, and they plan for it and treat the ride as a special event when it comes through their town. 
This guy was everywhere!

It is heartening to be embraced in such a supportive way by complete strangers, and this strengthens one of the ride's core missions" to de-stigmatize HIV and AIDS (and gay people as well!). 

I am grateful to the people who offer us goodies, but I am also fascinated by the people who just come out to the road to watch us ride by. Generally, their watching is active, not passive; in other words, they are doing something to get our attention and offer support: waving, ringing bells, tooting horns, cheering, playing music, dancing, etc. It works! Rather than finding it distracting, I often found these activities to be just what I needed to continue pedaling up the hill or into the wind. These activities, through contact but not touch, actually caused a response on the cellular level resulting in greater riding strength. But then as I have explained, interaction at short distance is what touch really is, so does it matter if it is millimeters of distance or a few feet?

Locals setting up coffee and treats!

***
It is well known that touch is not only desirable, but essential to life. Babies cannot thrive and develop without it--do you know that babies evolved to be cuter than buttons so that we could not resist picking them up? Since they are born underdeveloped, they require stimulus to help finish the job. That comes in the form of all the ways of touching I mentioned previously. As adults, we are not done with touch though. As a social species, we require interaction at short distance quite frequently for both our emotional and mental well-being. (Why do you think that solitary confinement is such a brutal punishment?) In my therapy practice, one of the most popular goals with the couples I see is to increase the expression of physical affection in their relationship. People want to be touched more by their loved ones. They describe wanting not just more physical contact, but also more looking into each other's eyes, more reassuring texts throughout the day, more sharing of activities. Just because we are not literally touching, do not think that we don't need to get close to one another! 



Technology will NEVER replace "touch" as we are wired to experience it. 

***
On one of the days during the ride, we spent hours riding past the farmlands in the Salinas Valley--acres upon acres of crops in the flat heartland of California.
We would often see farm workers in the fields working or along the road taking breaks; they seemed to take in stride the hundreds of cyclists riding by in interesting get-ups. Perhaps they were used to us, or perhaps they were too tired to care. But one day, on a dusty residential street of shacks in between the endless fields, I came upon a group of young children lining the street with their arms extended out toward the riders. It seemed to me that these must be the children of the workers. They were small kids, maybe 5-7 years of age, and they were all Hispanic, and mostly boys. They stood in a line, and although there were probably 10-15 of them, they did not crowd each other or try to overlap one another. They just stood in a line, right arms extended out, fingers spread wide, faces beaming with excitement.

They were hoping for "high-fives". 

Here is the funny thing about high-fives. One story has them originating in the late 1970's between two professional baseball players, then evolving over a period of a few years into a gesture of gay pride in San Francisco (of all places!).
Nearly 40 years later, the high-five is utilized by people of all ages and cultures to initiate contact and camaraderie. And on one fine day on a dusty residential street in the first week of June in the middle of the Salinas Valley, I was confronted by a line-up of little high-five seekers, arms outstretched, feet tippy-toeing, faces smiling, eyes shining. So I did what any decent man would do. I high-fived every single one of their hands. Every single one of them.

I had to. When I saw their faces, it was immediately clear to me what a high-five from a rider would mean to them. Has anyone ever looked at you as though you are a hero? Well, let me tell you, it does not happen very often, but when it does, you better fucking act like a hero. When I came upon this line of kids, I just knew that this would be the most meaningful event of their day, no matter how many riders had passed before. It was not about me, it was about what I was doing. We were ALC riders. And to these kids, it appeared that we represented something that they may not see passing by their street that often: Hope. And for me, they offered something that I can't ever get enough of: the opportunity to matter. It sounds simple, doesn't it? It's just a high-five, after all, just two hands slapping in an interaction at short distance. But I will tell you this without any embellishment whatsoever: when I rode out of that dusty street after high-fiving a whole line of kids with shining eyes, I found myself shedding tears that streaked my sunscreen covered face--uncontrollable sobs in fact that threatened the equilibrium of my ride. Why was I sobbing? Because I had touched, and had been touched. I was sobbing because some kids along that dusty road had stretched out their arms and, in doing so, let me know that what I was doing was important and appreciated. Because in the shining eyes of farm-worker children, I saw the same hope that I have carried for decades: that we might realize that we are all the same and all want the same thing. This is the same hope everyone shares, whether you are a poor immigrant child or an HIV-positive person or a woman who struggles with self-image or a guy just going to the same job for 20 years. What is the common thing that we all want? To live well, with and among others, and to feel the life that we are living.

Crops to help us live well. 

***
In this day and age, I often marvel at the changes in culture based on how technology is progressing. Technology is wonderful, and I use it with appreciation and marvel, since it makes my life both comfortable, entertaining, and fantastic. And yet the dark side of technology is that part of it that distances me from my animal nature and the basic needs that go along with that.
When I sit in a chair, I am aware that I may be merely "hovering" above it, but I would rather do that than stand all day long. When I hug someone, I am aware that I am merely "interacting at short distance", but I would rather do that than shake hands. When I cry in front of someone, I am aware that I am merely "sending a message of empathy", but I would rather do that than text them :-( to them. "Touch", as I understand it, is hardwired into my DNA, as it is hardwired into yours. We cannot escape it. With 7 billion people on this planet, it makes sense that we are bound to interact at short distance quite frequently, and perhaps even intended to do so (for evolutionary reasons). When technology takes us further away from this experience (interaction at further distances), there are bound to be consequences. Technology cannot protect us from our nature. Our nature is not something we need to be protected from. 

