Wednesday, July 3, 2019

I TAKE PRIDE


I should not be alive. The first time I should have died was when I was in the womb and only 8 months old. My four-year old sister had just tragically died of pneumonia and my mother went into shock, refusing to eat. If you don't already know this, the time to stop eating is NOT when you are eight months pregnant. It is amazing that I did not die as well at the time, leaving my family with not just one, but two horrible tragedies.

I lived, and was born, and I found a way to thrive, against all odds as they say, by learning to "take care of myself". I probably had my first chance to build this skill on the day I was born.

The second time I should have died was when I was fifteen, and I realized that I was attracted to boys and not girls. Because of my Catholic upbringing, this realization was cause for panic rather than celebration, because being gay meant sure hellfire. I suffered from a depression that I could not talk to anyone about. Music is what got me through.

I lived, and I found a way to thrive, because when all was said and done I didn't want to die. I liked life, I just didn't like how others were defining it for me. So I decided to define it for myself.

Today, at the age of 56, I celebrate World Pride Day and Stonewall 50 by taking pride in who I have become. But I did not become me by myself. I found my people and they lifted me up, and continue to this day. Among them are Carla Stephens, Melani Lust, Eric Rosenblatt, Barry Schwartz, Andrew Tee, David P Organisak, Teresa Onstott, Marta Garza, Zuniga Gloria, and of course Keshav Tyagi. Without them and many others I have lost touch with (Michael, Connie, that Protestant minister at the Naval Academy who understood why I needed to leave), I am not sure I would feel very proud of who I am.

So for a little boy who learned to rely on nobody for anything, I take pride in allowing others in. I take pride in opening the door to them, even if they had to knock for days sometimes. I take pride in pushing against the beliefs of my childhood in order to forge a value system that is real to me, not a relic. I take pride in not destroying the lives of those who have loved me. I take pride in completing graduate school with my own money and my own determination. I take pride in being gay in my own way, by being a man who can cry but also fight for what he believes in. I take pride in loving those who still live in fear. I take pride in surviving an epidemic. I take pride in my beautiful queer community who have offered me multiple examples of how to celebrate my differences. I take pride in loving a man today who refused to give up on me. I take pride in what I do and what I do for others.

I make things beautiful--those who know me know this. It is my way of feeling safe in the world and my way of showing love. I did get this from my mother, who, in the midst of crushing grief and guilt, was still able to create a beautiful home for her tiny queer baby boy. That is what she was capable of doing at the time. It is perhaps the greatest gift she gave me--she showed me a way to love when it seemed there was no reason to do so.

Happy World Pride, Mom. Happy World Pride, everyone. We are all a little bit queer. Fall in love with that this summer. Take pride.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

"You Ruin Everything"


"You ruin everything".

I was told this time and time again as a teenager. This accusation continues to influence my approach to life to this day.

***
In his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck, Mark Manson specifies that an unhealthy relationship boundary exists if one person holds another person responsible for how they feel. Conversely, it is also an unhealthy boundary if we take responsibility for another's feelings. Why might this be a cornerstone of his book? Because when there is an unhealthy boundary in a relationship, it always results in disaster. There is no more self-defeating exercise than to hold ourselves accountable for what we have little to no control over, or when we insist that another is responsible for what they have no control over. Trust me on this--I have been testing this theory over the last 40 years of my life.

Here is the thing about feelings--are you ready? We choose our goddamn feelings. Nobody can make us feeling anything, no matter how important a role they have in our lives. It looks like this: someone does something, we have a thought about it, and a feeling follows. Notice that the middle-man of the process is how we think about what happens. Our thoughts drive our feelings, unless, of course, someone punches you in the face. In that case pain drives our feelings. But the majority of the time nobody is punching us in the face. Instead, they are saying or doing things that cause us to think poorly about ourselves.

***
I was labeled "emotional" and "sensitive" as a kid. Mind you, those labels were not complimentary at the time. In my therapy practice, I see couples come in where the woman is often labeled "over-emotional", and I am quick to tell the man that a woman is NEVER over-emotional--she is in fact feeling appropriate feelings regarding what has been triggered in her. My emotionalism as a teenager was rooted in a fear of abandonment--I thought that if my parents knew who I really was (gay) they would not love me anymore. I was wrong, of course, they would always love me, but they certainly were disappointed in how I "turned out". Isn't that a laugh?

Conditional love is still love, unless the conditions are about who the other person is instead of what you can or can't live with.

As a teen, I felt lost and scared. My homosexuality went against everything I was taught about how be loved and how to get into Heaven. It went against everything I learned about how to live a good life and be a good person. I had such a hard time understanding why I was cursed with this perversion--and I had nobody to talk to about it. This led to depression and acting out--as a teenager sex with men made me feel, for a short while, like I was in fact lovable. But when my family found out that (gasp) I was attracted to men, the shit hit the fan. I was emotionally abandoned by both my parents. My father escaped into alcoholism (for which I was blamed), and my mother escaped into denial. My brother just escaped, and he continues to escape reality to this day with his embrace of Mormonism (he would not agree with this assessment, which is just another form of escape).

I specifically remember a phone conversation with my brother when I was 18 years old and in my first year at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. He told me that I was to blame for the family's problems, including my father's drinking; he told me that I had ruined everything. And I believed him, because I had been taught that my desires were selfish and unnatural, evil and predatory, and that the only way to honor my family was to deny who I was (resist the Devil).

My brother was wrong about me, he was wrong about my father's drinking, and he was wrong about life.

***
Gay men like sucking dick. Sometimes they like fucking ass, or being fucked. What is the problem with that? Seriously? In this world, there is so little pleasure to be found at times--mostly because our economy depends on us feeling shitty about ourselves, so who could fault anyone for trying to feeling good? Don't you want to feel good?

The problem with religion is that it has criminalized feeling good, labeling pleasure as the "devil's work". What is wrong with wanting to feel good? Religion has flourished by turning suffering into a virtue, at the expense of, well, nearly everything. Pleasure is not the devil's work, y'all. You know what is? Fear.

