Sunday, August 14, 2016

I Used To Think...

I have lived long enough at this stage (of the game) to have a retrospective view of the arcs of my thinking over the years. It is a beautiful sight, this view--a number of clean, bumpy arcs from one point of view to another, dotted here and there with the blood of my mortally wounded previous worldviews. I notice along the way that some arcs have returned to sender, so to speak; they return from whence they came after a process of careful consideration. Meanwhile, other arcs travel a more daring route, ignited by a societal "kick", moving rapidly from the source and traversing unfamiliar landscape to settle in unknown but welcoming territory.

So what's the point?

Thinking is an activity--but I suspect having been misled by the premise that it is meant to go somewhere. As an activity, thinking has many purposes, only one of which is to "arrive" at conclusions (a pedestrian function, I find). I am more interested in noticing how thinking influences my current experiences in the world, while reflecting back the very same. I am interested in how my thinking decorates my immediate environment--I will concern myself over where I am moving to once I start moving. Devoid of destination, this type of thinking allows time for lounging in wormholes and sandtraps; this type of thinking dances with the outside in a free form sort of tango where there is no lead and no follower, just rhythm. This type of thinking flirts with me for my attention in a way that shiny-eyed young men used to. This type of thinking is the only thinking that leads to me writing essays.

My thinking these days continues to poke and prod me with its restlessness, belying my age and growing indifference. I feel at times like a parent with a toddler who never ages, you feel me? And like a dad shaking his head while smirking with pride, I find myself entranced as much by my thinking's current shiny objects as I do its trail of discards.

This essay is about the discards.

1. I used to think that because I was a nice person, everyone liked me. I have since discovered that even though I may be nice at times, not everyone thinks of me in this way, and some of these people do not like me because of how they think of me. When people demonstrate their dislike of me for a reason I have not given them, I stop being nice to them, validating their assessment. I don't think I am a nice person anymore--I think I am a person who can be nice, unless I am not. The latter scenario is curiously dependent on whether or not you are nice to me.

2. I used to think that sex was love. I was wrong--not about the sex, but about the love. Sex is love, even if you never see the person's face or know their name, but it is not the type of love I used to think it was, the kind of love I used to look for many years ago. That type of love comes as a result of what happens before and after sex, not during. I wish I had known this. 

3. I used to think that God would protect me. I no longer think there are gods. I no longer think I am protected, nor do I need to be.

4. I used to think that I was not smart. I now know that I am.

5. I used to think that Madonna would never age. Seems I was right about that one. What I did not think was that the younger generations would not deserve her.

6. I used to think that the religious were to be respected. I now think they are to be pitied, and in some cases (like my brother), completely ignored.

7. I used to think that people had each other's best interests in mind. I still think that, but I also think that our culture has turned us against each other's best interests.

8. I used to think that friendships were second to love relationships. I was wrong.

9. I used to think that I could no longer be moved by music. And then I saw this:

10. I used to think that I wanted to live in Jeannie's bottle, but I now realize I really just wanted to be Jeannie. 

11. I used to think my family was right about me. Now I realize they were just scared. 

12. I used to think that wearing the latest clothing trends made me "cool". Now I realize that wearing no clothes in my 50's is cooler. 

13. I used to think that life was a test where I had to score well. Then I thought it was a game where I had to win. Now I think it is a meal where there is no scoring or winning--just taking it in bite by bite, enjoying and discovering new and old flavors, appreciating the experience even if I burn my tongue, sharing with others, digesting it slowly, nourished and temporarily satisfied until the next "hunger" arrives. 

14. I used to think that doing my own yard work was being in relationship with nature. I still do. 

15. I used to think that it would get better. Now I realize that we get better. 

16. I used to think that magic was something outside of me. I used to think that it had to do with things that could not exist--what you find in the shadows or in between rays of light. But magic is just another word for what we have not been trained to see. Magic is nature, and it is perfectly logical while also being mysterious. Magic is the area of science where we just don't know everything yet--the moment of conception, the communication between bees, why we select one person out of twenty in a room. Just because we don't know does not give us the right to outsource the answer to a god. That is reductive and lazy, and frankly disrespectful to nature. The gift of magic is that it allows us to sit in mystery without clues or a solution. I used to think that solutions were what I wanted--they offered order and comfort. I now think that the safest place to be is on the high wire: hyper sensitive to the laws of balance while averting disaster with every successfully placed step. 

Magic is the space between steps. I think this is where I am most comfortable. 

I think.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

My Response to the Orlando Shooting

I have struggled with what to say about the Orlando shooting, as there are so many people saying so many things. I am sending this out because I decided that it might be of value to share how I respond to human tragedy, hoping that it might add to the conversation of what to do. I am writing based on what I have read about the incident up to this point, and this essay is not an assertion of fact, but rather an exploration on how I respond to what goes on in the world at large. Please read on as I discuss response as a catalyst to insight and change...