If you think about it, there is a wonderful opportunity in having a body, in that we have something that can interact at short distance with others as often as we wish AND it is usually pleasurable! Considering the excitation levels of our cells when we do this, it makes sense to me that this desirable experience be sought out often. 



***
Not one of those kids on the street had a cell phone to take pictures or record the riders moving past. It is very possible that they did not have phones, but I also like to think that even if they did, they did not want anything diluting the experience of being fully present for those high-fives. People who are immersed in their phones rarely have eyes shining and arms outstretched, eager to engage with the world that is passing right in front of them. If you find that you don't get out into the world that often, I highly encourage you to increase your efforts to do so. Some will argue that being in social media sites is the same thing, but I would argue that it can supplement but not replace the real thing. Take a walk, ride a bike, go for a hike, get a cup of coffee. Leave the phone at home and look up into the world; look into the eyes of people on the street as they share the world with you. Scary, I know, but just notice what happens when you strike gold and "make contact". All kinds of stuff happens if you allow yourself time to interact at short distance. You might look away, but you might not. You might cry, you might smile. You might laugh, you might love. You might blush, you might challenge. You might flirt, you might flee. You just never know. You might even find yourself on the receiving end of a high-five. 

We can never be sure of what will move us to tears...but it usually involves TOUCH.




Coda: I am not against smartphones. The technology they promote is amazing beyond anything I ever could have ever dreamed up. And I don't hate people who are always on cell phones, though I often think that they could practice better manners and use more consideration, especially at the gym or at movie theaters. Rather, I see our culture as the culprit, and smartphones are merely an ingenious way to get around the disconnecting nature of modern life: a culture that separates and individualizes us until we find that we have nobody around us who cares. My beef with pervasive smartphone use is that it is the easy way out, but it hardly solves the problem. It is a technological bandaid on a systemic problem that is choking our nature as pack animals in real time, not virtual time. They exacerbate the problem by closing off almost all the remaining interaction at short distance we have on a daily basis. With sunglasses on, ear buds in, and eyes in the phone, the surrounding world is nearly invisible to you, and the effect on the world is that of not being seen. Not pleasant at all. What is the answer? I am afraid that I am not smart enough to know, but I think that "looking up" is a good first step. It's a good first step. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Age of Michael Jackson


I suggest that the best way to "consume" this essay is to read it from top to bottom, pausing to play the inserted videos as you come across them. Trust me, the time will be worth it. You will be happy, and you will thank me later.

Michael Jackson was always the undisputed star of the Jackson 5, and everybody knew it, except, perhaps, for Michael. If he had known it, he might have emancipated himself from his abusive father, and taken his talent and run. But it was a different time then, the early 70's. That is for sure. Instead, he stayed with the family and, along with his brothers, recorded hit after hit after hit. I remember how much I loved his pure, perfect voice, and my favorite song at the time was, without a doubt, "I'll Be There". There has never been anything like it since.


Back then my brother and I, like any kid in the day, had several stuffed animals, but there was one key difference between his stuffed animals and mine. Mine had secret identities. My favorite animal was "Sam", a stuffed bear, who I named in such a way as to allow him/her "fluid gender expression". To my family, Sam was a boy. To me, Sam was a famous and glamorous female pop star, and she had the "voice" of Michael Jackson--remember Michael's pre-adolescent voice was high and beautiful. My brother and I used to play "Rock Band" in our room, using the various animals as band members, and we would use the window sill as a stage, since it came with a draw curtain (perfect!). I don't remember exactly how my Sam got the position of lead singer, but to this day I can usually get what I want if I want it bad enough. Those seeds were planted somewhere! Anyway, we would play our Jackson 5 albums, and pretend that our "band" was performing the music. Of course, the big hit of the show was always "I'll Be There".  Kids!

"Sam" today. Notice the remnants of blue eye shadow.
The music of the Jackson 5 is timeless, and Michael's voice only elevated what was already brilliant songwriting. Many people to this day consider the 80's the heyday of Michael Jackson, but not me. I feel his flame burned brightest in the 70's, while he was with the family group, and then shortly afterward when he teamed with Quincy Jones to record his fifth solo album, Off The Wall. I will even go out on a limb and say that Off The Wall was a stronger complete album than Thriller, but you may have your own opinion, which you are free to share in your own blogs! It just seems that on the former record, Michael accomplished the huge feat of differentiating himself from his family and the Jackson 5. It was a coming of age record, and it worked, much in the same way that the Control album would work for his sister Janet 7 years later.