Fear is what keeps us from making bad decisions at times, but it is also what keeps us from realizing our full potential as humans. I know many good people who are religious, but their goodness is limited by a forced value system that is archaic and juvenile. What is wrong with sucking a dick? I implore you to convince me of the wrongness of that. Certainly the men who are on the receiving end of a dick sucking would be hard pressed to argue against it. While we need fear, we also need to choose despite fear at times, as these choices can lead us to transformation.

When I was a teenager, I just wanted to love and be loved, but fear told me that if I acted on these impulses, I would ruin everything.

***
I was making a pizza with my boyfriend recently, using a pizza peel I had just purchased. I put flour on the peel so that the pizza would slide onto the pizza stone easily, or so I thought. But it didn't slide easily. In fact, it didn't move at all. I found myself in a panic, not knowing how to get a BBQ Chicken Pizza from the wood peel onto the stone, and I was triggered into feeling that I had "ruined everything". In other words, I started to lose it. Fortunately, my boyfriend sensed my distress and came to the rescue, helping me move the pizza onto a sheet pan where it would bake into a crunchy goodness, and I was able to return to the present moment and ease my upset.

I have to do things perfectly--many of my friends know this. Fortunately, there are many things that I do nearly perfectly, but in the rare case where I am challenged in my perfectionism, I am triggered into feeling that I have "ruined everything".

I am tired of feeling that way. I do not have the power to ruin everything. I never did.

***
My parents, as loving as they were, failed me in many ways. I never ruined things--I was simply becoming myself in a way that they were not familiar with. What was being "ruined" was the way they were brought up to think about parenting--that it is an activity undertaken to reinforce prevailing values. I got news for you--it is so not that! Parenting is a noble act in that it is an opportunity to foster a blooming individual into a world that is constantly changing.

You know what I love about tulips? You never know in what direction they are going to reach. I love putting them in a vase and watching them stretch and strive for the sun--wherever it is. Children are like that--we never know in what direction they will thrive, but with our guidance they will find their way to the sun. The role of parents is to protect and shepard, not to proscribe. Shame on you parents who proscribe! You are serving yourself and not your children!

I found my way to the sun, but not without many attempts by the world to cut me down. My parents didn't try to cut me down, they just stopped watering me. They had an unhealthy boundary with me, holding me responsible for their fear. So I found sustenance in other wayward tulips.

I am still reaching toward the sun.

***
It is time I put to bed the notion that I can ruin everything, because I want to be human in the world and with my boyfriend. I do not wish to take responsibility for how he feels, nor hold him responsible for how I feel. I want, instead, to take responsibility for my choices and feelings, with the hope that I will be motivated by respect and love, knowing that at times I will choose, appropriately, myself over him.

We will get the pizza onto the stone, together, and it will be crunchy and delicious, if not perfectly shaped. Sometimes it will stick to the peel, and that is okay. It is okay. It is okay. It will still be wonderful, not ruined at all. Even if it is not perfect.


Saturday, May 4, 2019

21 More Observations

1. You cannot claim "getting married and having children" as an accomplishment if efforts toward those goals are limited to fucking someone.

2. If I can get through the day on only three Ibuprofen, I consider myself to be faring rather well.

3. Being "up to" a relationship is just fine, but not fine in itself.

4. I suspect that reblogging is not as productive an activity as some would like to think.

5. Talking about sex is unsexy only if you are not actually talking about sex.

6. My problem with the general public is that it is both general, and public.

7. The problem with living such long lives is that we have short-life thinking.

8. I refuse to let anyone with an addiction to food tell me what I can and cannot put in my mouth during sex.

9. I am convinced that a sign of maturity is knowing when the story you have to tell is of no interest to anyone else in the room.

10. I worry about people whose range of expressive emotions is limited to "frustration".

11. More often than not I actually buy it when Jennifer Lopez plays "regular women" in films.

12. I shudder to think of the day when "being an asshole" is the only reasonable response to modern culture.

13. The way I see it, in a cost-benefit analysis, veganism is sorely lacking in the latter.

14. Any attempt to reason with toddlers, the fervently religious, or those who are mentally unstable is likely doomed to fail for the exact same reason.

15. I would like to think that my giving up on The Walking Dead is a demonstration of healthy boundaries.

16. When I judge people it is often the result of knowing both too much and too little about them.

17. Wearing a crown on my head doesn't make me a king, but that is of little consequence.

18. Becoming an "entertainer" requires more than just talent.

19. When you buy a $4.99 bottle of wine, you get a $4.99 bottle of wine.

20. I think I may be more attractive in theory than in context.

21. The benefits of religion are like the benefits of red wine; they can all be found elsewhere in places where damage to self and others does not occur.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Ruth Margie


Ruth Margie, or my mom, was born nearly 100 years ago in 1922. Were she still alive, she would be 97 years old today, February 7th, 2019. She is not alive, however, she died 10 years ago at the age of 86 from complications caused by Alzheimer's Disease. I missed her death at the time by two days, but it may as well have been 1000 days, because when your mother dies, time both stops and turns into an eternity.

She was born in Pocatello, Idaho, a city I may have been to--it is not the kind of city you would remember had you ever passed through, despite its size. The city I grew up in, Chula Vista, could be described in the same way. A lot of people know of it, they just don't have much to say about it.

From what I know, my mother did not grow up in the city portion--the family was poor and probably lived on the outskirts, but I remember Mom telling me that she did not know they were poor (does a fish know it is in water?). She reported feeling loved by her parents and tended to--her mother was crafty with the sewing machine--a talent my mother picked up, and I suppose that back "in those days" kids did not need quite as much as they do now.

They also worked. If not formally, then certainly at home. Child labor laws had yet to take effect in many states, but to be honest, I don't know much about what little Ruth Margie did in her childhood. I just know that she looked like this:


As you can see, they called her "Ruthie", a nickname that her sister Edith continued to use with her well into adulthood. Some things just never change!

My mother married four times, with my father being the fourth, and last, husband. The story of those marriages differs depending on who you are talking to, but this is the one I like the best: she first married young to a man who, like many men in those days, knew little about what goes into a marriage, leading to a hasty divorce shortly after he returned from the war. Mom moved to California with her young daughter soon afterward to live with one of her sisters in the Bay Area, and according to my sister, she married the next two husbands because they were "nice enough" and allowed her to appease the family back home, none of whom were too happy about having a divorced daughter with a child roaming about.