How does one respond to a public human tragedy? It is hard to know. Responses to the Orlando mass killing have included anger, grief, sadness, rage, compassion, confusion, and even indifference. I myself have felt both anger and sadness over the needless loss of young lives and the overt demonstration of homophobia. But as the week goes on, I have to ask myself, as someone who did not personally know any of the victims, how to express these feelings in a way that creates change within myself, my environment, those who I come into contact with, and the culture at large. 

The process of doing this is challenging and won't be embraced by all, but I am sharing it because for me it channels grief into positive change, and turns tragedy into something palatable. I have to be able to look at what happened without turning away in order to be able to then look inside myself. So let's begin.

 The phrase "We Are Orlando" is currently showing up in many places. What does that mean? It means many things, but to me it means that I am both the victims AND the shooter. Not literally, of course, but in a way that prompts insight and self-reflection. Why would I use a national tragedy to engage in self-reflection? Because by separating myself from the culture and influences that contributed to this happening, I am nullifying the effect of anything I feel beyond myself. 

Orlando was not about me, but it is, in part, of me, and of all of us. I am familiar with the homophobia and self-loathing that the shooter seems to have been influenced by--when you grow up in a homophobic society, you automatically ingest some of that. It continues to be a struggle for me to make conscious choices around how I think about other gay men, especially those who do not "behave" as I do. Am I colluding with homophobia by "passing" as a heterosexual male, or just presenting myself authentically? Am I perhaps strengthening self-loathing in myself by censoring some of my own creative (and flamboyant) self-expression? Do I stick close to those who are like me, avoiding opportunities to explore difference and even disagreement in others? What is the experience that someone will come away with after spending time with me--inclusiveness or entitlement? How do my choices influence the local environment as well as the culture at large? Are there times when I am an aggressor toward others, and times when I find myself a victim of aggression? How does hate show up in me? 

These are challenging questions, but what I find is that the asking of them leads to a less impulsive response. It leads to a response that does not see merely innocence or evil, but instead sees the complexity of living in a culture and economy that is fueled in large part by fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar, and the many ways this manifests in our actions towards others. The response that comes out of this reflection has a better chance of including compassion and a desire to act. The response that comes out of this has a better chance of influencing positive change. A rant is often just a rant. I am interested in changed outcomes. 

I did not know the shooter. It appears that he suffered from several serious internal conflicts, and was probably also mentally unstable. This view does not excuse his horrific actions. When I work with couples I will say that both parties are equally responsible for the dynamic of the relationship, a dynamic that sometimes causes problems, but that each individual has to be 100% responsible for the actions they choose to take in response to this dynamic. The shooter is 100% responsible for his actions, but at the same time I admit to my share of responsibility for creating a cultural dynamic of fear and homophobia that may have influenced him. Rather than feel guilty about this (which stops the process), I consider how to then respond in a way that strengthens connection among others, rather than dis-connection. I consider how to respond in a way that deconstructs this harmful cultural narrative.

To put it simply, I resort to a question that I have used many times with clients when they are conflicted on how to act on their anger or grief: What would LOVE choose? This question cuts through the desire to hurt others or hurt myself, and opens up possibilities for healing action, even if it means saying to another, "Help me through this, I am having trouble getting to love." 

Do you notice how people help each other out after a natural disaster, or how communities have come together to support Orlando and the families who are grieving the loss of loved ones? THAT is an example of what LOVE would choose, and that is an example of the response that I work to cultivate, since love sent out is received by both the recipient AND the sender. As Pema Chodron writes, we get to decide which wolf we are going to feed: the angry vengeful one, or the loving compassionate one. You decision will hinge on what you feel will most nourish your human, being

Everything is an opportunity, even tragedy, to explore how we are being toward ourselves and others. We don't need to create tragedy to do this, thankfully, but when tragedies happen, this is one way to live through the pain. 

Choose love, and then action.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Matthew Broderick CANNOT be 54

(Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival)
I am at a strange time in my life. Things in the world are not just changing, they are also changing over, and I am not yet clear on how I feel about it. Change itself is inevitable, but often, what something changes into is not revealed in a linear fashion. The end result of change, if there is such a thing (there is not), is often only vaguely connected to the intention at the point of initiation. This is because the process of change itself is poked and prodded along the way by outside forces that contribute to change. These forces are ever-present, making the very idea of change a difficult one to conceptualize because there is no "opposite" to reference. But as I said at the beginning of this paragraph, I am more interested in discussing change over than change, since this is a potentially digestible exploration.