In addition to the Quincy Jones production and Michael's own personal and musical development, there is another reason Off The Wall is notable. It came out in 1979, a truly magical year for pop music. I was 16 at the time, going on 17, so this was an important year of music in my own coming of age. Disco was in full bloom, and it was inescapable. There were those who hated it, but they were mostly the 60's rock/folk leftovers, people who hated the introduction of synthesizers into music and didn't get any form of dancing that didn't include nudity and pot (ironically, my favorite style of dancing currently!). For me, disco music signaled adulthood, freedom, and yes, sex. Say what you will about it, disco is sexy music. And in 1979, there was a lot of it that is still considered classic today. Michael Jackson was not the only star on the music charts, there was Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Chic, Sister Sledge, Gloria Gaynor, The Village People, and more. Rock music was still hanging on, with groups like The Knack, Styx, Supertramp, Cheap Trick, Dire Straits and Elton John fighting it out with disco. Some, like Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, and Blondie, straddled the fence between rock and disco, but no matter where they landed, they were making memorable music. Even "soft music" had its stars in Barry Manilow, Olivia Newton John, Rickie Lee Jones, and Billy Joel. Take a look at just one of the single charts from that year and tell me that most of these artists and songs are not remembered, and played, even today:

BILLBOARD (USA) MAGAZINE'S SINGLES CHART FOR WEEK OF:June 16,1979
TW LW Wks. Song-Artist
 1  2  9 HOT STUFF-DONNA SUMMER
 2  3  8 We Are Family-Sister Sledge
 3  6  6 Ring My Bell-Anita Ward
 4  5 13 Just When I Needed You Most-Randy Van Warmer 
 5  1  9 Love You Inside And Out-Bee Gees 
 6  7 13 The Logical Song-Supertramp
 7  8  8 Chuck E's In Love-Rickie Lee Jones
 8 10  8 She Believes In Me-Kenny Rogers
 9  4 14 Reunited-Peaches & Herb 
10 19  6 Boogie Wonderland-Earth,Wind & Fire
11 28  4 Bad Girls-Donna Summer 
12 15  9 You Take My Breath Away-Rex Smith 
13 14 14 Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy-Bad Company 
14  9 18 Shake Your Body-Jacksons
15 12 14 Disco Nights-G.Q.
16 18  7 Minute By Minute-Doobie Brothers
17 13 12 Goodnight Tonight-Paul McCartney & Wings
18 20 12 Makin' It-David Naughton
19 24  8 I Want You To Want Me-Cheap Trick 
20 25  5 Shine A Little Love-Electric Light Orchestra

Michael hit number 1 in October that year with "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" from Off The Wall, and though he may have seemed like just another disco artist on the charts, he stood out due to the fact that he had already been a star for nearly 10 years. Unlike artists who came out of disco (Donna Summer, The Village People, Gloria Gaynor, Anita Ward, etc.) or stars who moved into disco (The Bee Gees, Rod Stewart, Cher, Diana Ross, the Jacksons), Michael, as a solo artist, changed disco. Off The Wall was an artist's statement of identity, not just a jump on the disco bandwagon, and more importantly, it was a signal of things to come--it moved disco forward. The album is not thought of today as a "disco album", but rather as a seminal R&B classic. Is it really hard to imagine the impact that this, and all the music of that year, had on my teenage self? A teenage self struggling with young adulthood, sexual feelings, and yes, homosexuality?

Disco, as Michael and so many others understood it, was about joy. It came from funk and soul music, and was created and embraced early on in East Coast clubs by the counterculture, gays, Latins, and African Americans. It was first heard by people who wanted to dance. It generally had a heavy syncopated bass line over a "four on the floor" beat, and the vocals were prominent and soaring. Love it or hate it, disco made you feel happy, and it made you dance. Michael's album even had a track called "Get on the Floor"! Just listen to the first 20 seconds of "Workin' Day and Night" and try to tell me it doesn't make you want to dance!


I miss this music. I miss disco.

Fairy Sketch by Elle-Cosplay
I am not a curmudgeon who laments the lost music of my youth while disparaging today's artists and styles. Like many creative folk, I am engaged with current culture, and find myself stimulated by new things. I have more "new" music in my collection than old music, but the new music nourishes a different muse. Disco nourished the sprite in me: the lonely boy with wings who wanted to fly. The music of today provides a different function for me, no less valuable, but different, and I like to fly. The popular music of today is often either profoundly introspective or vapidly superficial, at least the music that is on the charts. Can you tell me with confidence that many of the artists on the charts today will be remembered, revered, and referenced 30 years from now? Well, perhaps Loude, because she is so young and so interesting, and perhaps Beyonce and Gaga, and maybe Katy Perry, but that is a toss up.

There are interesting things happening in music today, however, and a lot of it is due to an artist named Pharrell Williams. An innovative producer and writer, he has worked behind the scenes for years with many artists, crafting peppy singles and forward thinking music. As a solo artist though, he recently made his biggest mark, dominating the charts with the infectious hit "Happy", an unlikely single from the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack. If you have not heard this song, then you are living underground, as it has inspired people to dance all around the world. Literally. I mean, EVERYBODY wants to dance to this song. Why is this? It is not that complicated lyrically or musically, but it does make you feel happy and make you want to dance. Sound like a type of music we have been discussing so far? Here is a video of people all over the world dancing to this song:


I could imaging "Happy" being on the singles charts in 1979. It has that similar joyful energy of many of the singles of that day, and by the reaction of millions worldwide, this type of music is missed and desired. I don't know about you, but I get the sense that people are tired of twerking, grinding, slow-jamming, and the other versions of dancing that are basically f**king on the dance floor. Disco was sexy, but it was not sex. The magic of disco is that it captured the ecstasy of falling in love in music. Today's music more often than not eschews romance for the act, throwing out joy and feeling along the way. The joy has to be added back in, so to speak. (You did not need to down a handful of drugs to dance to disco music.)