Mom and Dad early in the marriage
She met my father in San Diego, where they both worked for Safeway grocery stores, and as luck would have it, she fell in love. I have written about their marriage before, and I stick to the story that in the early days they were great together--two mature, intelligent adults who loved to dance and have fun. By the time I came around, Mom was already 40 years old. Can you imagine that in 1962? It was almost unheard of back then, unlike today where women are having their first child at much later ages. I was the last of her children--after me she was forced to undergo a hysterectomy because she was told, at the time, that it was "for the best".

Mom on her 60th birthday
There are pluses and minuses associated with being the child of an older parent. The plus is that they usually know what the hell they are doing by that time, and the family life is established and stable. The minus is that you don't often get to have them around as you get older. I never thought of my mom as older, she was just "Mom". I suppose it is the same for most kids. She was 50 when I was 10, and 60 by the time I reached 20, and yet she did not really begin to age until she neared 80. But when it came, it came fast--I remember once wondering, during a visit after I had been living in Los Angeles for a number of years, how she had become an old woman all of a sudden.

Of course little did we know that the acceleration of the Alzheimers was starting to take its toll on her vitality and health.

She died in the middle of the night, alone in a care home, two days before I was scheduled to fly in to be with her, but it may as well have been 1000 days before. When I found out that she died, I went to work to take care of some orders that had to be done because I was not ready to face it. I then left work at lunchtime and came home, where I drew the curtains and proceeded to wail for nearly three hours straight. If anyone is capable of corraling extreme grief, it would be me. I grieved alone that day, much as my mother died.

***
These days, my missing of her is like mood--it comes and goes, sometimes loudly and sometimes softly. That's a lie, actually, it never really "goes", it just gets really quiet, or else the world gets louder--not sure which it is. I do not seek "closure" around my grief--it is the one thing that keeps her present for me--that and the lock of her red hair that I asked for before her cremation. As impractical as it is, I can certainly understand why people want to bury their dead in a coffin. It is hard enough to process a loved one dying, it is harder still to grasp the idea that their physical body is actually "gone". I suppose this is why it is torture to lose someone in a plane crash or in war when you don't even get to see the body--those left behind must live in a limbo where a part of them suspects that their beloved is not really dead. I was not that unfortunate--I did see my mother's body, despite being two days late, and while it did not give me solace, it did move me toward acceptance.

I wish she were around, but not as a 97 year-old woman. I wish she were around as, say, a 76 year-old woman, which she would have been had I been born when she was 20. I would like her to see my life now, to know what I have become, who I have become, to meet Keshav, to see how it all "worked out after all". Some have said that she acted out of fear when she married all those men one after another--that she caved in to family and societal pressure to "do the right thing" and preserve her reputation. But don't agree with their assessment.

Were she alive today, I would tell her that I think she was brave. Like many mothers, she usually made choices based not on what was best for her, but what was best for her child. She had the courage to leave marriages once they stopped being good (except for my father, but she gets a pass on that one because by then she felt she was "too old" to start over). In reality, she acted both out of courage and fear, because courage cannot exist without fear--it is by definition a response to fear. Throughout the rest of her life she played tug-of-war with both. But most of us do, let's face it. It does not make us any less of a person as it did not make her any less of a mother.

This is why I continue to honor her with my life and my words. She earned it with her love for me, which, by the way, was unwavering even if her understanding of me was shaky. She earned my love by showing me firsthand an example of what it is to be human, farts and all.

So on the tenth anniversary of her death and the 97th anniversary of her birth, I write to say, "Happy Birthday, Ruth Margie. Happy Birthday, Mom." It all turned out okay after all.



Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Heart of Resolution


It might surprise you to hear that words don't mean a lot to me. And, at the same time, they mean everything. Let me explain.

In the new year, it is customary to reflect back on one's previous twelve months and consider areas of improvement. We all love fresh starts, don't we? But the thing about fresh starts is that, well, it is just that: the start. The start is the place from which you then move; I would be hard pressed to call a start without movement a start at all! This is where the importance of words comes into play. 

Starts are defined by words, but that is all that the words do. The next step is, of course, action. This is where most people get tripped up. Action requires more than just words, it also requires commitment. Commitment can be sticky in that it asks that we be willing to drive forward with our intention despite any obstacles in the way. And kids, let me tell you--there are always obstacles!

Quacks like Dr. Phil will have us believe that change is easy, but it ain't most of the time, though that message does sell books and TV shows. I heard that most of the couples he works with revert right back into the problems that brought them to the show! It is not a surprise to me that one interaction fails to result in lasting change, but I can understand why we all wish it were that easy. I don't have anything against Dr. Phil necessarily. Well, that's not true--I think he is a hack. And I think that he does a disservice to the mental health field by making it appear as if change is as easy as deciding to do something different (it is, and it isn't!). This creates shame in anyone who has a different experience with change, for example most of us! 

This reminds me of an exchange I once had with a prominent couples therapist who was presenting at a conference I was attending. After his presentation there was a "meet and greet" in the lobby with the presenters, and I approched him to ask this question:
"Would you ever ask a couple if the problem was not them, but instead the type of relationship they had chosen to be in? Could it be that sometimes couples try to fit themselves into the wrong box?"
To which he answered:
"I would never ask them that. I would just tell them that they need to grow up."
Wow. And this guy claims to know about relationships?

I may not have a PsyD or 20 years of working with couples under my belt, but I have enough experience to know for certain that most couples who come for therapy are in pain and are not lazy, and that they feel absolutely stuck in their current version of marriage without a clue of how to initiate change. The last thing they need me to tell them is to "grow up". Rather, I need to offer them compassion, support, and understanding for the challenge they are taking on--not just changing their relationship and their own behavior, but also changing how they think about relatinships and their own behavior. This is not easy, and it is not an effect of immaturity. Those couples rarely come into the therapy office. They go to divorce court or to jail.