Matthew Broderick just turned 54. I think he is too young to be as pudgy as he is. He and I were, until he turned 54, the same age. I am a few months behind him, which means that from his birthday until the day I celebrate mine in August, he is temporarily one year older than I. I am not entirely okay with him being anywhere near my age, but it is what is happening. As everyone knows, he is also married to Sarah Jessica Parker, who I think is too old to be as thin as she is.

They have a son named James Wilke, who is 14 as of this writing, and they have twin girls who were delivered by a surrogate, who also have names. They have homes in New York, Ireland, and the Hamptons, and are worth several millions of dollars together, so you don't need to feel bad for them for the things I am saying. Besides, what I am saying is not about Matthew or Sarah, nor is it about their kids, of whom I have named one. It is about me.

What you need to know about me is that I am not okay with Matthew Broderick being an older man. Granted, 54 is not "old" in today's bionic culture, where nobody seems to get forehead wrinkles anymore, but if you lived through the time when he was a "big deal", then maybe you can relate to my current distress.

What is bothering me is that I have no frame of reference for thinking of Matthew as an older man. To me, he is now and forever Ferris Bueller, the coolest and cutest guy in school, and I, by association, am a person still capable of feeling renewal. But he is far from the former, and I am reduced to playing 'hide and seek' with the latter.

I remember when I went to my first high school reunion. It was our 25th, can you imagine? I was unsure about attending, as I had not seen any of my schoolmates since our graduation in 1980. I was not sure I wanted to see what had become of them, but even more so, I was not sure I wanted to see how they had become 25 years older. My memories of high school are precious to me, as they are to many people, and I like to think of that time between 1977 and 1980 as an era of innocence, not in deed but in thought, where I moved through my life at the helm of possibility. The construction of myself has depended, in part, on the stability of the building blocks. If I were to see in my classmates' crumbling facades both the celebrated and failed middle age adults they have become, I was not entirely sure what would then become of me.

The good new is that I turned out okay, post-reunion, but not before I negotiated adjustments to the narratives of both my past and my present.


Ferris Bueller's Day Off came out in 1986. I was 24 at the time, moving toward 25, and I was a dancer in San Diego, California. The dominant pop culture personality was Madonna, of course, and there was a definite entrenchment for those around me in the post-disco androgynous glamour that was new wave. That was not all that was going on, though. AIDS, Chernobyl, Whitney Houston's debut album, and the Challenger explosion all made news. For our purposes, Matthew Broderick has just come off of a few notable films, but he was not yet a huge star.

Adorable, isn't he?
That all changed with Ferris Bueller. Written and directed by the prolific John Hughes, it was a film that was intended for Broderick from the beginning, and one viewing of it will show you why. Matthew played the character as an innocent, kind and generous, yet possessing an edge; he is a free-spirited and clever teen who ends up liberating all who cross his path. Even the school principal, Mr. Rooney, is transformed, though at the end of the film we are not yet sure if it is for the better.

Cameron, played by Alan Ruck
Unlike many teen comedies where the grown-ups are all dolts, the adults in Ferris Bueller are more complex (though still dolts)--they are essentially different versions of what can happens over time when a teen allows their spark to be dulled. In the film, this conflict is illustrated brilliantly by Cameron, Ferris' best friend, who has become a depressive hypochondriac as a result of years of conforming to his parents' expectations. Cameron's story is a sweetly sad counterpart to Ferris' free spirit, and yet the stories compliment each other and give the film emotional depth.

I remember to this day when I first saw the film. I was in a foul mood at the time; I think I was dating someone I was not sure I wanted to date and the last thing I wanted to do was go to a film with him. Still, I had committed to the meeting, so in I went. As I watched the movie, Matthew's portrayal and the story had a magical effect on me--they restored hope. I needed to see that film, and when I emerged from the darkened theater I saw the day, and my date, from a different perspective. I was joyful. It is that kind of a film.

Hughes captured a unique time in the 80's. Teens were just starting to develop into modern hip versions of young adults, wearing clothes that were ridiculously intentional and self-assured, yet dripping with the ironic effortlessness. They were not just kids anymore--they were beautiful young adults who were already putting their stamp on the outdated fussy world of adults. Think about it, most of the parents of teens in the 80's were born in the late 40's, growing up themselves in the late 50's. The 80's was a whole different culture from theirs. Ferris Bueller was a new kind of teenager on the screen. He was the young man every guy wanted to be and every girl wanted to be with (and some guys wanted to be with, including yours truly); he was the friend everybody wanted to be best friends with, and the son every parent wanted to have. You could not imagine him having gone through an awkward stage.