So what does Pharrell have to do with Michael Jackson? Well, a lot. Pharrell's hit singles, like the aforementioned "Happy", as well as the infectious "Get Lucky" (Daft Punk) and the funk-influenced "Blurred Lines" (Robin Thicke), have fueled a change in music today--leaning it toward the type of joyful, danceable, and yes, sexy pop that Michael Jackson crafted so well on Off The Wall. And this full circle phenomenon is no better illustrated than with the newest release from, you guessed it, Michael Jackson! In the album Xscape, there are newly produced, previously unreleased songs from the vaults that go all the way back to the 70's. The lead single, "Love Never Felt So Good", was written in 1983 by Jackson and Paul Anka, no stranger to hit making himself. But the current producers wisely chose to dig back to Off The Wall and use drum riffs from "Workin' Day and Night" in the song. The best news? The song is fantastic. And it makes you want to dance. And it takes me back to a time when Michael Jackson was a beacon of promise and change as he carried music forward with his supernatural talent. Leave it to a Michael Jackson song to take us back to where we want to be--I can't imagine any other artist who could better initiate both a look backward while looking forward. Feels like 1979, the age of Michael Jackson. And just like back then, he has everybody dancing all over again.


Here is the official music video. This could have been terrible, but it is the opposite. Now get up and dance!






Friday, April 25, 2014

I don't deserve s**t!


There are some ideas in modern society that just puzzle me to no end, primarily because, despite all debasing evidence, they are widely accepted by most. At times, it really does seem as though many citizens are nothing more than lemmings who follow one another off the edge of the cliff.

Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis
It strikes me as peculiar, to say the least. The most peculiar part is why people willingly subscribe to an idea that reveals itself to be no more than wishful thinking. Is it possible that we are in such need of even false comfort as to put our faith in the most obviously dismiss-able of concepts? I would certainly find it reassuring were I to know that others shared my perplexity. There must be others, there simply must!

The idea that most recently demanded my attention is the one that says that we deserve stuff. This came up in a recent conversation while discussing my somewhat hilarious run of dating in 2014. I won't share the details of the dates for fear of reducing your high evaluations of me, but let's just say that so far I have scored 0 for 6. This year. Zero...for...six. May I remind you that it is only Spring? Beyond the hilarity of this situation is the opportunity for me to evaluate my process of choosing, for it simply cannot be me.
Anyway, during the conversation, I shared how one of my recent dating attempts (number 6) waited a full two weeks before responding to my invitation to get some beers and happy hour vittles. TWO WEEKS. I wrote the dating prospect off after the first week without response, but then a week later, just as I was going about my day, I noticed an online response from the cad. He apologized for "being busy", and then offered exhibits A, B, and C to support his claim to such, wrapping the whole thing up with an enthusiastic endorsement of the "beers and vittles" idea! Oh the joy!

Not.

I responded to the email that I appreciated the apology, but it would have been preferable to receive even a brief response much sooner. I wrote that I had since "lost interest" in further encounters with him, and that is the truth. I wished him well and bid my farewells. Thus far there he hasn't responded to that, which speaks well of him, but also ascertains his level of interest. Now, just for context, you should know that I had gone out with the guy three times, and the dates went well, even if they did not rewrite history (include sex). After an investment of three dates, you are either are into it or not, and etiquette suggests communicating accordingly, in a timely fashion. This is not a rule, per say, but instead merely the minimum response-ability that I prefer in a potential dating interest. I don't want to be, as Blondie once said, "Hanging On The Telephone". 



So that was that. In the aforementioned conversation where I shared this tale of woe, I was congratulated on my firm boundaries and then told, "You deserve better!".

People mean well when they say things like this, but I disagree that I deserve "better", or frankly, that I deserve anything at all for that matter. Why would I say such a thing? Mostly because it is true, as there is no evidence to support the idea that anyone is owed a certain result based on how they conduct themselves. Now before you rush to the comment section with your lectures on "karma" and such (don't get me started on how the concept of karma is misunderstood in our culture), let me say that I am not fond of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. Ideas, even bad ones, are usually derived from experience, or at least the desire for experience. For example, we may have an idea that it would be fun to see a movie on the weekend. This idea could be based on previously successful movie outings, as well as a desire to have another such experience on the upcoming weekend. Absolutely nothing wrong with this!

Using that example, the idea of deserving could have come from an experience with cause and effect that turned out lovely for someone, as well as the desire to have another lovely cause-effect experience. Nothing wrong with this! But...when the hope or desire for a lovely experience is then upgraded to an expectation, based on the feeling that a certain cause guarantees us a certain effect, well, we just took a leap into magical thinking, and there is indeed something wrong with this.