Change is hard simply because the status quo wants to maintain itself, even when it is painful. Don't believe me? Just ask yourself how many times you have tried to change your eating habits or your exercise patterns. Change can be even harder in relationships. Every day I work with clients who know that criticism and defensiveness never work, and yet it can take up to three years for them to get out of the habit of doing this with each other. Change is often hard because we are making (sometimes unconsciously) something else more important than change. The good news? Change can also be easy in relationship, if both of you are on the same page regarding the change.

***

At its heart, resolution is about change. Most resolutions fail because they are missing two key ingredients that I mention above: commitment and relationship. One might even say that these two elements feed each other--relationship strengthens commitment and commitment encourages relationship. So why are they often left out of the planning?

I have a hunch that it is not because people are stupid or lazy, but instead that they are misled into thinking that we can do it all on our own, that we are better off being independent, and that to ask for help is a weakness. You know what I'm talking about--the whole notion of rugged individualism that supposedly "built" this country, when it is more likely the reason that it is currently crumbling. Individualism is a romantic notion, to be sure, but then we all know that romance is only the icing on the cake. Individualism is a sham in itself, because it can only exist in reference to community. An individual is defined as a person who is part of a community, so from this perspective true individualism cannot exist--it is always defined as an element of, or a reaction to, the community it is a part of!

The concept of individualism makes sense when you consider the origins of this country as an adverse reaction to collective thinking. The U.S. was built on rebellion: from mandates, laws, restrictive thinking, and lack of imagination. But just as I have written about how the hippie culture in the late 60's quickly became the new mainstream, I suspect the individual in the early U.S. found himself eventually absorbed into a new version of the collective--more subtle, perhaps, but a collective nonetheless. Without the collective, the new country could not have developed.

***
What does this have to do with resolution? I do hope to reward your patience, but if you have read me at all, you know that I like to meander my way to the point. Forgive me if I require you to smell the literary flowers along the way, but they are pretty, no?

I notice that many resolutions are founded on the principle of individualism--they are about individual change, how we can become better than we were before. I don't think that there is anything wrong with this, other than the fact that it, um,  rarely works. But I do wonder what the motivation for "becoming better" is. Better than what? When are we better enough? Who says that we are supposed to improve anyway? The concept of "better", like most concepts, can only be considered in reference to something that is "worse" (in the same way that individualism is in reference to community). This means that a value judgement has to be involved, and I confess to being wary of value judgements that are rooted in, say, social media, as many of them are these days. My wariness is due to the impermanence of pop culture values--to shoot for a "better" that is determined and reflected in these values is akin to chasing one's tail, and about as fruitful.

Rather, I suggest seeking change that brings us back to the fold, so to speak; I suggest change that is  a return to form instead of an "improvement". What is that form? I am so glad you asked! That form is community.

Resolutions rooted in community have a better chance of including commitment and relationship, because they are usually witnessed and supported. They are not just scribbled on a Post-It note buried on your desk or pasted on the mirror. They are declared and affirmed, and they are acted out amongst others. Community-based resolutions are a response rather than a reaction, and in my book responses create change, while reactions create distance, separation, and isolation. Community-based resolutions ignite change on a macro level, and it is my opinion that we would all benefit more from changing the culture than just changing ourselves. The rub is, of course, that cultural change does require individual change--only the target of intent is different: with cultural change the intent is to change the system so that everyone benefits, as opposed to just improving your individual experience.

Why is this preferred to what most of us do in the new year? Well, call me crazy, but most individual resolutions are just community resolutions light. When we seek to lose weight, as an example, are we not really wishing to feel more accepted in society? Are we not hoping, as we lose weight, to find ourselves more frequently invited into the human game of living and loving? Ask anyone who wants to lose weight, and they will probably tell you that they want to be healthier and more attractive so that they can live longer, have more relationships, and feel better about themselves in relation to the world. There is a stronger chance of achieving this if we do it with others. When we involve others in our quest for change, we are having a broad impact that can actually support the sustainability of the change!

With this in mind, let's get to the nitty-gritty. I want to offer you just a couple of proposed Community-Based Resolutions for 2019 (or any new year for that matter). Don't just take my word for it--check them out and try them on and see how they fit. See if they spark in your body when you read them, if you find yourself nodding your head in agreement, if they speak to a world you have imagined from time to time. Imagine if everybody embraced only these two resolutions, how different the world might be...

TONY'S FANTASTIC LIST OF  JUST TWO COMMUNITY-BASED RESOLUTIONS:

1. GET OFF THE PHONE. 
Oh god, am I really going to talk about this? Yes, I am. Even though practically nobody will listen to me.

There was a time about 15 years ago when I noticed that all the cash registers were becoming automated, in that they would calculate not only what the total was, but also what change was due based on what the customer gave to the checker. Convenient, right? Well, I did not think so. It seemed that checkers would give me my change, but not count it back--they would just hand me a lump of money and I would have to assume that they had counted it out right. This would infuriate me! I would ask them to count it back and be responded to with blank and paniced stares; they literally did not know how to count back change! Then it made sense--the automation of cash registers was not about convenience, but about accuracy in the face of a workforce who no longer had basic math skills.

Good gracious. Things were changing, and it made me uncomfortable. I rebelled against this change for a period of months, until I realized that the tide had turned and I was sadly left behind in my rebellion. I decided that this was no longer an area where it made sense for me to "give a fuck", and I accepted the change and moved on.

One might wonder why I don't do the same when it comes to our culture and smartphones.

Every moment that you spend looking at your phone is a moment that you are NOT in the world-at-large. What is so great about the world-at-large, you ask? Well, not so much these days, since everyone is avoiding everyone else, and also because not enough people are doing Resolution #2. But if more of us were to look up rather than down, there is a chance--a chance worth taking--that we would create connections. At the very least, we would acknowledge one another. If I can do this from time to time in the fuckhole that is Los Angeles, then you can do it wherever you are!