Magical thinking makes us feel better. It comforts us and gives us a sense of safety, security, and community. All good things. All of us are engaged in some sort of magical thinking, even if it is the assumption that we will wake up alive in the morning. Sometimes magical thinking includes strong evidence supporting the probable actualization of the desired effect. However, magical thinking works against us when it sets us up for an expectation that may not be met. Expectations do not allow room for chaos and outside random influence--they falsely lead us to believe that our power in the world is greater than it really is--that we have more control over outside forces than we actually do. Expectation invalidates the role of the environment in influencing the effect of a cause. As I mentioned before, I suspect that the concept of deserving came from someone's experience of a string of expectations that were fulfilled, despite outside influence (not impossible). It is my hunch that this person, or persons, then concluded that a certain way of behaving guarantees a particular outcome. My hunch goes further in suspecting that this person or persons most probably benefited from privilege. And we have been fucked ever since.


What is the alternative? Well, throw the bathwater out, but not the baby. Get rid of expectation, and revert to preference. That's it! Now like most simple concepts, there is a rub. In this case, the rub comes not from the concept, but from the interpretation. Some may say that preference allows "room for failure", and that it is a way to be passive about your needs and desires. Though it does allow the former, the latter is a false interpretation that could only come from a culture that values entitlement and separation over shared humanity and community, or, as I like to call it, fantasy over reality, or, as I used to call it, me vs. the world! Rather than being seen as merely distilled ambition, preference instead is a fearless acceptance that things may just not work out the way you want. What this means is that you may have to work harder, or enlist the help and cooperation of others, or (gasp!) look at your own responsibility for what happens or does not happen in your life. These actions are the furthest thing from passive--allowing space for failure requires that we acknowledge the influence of others, and honestly evaluate our own efforts. Hard work, but you also increase your chances of getting what you desire.

Just because I am a nice guy does not mean that I deserve to meet someone and live happily ever after. As long as I foster the causes that influence the effect of me becoming "nice", I will increase the chances that I will receive the same in response. But there is no guarantee. This is why dating, for me, is an adventure. I am never sure what this new person, with their own agency, causes, and effects, is going to do in response to what I do. In some cases, like the aforementioned number 6, the response will be too little, too late. No matter. The non-fulfillment of a preference leaves me disappointed, but not devastated.

On to number 7...

Saturday, March 15, 2014

GIMME, GIMME, GIMME


It has taken me over two weeks to write this damn essay, and I am still up in the air as to whether it is interesting enough to publish or not. That is not a plea for validation, just a confession. You have been warned. It is long, and it does not make me look very good. So be it. I tried to make it funny in places. I do think I succeeded at that task. Don't you wish I were still writing about leaving Los Angeles?? As a token of goodwill I have decided to intersperse recent pictures of my visit to Santa Monica and Venice beaches on a day that was, as we like to say here, "picture perfect". Well, have at it.

                                                                 ***
There is a British show called "Doc Martin" that I love to watch. It stars Martin Clunes, who you may know from the British sitcom "Men Behaving Badly". The character he plays is a general practitioner in a small English village where there is socialized health care. Doc Martin is assigned to this village because he started experiencing hemophilia (fear of blood) while working as a top surgeon in London, necessitating a reassignment. As a G.P., he is brilliant, as he was as a surgeon, and his knowledge and application of medical expertise is responsible for repairing many of the health calamities that plague the townsfolk. He is, without a doubt, what I would call an ability carrier (explained later). He is also, without a doubt, a major class curmudgeon and an all-out unpleasant grouch. So even though the town can't do without him, they don't really like him, and they often feel resentful of his arrogance and dismissive manner.


The quality that makes this nasty character likable at all is that he is so totally clueless to how off-putting his behavior is. He is not trying to be difficult, he is just trying to do his job, and the people don't heed his instructions or respect his stated boundaries. He simply cannot understand why everyone insists on "chatting" with him during visits to the surgery, or why they want to be friendly out in town, when he would just rather get his job done and then retire for the night, alone. They are upset at him because he is not like them. He has a task to do, which he seems to get satisfaction from doing well; but I am not sure if he enjoys what he does, or if he realizes that the task involves working with actual living human beings. Yet he does the task because he has a medical mind and he views everything as a problem that can be solved with the proper intervention. He views "people" as simply the conduits through which he gets to apply medical procedures. I often suspect that the character of the doctor suffers from a form of Asperger's Syndrome. The townspeople take his gruff demeanor rather lightly, and are often amused by his ways, and in truth they rarely hold a grudge. "That's just the doc!", they would say, and they would be right. They alternately fear and admire him.

I know that response.

***
Busy as a summer day, in March
The other day, I stopped in to check on my neighbor Georgette because her phone had been giving me a busy signal all day. I manage the building we live in, and I was checking on a repair issue she had mentioned to me. When I knocked on her door that evening, I was hoping to find her doing okay, and I just wanted to let her know that I was attending to the issue--I wanted to have the entire activity performed in less than two minutes, max. But it didn't go that way--not at all. She invited me into her apartment and proceeded to describe how her phone service had been shut off after the recent storm (hence the busy signal), and then she explained the initial repair issue all over again and kept me there for close to ten minutes. She then offered me chocolate, coffee, and I think a package of tortillas. It was a blur of blab and bling and my mind went into a coma.

As she was talking, and talking, I noticed my patience running right out of the apartment, as if to catch up with her lost phone service. I noticed this because it is something that tends to happen a lot when I feel that others are taking advantage of my time and attention. The thing is, Georgette is 82 years old, and it would behoove me to have a little more patience with her in the way that you have patience with an older person--but you must believe me when I tell you that she has always been this way with my time, and I have known her for 12 years!

It takes patience to have your picture drawn
Anyway, it does seem that I have a history of losing my patience with those who come to me for some sort of assistance, whether they are older or younger. It would be fine if requests were just stated without verbal "backup documents" and half hour discussions, but that rarely happens! Don't people realize that I am smart and catch on really really quickly? Fortunately, over time my patience has improved (if not my humility), and since I left my day job last year I have more time to myself (and conversely, more time to respond to others). The one place where I rarely ever lose patience is in my therapy office (unlike Doc Martin!)--because the exchange is time-limited and paid for--so both the client and I benefit (even-steven)! And therein lies the crux of my issue--the lack of equal exchange in most circumstances outside of the therapy office.

***
Slack-lining. I do NOT have this ability!
There is, believe it or not, a downside to having the ability to do most things really well. When one has this ability (as I do, by the way), it tends to invite others to then want things from the "carrier" of that ability (me).
The downside I refer to then is only felt by the carrier, since it is easy to conclude that the others benefit immensely from their fulfilled requests. The downside is that there is always an other who wants something--there is always an other who wants something. To whom does the ability carrier turn when he or she then experiences want?

There is a second downside, not mentioned earlier, which is that ability carriers frequently do not experience want themselves. This "desire deficiency" in the carriers is the catalyst that turns others' requests into the initial downside. Empathy cannot develop toward those seeking assistance when the one with the ability to assist has little personal experience with desire. Carriers are not completely devoid of desire, though. They usually just want just one thing: to be left alone.

If there is one thing I have learned about people, it is that they do not like to leave you alone, especially if you are recognized as an ability carrier.

Not all ability carriers suffer from Asperger's Syndrome.

It takes great ability to do the rings. No Aspergers necessary.
The secret about ability carriers, which I will generously share with you, my non-demanding readers, is that we are really good at most things because we tend to only do the things that we are really good at! The things that we are not really good at, and there are several, are quickly identified and left in the hands of others. If there is anything that we know, it is how to keep ourselves from looking deficient, since the original motivation for our quest toward ability mastery is usually overcompensation. (You can fill in the blanks--gay shame, guilt, blah blah blah...) This in itself is a skill that sets us apart from the others.
Most people seem to have no idea what they are good at and what they are not good at. If you don't believe me, the evidence for this is all over the place, but you could hasten your research by observing American Idol contestants or Piers Morgan.

Over the years, I have not only become more aware of my own desires, but I have developed the ability to ask for what I want and need. At the beginning, this was limited to exclaiming, "LEAVE ME ALONE!!!", but in time, I graduated to more pedestrian requests, such as, "Can you make me a sandwich, please?"
Cycling alone, like me
You may not see the progress, but trust me, that is a huge leap! For ability carriers, the slightest of desires often triggers anxiety, guilt, and fear, and those feelings are not entirely unjustified. You see, ability carriers are not born, they are made. Somewhere along the line, usually in the midst of childhood, these people get the message from someone that their needs will not be met, or worse, that they are not even valid. Since a child has a natural tendency to expect needs to be taken care of, you can see how confusing this must be when it does not happen. Children, as we all know, are resilient little creatures, so they simply do what is best for them in the situation: they suppress their needs. Flash forward to adulthood and you get the picture.

I wonder if this dude is "overcompensating" with his body
As I like to say in the therapy room, though, it is unwise to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you are going to move into adulthood with an issue, you could really pick worse. Ability carriers are advantaged by the silver lining of becoming really good at what they are really good at.
Drum circles require patience and skill
So in the spirit of progress, why not "add to", instead of "take away" (another thing I like to say in the therapy room)? Why not add awareness of needs, why not add vulnerability, why not add trust? Why not add patience? And therein lay the work, folks. But the results are worth it, enabling one to move from "LEAVE ME ALONE!!" to "Can you make me a sandwich, please?" Progress.

***
Georgette does not mean to be all gimme gimme gimme, she has a right to be self-involved since her world has been mostly reduced to an 800 square foot apartment. She also gives back, as evidenced by the offer of bling. It may be as hard for her to ask for help as it sometimes is for me to give it to her. But it is getting easier. The difference is understanding that nobody is trying to "take" something away from me (like time). I am realizing that when I give to others, I don't actually "lose" anything. In fact the opposite usually happens. Usually. Not always...if I can make the perceptual shift. Then the opposite usually happens. I can handle those odds.

And hey, I can always use another package of tortillas.