Why in the hell would we want to do this, you ask? The benefits of this cannot be overstated. Our society suffers greatly from isolationism and depression. Sometimes the slightest acknowledgement can make the difference between feeling alone and feeling a part of the world. You don't have to forge a whole relationship, just look at one another if you pass by, and say one of the following:
  • Hello.
  • Good morning.
  • How are you?
  • How goes it?
  • Hey!
  • How goes it?
  • Hey man!
  • What's up!
  • How you doin'?
  • Hi.
If you can't say any of those things, you can just nod. 

I try this when I can in Los Angeles, one of the toughest cities in the world to connect in, and I admit that I often lose my courage, especially when my gaze is met by a hostile look. There is really not that much risk for me, however, mostly because nearly everyone is plugged into earphones so they can't hear me anyway, and since most are not looking up, they don't even see me trying to engage. But when I don't lose my courage, every once in a while a suspicious face becomes open, just for a moment, perhaps grateful to be released from defending itself. This can be done even with a non-verbal acknowledgement of the other.

Have you ever passed anyone and wondered to yourself: "If only A were with C instead of B, I might be best friends with this person"? Well, I think about this all the time. We all really are just six degrees of separation away from another, and yet we act as though we are not connected at all.

I suspect that this has been going on for awile, not just since the introduction of the smartphone. Seventy years ago we would stake out our privacy by hiding behind a newspaper. By nature, we protect ourselves from those whom we do not know--it is our ancient reptilian brain that still bristles when confronted with strangers. Perhaps one of the reasons that Los Angeles is such a fuckhole at times is because it is populated with about 10 million people, many of whom are strangers to one another! That has the reptilian brain working overtime, for sure! But, we can override the system if we make the choice to do so. We simply have to settle on a good reason to do that.

For me, it comes down to my own experience in the world, and the desire to improve another's experience along the way, so...hero. But not really. My reason is self-serving, so how is that hero? Well, turns out that early hunters and gatherers were not community-based and selfless for the reasons we think. Turns out, they were community-based and selfless because if they weren't they would be totally fucked. Their lives depended on them having a good reputation in the community, because otherwise they would be thrown out of the community, and back then, you were pretty much dead as an individual. The reality, I suspect, lies somewhere between minding our own best interests and having concern for the community. This is because, and this point is important, you can't separate the two! However, damned if smartphones are not trying to do just that. We may not realize it now in the short run, but in the long run this will work against our own well-being. It already is--just look around for a second. It requires that you put your short-term pleasure aside to strengthen the long term health of the individual/community relationship.

Now I will admit to having and using a smartphone, and not intending to get rid of it. But I do my best to be in the world when I am out in it, mostly because I like what I see. I have always been a curious person, and when I take the train or bus or walk in the city I see things that I never noticed before--I wonder what is behind that fence or who lives in that dilapitated Craftsman house. Smartphones are not the problem, our use of them is, and if we used the technology to connect to one another more in the world and less online then it might be interesting to see what would happen. So if the world I am interested in is appealing to you, then there is only one suggestion I offer to you:

Get off the phone. 

Since absolutely nobody will do this one, I direct you to explore the second resolution.

2. CLEAN UP YOUR MESS.
It is hard to focus on just two resolutions to discuss, but I figure that these are the biggies. Besides, if you are looking for resolutions now as we approach the middle of the year, you haven't got time for an overambitious list. These two, if experimented with, will keep you busy for a while.


Number two is to clean up your mess. Why does this even need to be said? Who cares? Well, I do, obviously, but I suspect that you do too. I don't remember the specific time I learned to flush my own poo down the toilet, but I have a hunch that it was pretty early on, when I was, say, three years old. This means that I have been flushing my own toilets for over 50 years. It would make no sense for me to stop doing that now.

And yet that is just what is happening in the world--people are not flushing their own poo, literally and figuratively. How is that acceptable in any context other than a child under the age of three?

It seems that there was a time, not long ago, when the private became public. Some like to say that it happened when reality television came into being. Others blame it on the Kardashians, to which I say, why the hell not? I have to admit that I contributed to it back in the 80's when I first strapped on a Walkman to listen to music that nobody else could hear. The truth is that we all chose this, but no matter who or what is responsible, we are where we are, meaning that what was once private behavior is now done in public, and even celebrated in public.

Why is this a concern? Because when the private becomes public, shared spaces are no longer shared; they are broken up and claimed by any individual who chooses to stake a claim. Suddenly, walking in public feels, to me, like I am an intruder in other peoples lives and homes--a stranger walking by while others are taking a shit, so to speak. I feel shamed for some reason, as if I don't belong there, and yet I also can't help but wonder what world they are inhabiting--I crane my neck to see what is on their phone. It feels at times that I have stumbled upon people while they are on the toilet.

This cultural change discards the idea that we are in a shared world. And yet in a shared world we are, whether you want to admit it or not. This means that what I do affects you, and what you do affects me. This has always been the case, but I notice that the world today is a rebellion to this, which makes me wonder what is being satiated, natually. So here is the nutshell--are you ready?

The current isolation and separation from others is due to an economy that prospers on needs that arise from lack of community; and since lack of community is unnatural we turn to products and online connections to fill the void we feel. We are falsely led to believe that the solution to this "lack" is to perfect our bubble at the cost of others' well-being (my tribe vs. your tribe). This fosters separation and division, and strengthens the behaviors that shut us off from one another(but also protect us from one another). As a result we no longer see our messes as "our messes", they are other's messes and no longer our responsibility, since we no longer feel connected to community or the effect of our actions. Instead we see the outside community as something to master, claim, dominate, or use to our liking, and then discard.

It's time for a new story, y'all. Don't you feel it? If you do feel it, my suggestion is simple and something that you can implement immediately:

Clean up your mess. 

In my work with couples, I tell them that the most important element of successful relationships is RESPECT. Respect means that I am aware of you and your needs and even though they may be different than mine, I see them as just as important. Burning Man has this down, or at least it strives to have this down. They have a creed that states that everyone is allowed to have their own experience as long as it does not impose on anyone else's experience. In other words, be respectful! Can you imagine what our world would look like if that was the universal creed? All it takes is an awareness of your enviroment--leaving "no trace" as it were--cleaning up your mess, being respectful of others and the shared surroundings, being a community rather than competitors. Are you with me?