The magic of a beach day in March

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Lila Karp

©Bill Watterson
The fun thing about a really great undergraduate program is that you have a choice of truly amazing electives to take advantage of--electives that stimulate new ways of thinking and being. I completed both my undergraduate and my graduate studies at Antioch University Los Angeles, which is a university with a tradition of social justice and inclusion. It is also unique in that it uses a pass/fail system rather than a grading system, allowing for more concentration on the absorption of material than the regurgitation of the same. During my undergraduate phase, I was obsessed with learning about philosophy, especially since my "value system" had been constructed from religious and self-help models of morality. I longed for a premise that allowed room for critical thinking--in other words, I didn't want an outside source to make decisions for me about what was right or wrong concerning personal morals and values. A bold undertaking, to be sure, but before you award me with a merit badge for bravery, please understand that when you grow up gay, you are often "forced" out of traditional mindsets. It is similar to telling someone with cancer how brave they are--do they have a choice? The answer, of course, is that yes they do, but you would be surprised how brave we all are when presented with adversity. I am no hero.

There were, however, heroes at Antioch, and they mostly occupied the position of instructor. One in particular made an imprint on me that was so vivid it changed the course of my life--I kid you not. This instructor introduced me to a way of thinking that proved to be so powerful in its simple challenge that it drove the final nail into the coffin of my "spirituality". The way of thinking was Existentialism, and the instructor was Lila Karp.

Lila was a mess. She was brash and impatient. She wore a lot of purple. She nearly always showed up in class wearing some sort of floppy hat that didn't so much work with her scruffy blond hair as much as it argued with it. She wore a mix of boldly colored drapey outfits that gave no indication whatsoever of whether her body was being hidden or accentuated. She made no effort to hide her distaste for certain students (they usually deserved it), or broadcast her admiration for her favorites. Fortunately, I found myself in the latter grouping.

Following her death in 2008, I attended a memorial for her at Antioch, and I shared that I had only once engaged in a disagreement with Lila. It was on an occasion where I disagreed with her about the relevance of Madonna, the pop star, in modern culture; I took the side of Madonna's relevance, naturally. Lila countered that Madonna was a charlatan, a fake feminist who used images of power and sexuality for her benefit only, and to the detriment of other women. I asserted that Madonna's sexual provocations served to allow women to "own" their sexiness as a celebration, not an objectification. I argued that in a similar way, gay men have appropriated the term "queer" from straight homophobes in order to dis-empower the term of its vulgarity. Now it is important for you to understand that Lila Karp did not suffer fools, in other words, anyone who disagreed with her, but in this case she tolerated my dissent. At the memorial, I shared that this was the first time in my life that my homosexuality had actually protected me from brutality!

Lila was an existentialist, and if I remember correctly, I had her for a course on Existential Philosophy. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the nuts and bolts of this philosophy is that life is meaningless until meaning is assigned (Existence precedes Essence). There are four "ontological concerns", or basic tenets, and they are Solitude, Death, Freedom, and Meaninglessness. The philosophy proposes that there is no escaping these four concerns, so why try! Accept that they are going to create a certain level of appropriate anxiety in one's life, and this can be viewed as proof that you are alive! (So much of the art of psychotherapy is seen as the practice of trying to eliminate the fear of these four concerns--rubbish I say!) I won't go into a detailed explanation of the four concerns in this post, other than to say that they encompass fears that we all have until the day we die, and since you can't avoid them, the goal is to decide what our response to our fear is going to be. Nietzsche suggested, rather brilliantly, that we merely live life, fully, which is, in my opinion, the most perfectly simple piece of advice I have ever heard. An example of this can be found in this wonderful clip from Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters:


In this clip, Woody's character confronts all four of the ontological concerns, and comes out of it deciding that, since you can't get away from them, it would be best to "live life, fully"! His embrace of that idea begins once he starts to enjoy the Marx Brothers film he is watching in the theater.

This was the tenet that Lila lived her life by, and the tenet that she passed along to me. This was around the time I was in my mid-forties; I had left not only a twenty year performing career to go back to school, but also a four year relationship. I was renegotiating my life and heading into middle age, so meaning was being reevaluated right and left. It was also during this time that I began to completely let go of my belief in god, as I began to understand the oppressive building blocks of world religions and their ties to the governing bodies of the time. Needless to say, my world was being rocked. Lila introduced me to a way of thinking that embraced, rather than avoided, the uncertainties, fears, and randomness that emerged from the dying gasps of my fear-based belief systems, and she presented it in a way that emphasized the joy and engagement available once you stop hiding from the reality of life. In a word, I was alive in a way that I had never been before.

Lila died in 2008, as mentioned above. But what she left behind was a legacy of courage and wisdom. Her own journey out of the binds of feminine roles was ignited by the emergent Women's Movement in the 60's, in which she was in the front lines. Her only book, "The Queen is in the Garbage", was a novel exploration of the politics of the body as told through a pregnant protagonist. She taught at many American universities and challenged the male-dominated status quo up to her death. She did this in floppy hats and with a searing disdain for laziness or arrogance. What many students had difficulty seeing was that she was an undeniably passionate woman who LOVED life and literature, and perhaps loved even more the act of sharing that with students. She just did not love Madonna!

I will never forget her or diminish the impact she had on my life. I miss her.