***
Change is not easy, but it is possible.

If you have resolutions this year, realize that it is up to you to see them through, but I suggest that you look at them and decide if they are about improving your life or about improving life--the latter includes the former, by the way. This current culture can be turned around, but it will take a million individual actions for that to happen. If you are happy with the way things are, then do nothing (and keep away from me, please). If you are not happy with how things are, then try my two suggestions and see what happens. I will be working on them myself, trust me. Perhaps we will meet in the new world we create.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Twenty-One Observations

1. I find myself less interested in music these days, either because the music is less interesting, or because I am.

2. I am not above hurting someone I love in order to protect myself, but I am not happy about this, and it never goes well.

3. I do suspect that, with further ado, nobody would ever get introduced.

4. Soda pop holds little appeal for me as either a beverage or an approach to happiness.

5. "Morning Sex" is a term to describe activities taking place all the way up to 3pm, on occasion.

6. Patience used to be a virtue, today it is no more than a side effect.

7. I sometimes suspect we suffer more than we need to because our ideas about chaos are uninformed.

8. It seems that, since the 2000's, the internet has muddied up any sense of "decade identity".

9. If goals were attacked with the fervor used to push "Walk" signal buttons, a lot would probably get accomplished.

10. The escalating usage of Twitter parrallels the de-escalation of individual emotional development.

11. I suspect that a healthy ratio of attention to real-life vs. social media relationships might be in the range of ten to one.

12. I am all for comfort, but when it looks like someone just does not give a shit, a line must be drawn.

13. Those who once said, "Never grow up!", could not have been suggesting the behavior I see around me everyday--but I still hold them responsible for it.

14. For me, winning feels good only when I don't care about the loser.

15. I am not a brand.

16. The person who named "Hot Sticky Buns" most likely knew, from a marketing perspective, exactly what they were doing.

17. If the most interesting thing about you is your Instagram, then most likely you are not.

18. My desire for privacy has become, in the current culture, an act of rebellion.

19. Los Angeles runs on anxiety and sleeps with depression.

20. I often wonder if people's personalities extend beyond their playlists.

21. I recognize that my addiction to control is both the best and the worst thing about me.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Hell Is Hella Silly


When I was a child, I used to fear that in the middle of the night the devil would reach up from Hell and pull my toes. Although this may not sound terribly threatening, the thought of it completely terrified me.

I am not sure why this particular fear developed during my childhood, or why the suffering was centered on my toes instead of more vulnerable appendages, but that is just how it was. At the time, I slept in a twin bed in the family home, and I remember the left side of the bed as being up against the wall. But not completely--there was a gap. And it was this gap that was, of course, the portal to hell through which the devil had access to my toes.

And people wonder why I struggle with anxiety at times.

I actually do have an idea of where my fear came from. I was raised Catholic, though that is a laughable combination of words--"raised Catholic"--because anyone who is brought up in the teachings of the Church risks remaining a child, developmentally, in certain ways. You can't "grow up" as a Catholic, because to do so would be to declare that you can make moral decisions on your own--without the guidance of the Church (this is not exclusive to the Catholics, by the way). Fortunately, many choose to forego the moral teachings of the Catholicism and just stick to the ceremonies, which at times can offer both community and comfort. As they say, you don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater!

But this essay is not about the many failures of the Catholic Church. It is about the silliness of Hell--an idea that perhaps many more can agree upon.

***
I was terrified of Satan as a child, and I had every right to be. From a very early age on I was told that being good would get me to Heaven, and being bad would get me to Hell. Good: Heaven. Bad: Hell. I was told this many, many times by many, many people. What was expressed less clearly was what exactly constitued being bad or good. There were the basics, of course, but the act of living is the opposite of basic, isn't it? Black and white clarifications rarely apply to lives lived in the grey.

Nevertheless, I was such an impressionable youth that I did my best to be absolutely good absolutely all the time. This was easier than you might think for a boy raised in the 60's and 70's in Chula Vista, California. There just weren't a lot of bad influences around me at the time, or if there were, I rarely noticed them. Life did get greyer for me as I got older, and I found that I was more conflicted by my inner influences than the outer. Specifically, I began to think about sex.

***
Sex is the true definer of men, isn't it? I suspect that no other activity has a greater impact on the way a man feels about himself. I see this in the therapy room and I see it on the streets. I see it on the T.V. and I hear it in the whispers of the wind. The point is that it is everywhere. Is it any wonder that sex is front and center in the conversation about bad and good, right and wrong?


Have you ever noticed that our society criminalizes "feeling great"? Sex and drugs, two things that can result in great feelings, are condoned only if the indulgence of them stays within acceptable limits of pleasure. Is it not completely ridiculous that some cultures frown on sex for pleasure--that its only purpose is to cause a pregnancy? This is as silly as saying that you should only eat ice cream to get your calcium intake--but don't dare enjoy it!

In the same way, you might have observed that drugs, at least the ones that are legal, are promoted to make us feel "good", but if they are used to feel "great", then they are either being abused, or declared illegal. Who makes up these fucking rules? Well, I suspect that it is the same group of people who created the concept of Hell. Why did they do this? The answer is pretty simple: CONTROL.

As a child, the concept of Hell kept me in line, and keeping in line was given upmost importance in my family. It was one thing to fear a spanking if I misbehaved, it was a whole other thing to fear burning for eternity (or having my toes pulled in the night!). As motivators go, Hell is a pretty effective one, especially if you have a house with two rambunctious little boys. It let my parents off the hook--it turned them into my protectors rather than my punishers--they were simply looking out for my eternal soul when they told me to behave!

What my parents did not do (or did not know how to do) I did for myself as I grew up. What I did for myself is I taught myself how to think critically. This was not a natural skill, believe me. It is a skill that developed to survive a culture that deemed me broken, perverted, deviant, and sinful. The only way for me to make it out alive from under the teachings I had received early on was to hold them up for inspection and test their validity in the real world. Want to know something? Not many of them held up under inspection.

See, the thing about the real world, as I alluded to earlier, is that it is not black and white. It is all the shades of grey. Right and wrong, bad or good, these are value judgements that are assigned by people depending on their particular value system. Masturbation, for example, can only be wrong if pleasure is considered to be dangerous, as it is in the Catholic Church, among others. The Catholic Church values suffering above pleasure, because if people truly knew how to enjoy themselves responsibly, they would not need the Church, or any church for that matter. Also, if people knew how to be responsible for their hurtful behavior, then the Church would have no purpose. The criminalization of pleasure is nothing more than a business strategy; however it works because as humans we can't avoid seeking pleasure. It is in our DNA, and we would not have survived all these years without it.

***
These days, the churches are losing the masses, well, except for the Mormon Churce. It is succeeding because it has a different message than the Catholics: it sells "Heaven" as something that is waiting for you if you accept it (with behavioral conditions, naturally), as opposed to it being something that we are in constant danger of losing with the slightest fuck up. Mormonism, for those who buy into it, makes you feel good, whereas Catholicism mostly makes you feel bad. It operates by offering hope instead of guilt. The Mormon Church may be smarter than the Catholic Church, but that does not mean it is less dangerous.

The danger is to those of us who can only live in the greys (most of us!). Those of us who are non-conforming through our sexuality, our gender expression, our queer and trans brothers and sisters and others, those in non-traditional relationships, or anyone who dares to think for themselves. The danger is that our differences are criminalized--not by the law, but by opinion. The danger is in suppression for those who are included, and oppression for those who are excluded. The danger is in replacing what is real with the artificial--exacerbating the juicy difficulties in life by pretending they don't exist. The danger is real, whether you believe it or not.

You know I once asked my brother (who is Mormon) why he will not watch R-rated movies, while a PG-rated movie with horrific violence towards others is okay. I knew that the church did not allow him to do so, but I was truly curious about this policy, because I couldn't understand why he was not deciding on his own, based on his values, what movies were appropriate for him and his family to watch. You know what he said to me when I asked him this question? He said, "Tony, knock if off!". He simply would not have the conversation! Wanna know how the story ends? I told him to fuck off , he told me to leave, and I left his house. We have not spoken to each other in nearly five years.


What is the crime with thinking for yourself? Well, I have my theories. Foremost among them is the supposition that critical thinking is theatening to those who seek power over others, as opposed to power with. In order to have power over others, the others need to fear you, or at least be in a state of fear. The churches, no strangers to power grabs, knew early on that their best route to even more power was to generate more fear in the people than the government did. So what did they target? The things we do for pleasure. I am not talking about the Ten Commandments, all of which (except for the first two) are pretty good suggestions of how to behave respectfully and thoughfully towards others. I am referring to the concept of sin, and how it makes black and white (with little explanation or justification) what is good and what is bad.

The Catholic Church really knocked it out of the park when it comes to sin. Nobody gets out of this alive without their blessings. They even declared that newborn babies must be babtized within a few weeks of birth, because if they die without this happening their "soul" will not go to Heaven. What the fuck is that?? What parent in their right mind would subscribe to a way of thinking that tells them that their newborn baby is not worthy? Well, many parents would subscribe to this, as it turns out. My parents did! You know who needs to be spashed with water? Those parents (and mine), not the baby! Wake up, parents!

My dear friend Carla, many years ago, shared with me her definition of sin. She said that sin can be described as any "death-enhancing action", period. I can subscribe to that. By calling an action "death-enhancing", the value judgement is eliminated in deference to the facts. Want to drink alcohol? Great! Just be aware that it poisons your blood and damages your brain. Want to have sex with many partners? Great! Just be aware that you could catch an STD and compromise your health. Want to kill someone? Great! Just be aware that loss of life has an effect on both those who initiate it and those who experience it. No judgement on your decision or if these consequences occur, but just know that cause and effect don't cease to operate just because you want them to. By Carla'a definition, even sun-tanning is a "sin" if you do too much of it and get skin cancer. But the brilliance of Carla's reframing is that it is not a substitute definition, it is a replacement definition. You either are leaning into death or into life at every moment, and that choice is entirely up to you, void of value judgements.

There is your black and white.

***
Face it, there is no physical or scientific evidence that points to the existence of Satan. "Hell", as it is fondly known, is not even possible in any of the ways it is described (and it follows that neither is "Heaven"). While we do know that there are other planets in the universe, we have yet to prove that there are other dimensions. (There are theories, but none proven.) Hence, one has to wonder how we came up with Hell in the first place. There was little actual proof of anything for a long long time, so we were forced to make up all kinds of stories to explain what we did not understand, especially if it was something we feared. Guess what tops the list of Not Understood and Feared: Death.

Ten years ago, my mother died. I did not witness her death, but I did see her body before it was cremated. Notice that I said "it", and not "she"? That is because she was not there in her body. I clearly remember leaning down and putting my ear by her nose to see if there were any breath coming out--I just needed to make sure that she was not still alive if she were going to be burned the next morning! There was no breath, of course, so I stood back and just looked at her still body for a long, long time. I touched her hands--they were cold. I got closer so that I could look at them. I knew these hands! I had known these hands from the moment that I was born. They held me, they dressed me, they washed me, they fed me. They spanked me, they nudged me, they wrapped presents for me, they opened presents from me. Looking at her lifeless hands felt to me like what it must be to visit a childhood home that is vacant and about to be demolished. We look for the life, the warmth, the sense of familiarity, and yet it evades us. We only see brick and mortor, because the life, the warmth, the sense of familiarity came from the family that used to live there, not the house. When I looked at my mother's hands, hands that I knew so well, they were no longer hers, because she was gone. They were just hands that I once knew, and knew no more. Her body was just the house, not the person.

Death is truly the Big Unknown, is it not? We do know more about it than we know about, say, conception, but death compels our attention more because we know what comes after conception, generally. Less so about what comes after death. What we do know is that the body is actually far from dead when we die, that any number of organic processes jump right into action as a way to make use of all that available matter. What is "dead" initially is our brain activity, but even that does not all stop at once. But without brain activity, the relationship between the brain/body/environment is ruptured, and the cost of that is consciousness. So "we" die, and bodies "live on" by becoming part of another life cycle. Matter is preserved, but not consciousness. You are free to believe otherwise, but I dare you to prove me otherwise.