***

If, in life, you are offered an opportunity for freedom from an eccentric person wearing completely inappropriate primary colors and hats that threaten to completely overtake hairstyles, my suggestion is that you jump head first into the experience. They are the seers, the faeries, the true philosophers; the true lovers, the re-storytellers who bravely step outside the dominant discourse in order to propose a more inclusive one. Lila gave of her time and her life so that others could step into an experience of themselves that was not dictated by straight men in positions of power. I pity those who crossed her, but to be honest, they got what they had coming to them. I am happy to carry on the work, and I am overdue in giving honor to a life well lived, fully.  

Lila Karp:  1933-2008

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Fresh Start


I could have created a new blog, but I didn't. leaving caLi(forniA) is four years of my history, and I like the idea of "change" more than "abandon", which is probably why I did not leave Los Angeles after all those years of head-spinning. Rather than leave the old blog, I decided to include it in my process as I move into the future. So this is how the new format/theme was born. My intention is to continue writing essays, and to open up the topic list to anything that provokes my attention. Just like the old blog, this incarnation will not be overtly about my personal life--not that my personal life is not interesting--but because I am not so interested in writing about it. I would rather write about what I think instead of what I do. I hope you find it interesting as well. So many blogs read like diaries--albeit well written diaries. I even have friends who have published well regarded memoirs. But perhaps I am a bit more private. A judgement on my thoughts is an invitation to a discussion, while a judgement on my actions feels like nothing more than a judgement.

I have been thinking about a lot of things. The world is not the same as it was when I was growing into adulthood around 35 years ago. Well, it is, and it isn't. The human condition is similar (for better or worse), but the environments and cultures that contain that condition are very different. I often reflect back to those early years of my development and try to remember if I ever thought much about what the future would be like. From what I can remember, I did think about it, but not very subjectively. I thought about it from a meta-perspective: flying cars and food pills and living in space and such. I thought about it more like a Star Trek movie, when I should have been thinking about it like a Star Wars movie--less sci-fi and more of the same ol' humans with fancier toys.


I guess that deep down I thought that the quality of life would remain pretty much the same, while the trappings evolved.

Little did I know.

By my observation, we are the same ol' humans with fancier toys, but we are also not the same ol'. People seem to be changing, don't they? I never could have imagined that real time face-to-face interaction and dialogue would become overruled by our constant attention to hand held computers.
I never could have imagined that something with the unbelievable potential to connect us (the Internet) would then become a breeding ground for consequence-free opinions and commenting. I never could have imagined that I would go through entire days where not one person meets my gaze in the world, or feel that nobody is even aware that I have passed them in the street. I never could have imagined.


But then I never could have imagined that I could stay abreast of the daily lives of friends and family who live miles away. I never could have imagined that online dating profiles would finally break the "fourth wall" for me when it comes to meeting men. I never could have imagined that I would get to the day where I never had to set foot inside a mall ever again in order to shop. I never could have imagined that my writing might one day reach readers unknown to me across the planet, all without a publishing contract. All this, and more, I never could have imagined.

Is it getting worse? Is it getting better? My answer would have to be "yes", and "yes". But I suspect that this has been the case for all of history--some things get worse, some things get better. As an existentialist, I may be betraying myself with these qualifiers unless I specify that they are mine. I do concede that one person's "worse" is another person's "better". But my labels are not assigned in a vacuum--I am a well-seasoned enough observer to be able to gauge the effects of all these things on others besides myself.

It strikes me that all this nonsense we all do these days seems to present a very long route to get to such basic destinations. Referring back to Star Wars, it seems that Luke Skywalker went all over the galaxy and back just to get to the understanding that all he really wanted was a Father.
Basic stuff here, folks. Like the Beatles say, "All You Need Is Love", brup-ba-da-da-da , but boy do we all have a fondness for taking the road less traveled on the way home! Perhaps that is why, as I grow older, I simplify more. I find that I don't need to chase so many things because there is not much that I don't have, realistically speaking. Granted, all of this cagey-ness surrounding my outlook on life applies itself rather mischievously when I am writing my online dating profiles, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

I suppose that when it comes right down to it, I am of the age where I get to start complaining about how the "kids" are ruining the neighborhood and how it was so much better in the old days. And while they are, and it was, I am not quite ready to settle into the porch rocking chair just yet. In a sense, I am still right out there with them, ruining the neighborhood for those with closed minds and open entitlement in life, those who refuse to think for themselves and then condemn others with borrowed judgments, those who act out and speak with hatred and then refuse to take responsibility for the results of their words and actions. For any of the aforementioned, I am the one they don't want moving into the neighborhood.

But the upshot of all this is that I intend to work in-house when it comes to being an agent for change. There is a fantastic Buddhist principle centered around the idea that we can never know the reason that someone is in the middle of a particular process, and that our judgment of the same invites separation, ego, and arrogance, and most importantly, unease.
This is not to say that we cannot work for change in the world, or act against those who cause harm, but the motivation for these actions needs to spring from a vision we have for a better self, not a better other. That is a tough one even for me, folks, because I have been surrounded for most of my life by others pointing their fingers at me. Sometimes it is fun to point back--for a minute. But it gets easier. Compassion is so much easier on the body than hate, and the results are so much more rewarding.

And so it begins, my fresh start. My first task should already be evident.

I have started using capitalization when I write. Let the effect on the world begin.