Those who struggle with the meaning of life hate these facts, because they threaten the meaning placed on their lives: meaning predicated on whether life leads to a desired afterlife. On the contrary, I have long felt that death, if viewed as final, positively affects meaning. I have found that one life, and only one, is a grand opportunity, and it becomes even more so if there are no available repeats! If you have only one dart with which to hit your target, you are going to aim ever so carefully, and do your best to not fuck it up. The game is going to mean more.

***
The Moral Compass

So what if you only have one dart with which to hit a target? Doesn't that make it more possible to fail, given that we can only hit the target or not? Well, not really. See the thing about targets is that though they often show up just one at a time, there are a jillion billion available to us, and we always have a dart with which to try hitting the one that shows up. Just because one is in our sights one day does not mean that we won't have a different one vying for attention tomorrow. So how do we decide which one to aim for? Critical thinking, that's how. That is, unless you want someone else telling you which target to hit, and that is not very much fun, is it.

At least it would not be fun for me. I suppose it is, possibly, fun for those who don't trust their own thinking. I remember many many years ago when I was on tour with a Christian choir from Azuza College for a Disney traveling show. I was not with the choir, I was touring with them as a dancer. One day I was having lunch with one of the male choir members, and we were talking about faith, as one often does over a plate of french fries. I remember asking him what would guide him if he were to give up his faith, and he told me that he could never do that, because if he did he was sure he would be a mass murderer. Wow. That's a pretty fragile tether! I thought to myself: Does he really think that without the dictates of his church that he would run around killing people? And the sad answer that came back to me was: Yes, he does think this. His targets, if left to his own thinking, would be other people's lives, reduced to being victims of a supposedly Satanic acting-out. Wow. I realized then and there that the greatest opportunity I had ever received in life was my rejection from the Catholic Church.

Targets (as I understand them) are identified based on what we find important--and this is often defined by how we set our moral compass (or how it is set up for us). Compasses (as I understand them) are for showing us the "right direction". The "right" part of that is not determined by the compass, but by whomever is holding it. He or she decides, based on where it is they want to go. The targets we see before us are determined, hopefully, by the destination we have in mind for ourselves, which is reason enough to think about our lives. Don't be surprised if the targets and the destinations don't match up. I will admit that the self-determination of one's own destination is a responsibility that many would rather not take, because the choice requires accountability from the chooser.

When I was in my 20's and struggling to accept my sexuality, I made a choice to accept my attraction to men, but it was not without difficulties. I had always been shown where I was supposed to go, what I was supposed to want out of life, and what I should be prepared to give back. But homosexuality cut off access to the privileges of non-thinking. When the path is taken away from you, you have to pick a direction on your own, otherwise you stay exactly where you are. I took a tentative step into the unknown and, bit by bit, carved out a new path based on my thinking about the next step.

Thus I was uncomfortably introduced to critical thinking. I liken it to an arranged marriage, in that while initially suspicious of each other, my sexuality and I have grown over time to love one another in a way that far surpasses the fatuous rush of religious fervor. The thing about "rushes" is that they go by quickly, don't they? My relationship with critical thinking is not something that will pass me by in time, due to the fact that it is a relationship with something that is a part of me, rather than with something outside of me. In other words, my moral compass is self calibrated, which increases the chances that I will move toward a direction that is authentic rather than dictated. Call me crazy, but I would not have it any other way. And this is why my sole expression of gratitude toward the Catholic churce lay in its rejection of me.

“It’s your life — but only if you make it so. The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” -Eleanor Roosevelt

***

From a purely imaginative standpoint, hell is hella silly! It is silly because its existence relies on the concept that evil exists, and it doesn't. People sometimes behave very badly, either with intent or due to a brain abmormality (mental illness is not evil), but to label this behavior a personality characteristic is not only simplistic and reductive, but also dangerous. To do so allows everyone else to separate themselves from any connection to a damaged person, as if "damage" were an occurrence that happens less frequently than it actually does. How frequent does damage happen in individuals? Well, a conservative estimate would say that it happens in every fucking human being. Now, from that premise we can begin to see the problem with labeling another as evil as though it were a proprietary characteristic--it is denying what is always a possibility in ourselves; it is separating ourselves from the very real fact that we are always, always choosing.

Satan and God were created in order to relieve us of the task of choosing--they became the choosers. That is silly! This is why my choir friend felt that he would shoot the whole town up if he were to unleash himself from faith. I trust that were he to actually step away from his beliefs, that he would eventually start to think for himself, resulting in the conclusion that shooting up the town is indeed a very poor choice, and one that does not suit him at all! Unfortunately, he was never forced to confront this shift in thinking, as far as I know. But he doesn't have to--he is straight and white--the base components of complacency. If you are straight and white and male you don't have to change a goddamn thing, because all the rules work in your favor (including, not coincidentally, the rules about God and Satan). But I still pity him, as there is no way he can be at peace if he truly believes that a mass murderer lives within him.

What I find interesting about the story of Lucifer (Satan) is that he is supposed to have once been a very perfect angel until he commited the sin of "pride" in himself. Gasp! Are you as shocked as I am? He dared to feel good about himself, and God could not handle that. It is actually said that sin originated in the free will of Lucifer--this was the offense of offenses--thinking for oneself, or critical thinking. Sounds to me like God is a bit of an insecure control freak douchbag. At least that is the conclusion I come to when I think for myself about it. My second thought is this: it is ALL bullshit.

You want to know what I think hell is? Hell is doing a hurtful thing to another and trying hard to believe that it is justified. That challenge to truth can tear a person apart. Emotional pain, in the here and now, is a form of suffering that matches up with the fictional Hell in that when you are in it you can't find a way out. Fortunately, there is a way out, and that is by going through it. And the difference between the fictional Hell and emotional hell is that the latter has a payoff for us if we see it through. We will realize that we cannot deny the truth of our bodies when they tell us that we are choosing death over life. And if we reach this conclusion, we are better off for it. Hell, in this context, is a process that requires critical thinking. The fictional Hell is the exact opposite of that, and that is quite silly, when you sit down and think about it.

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 pale 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.