To me, he represented potential, young and confident, taking in life by gulps, unafraid. He showed me the cost of giving in to fear. Matthew Broderick was a part of that time for me as well as being a catalyst for change; and he will forever be best known for this role in a film that continues to be referenced in popular culture.

So how can he be 54?

Unlike the challenge I have in gaining perspective on Broderick's aging, I have pretty much accepted that I am in my 50's. The difference is that I have been living with myself for the past 30 years since Ferris Bueller came out, so in that time I have had a day to day experience of getting older. Matthew has occupied less space in my attention span, so when he turns up in a picture, walking his kids in Manhattan in a rumpled sweater, I have a bit of a flip-out. How could he have grey hair??

When I see him in his current state, it has the effect of distorting the picture I have constructed of my past. In other words, it is a glaring reminder that things change. While that may seem a given regarding the price of gas and L.A. rents, it is less simply accepted regarding the past of our youth. We don't want those memories to be fucked with, do we? They mean something to us, and are instrumental in how we think of ourselves in the present day. When characters from long ago show up changed in the present, it reminds us of our own changing selves, our own aging selves, and the irrefutability of time passed. When I see Matthew Broderick celebrating his 54th birthday, I am strikingly reminded that I too have aged 30 years since 1986--perhaps day by day, but 30 years nonetheless. The past is over, and so is my youth. Fuck!

But even more challenging than accepting the changes wrought by age is the acknowledgment that things are changing over. Matthew Broderick is no longer a top movie star. Today his equivalent does not even exist in my mind, all the male stars under 30 kind of blend together for me--famous more for their beauty than for any particular characteristic. But don't think of me as a rocking chair grouch, I realize that Matthew in his day represented change as well--he was not Frank Sinatra or Mickey Rooney!

But this is my point entirely--that things change over, just as they always have. The reason why it is hitting so hard right now is because, like Matthew, I am on the retreating end of this current shift, or so I think. This shift has been imposed for the simple reason that we are not young anymore. I don't mean to imply that we don't have relevance--we do--just not so much in popular culture. Disposable culture. Chew them up, spit them out.

Louie C.K.
Louis CK, one of my favorite comedians and actors, did an episode about this in his show Louie (Season 5, Episode 3), in which he found himself being blatantly disregarded by a 20-something shop owner who saw no value in encouraging his patronage. When he told her that she should care about his experience in the store and should want him to shop, she says back to him,
"We're the future, and you don't belong in it. You have this deep down feeling that you don't matter anymore." 
He agrees with her. The saving grace of the show is that I know that Louie wrote this for himself as a way to comment on the changeover effect. In essence, he is commenting on the fact that, for those of us born before 1970, it is not our world anymore. It is changing over, but we are still here. This means that I worry about what it is changing over into (which will be addressed in a future essay).  Am I concerned about a culture that undervalues aging simply because I am aging, or are my concerns legitimate in the culture?

The essay SHOULD stop here, but you know me, I have just a little more to discuss that is related to this topic, so I beg your indulgence for just a bit more...

I ask myself why this matters. It is not as though I should be surprised that aging has happened--I knew I would be this age in this year way back when I was 20. No, there is something else, and I suspect it has to do with the significance of youth. Youth is a quality associated with being young, but that is too limiting a boundary. Don't be deceived into thinking of youth as reliant on age--its true essence stands independently, and it acts as a driver rather than a rider. But what does it drive??

What is it about being young--what is the reverence for? The answer could be twofold, perhaps, if you look at it from the inside out. First, there is the appeal of youthful beauty: smooth skin, clear eyes, strong body, thick hair, etc. But for me at this point this list is not enough to draw any more than passing interest--it lacks the depth I need to engage and sustain interest. The second quality that gives relevance to youth is far more seductive to me, and that is potential, and it is this quality that has inspired this essay. Potential wanes as one ages, though you might argue that it merely decreases in some areas and increases in others, but I refer specifically to the potential for living. When I was young, I had so much more living to do, and that afternoon viewing of Ferris Bueller reminded me of that in full cinematic color. I walked out of that theater reconnected to my youthful potential, and I challenge you to present a more inviting experience for a young person.

Seeing Matthew Broderick as a frumpy, graying 54 year old man is like a thump on the head, much like the film was 30 years ago, except this time the thump is an unwelcome reminder that my potential, while still potent, is running low. I had my chance to make the world, and I suppose I did as much as the next guy--but now that power is shifting as the changeover continues. And I am just not sure how I feel about this.

What I AM sure of is that I am not okay with Matthew Broderick turning 54. Of that I am sure. So I will remember him as Ferris Bueller, and use that memory to connect to the origin of my own remaining potential. After all, Ferris Bueller has not aged a bit.

Ferris Bueller, forever young and full of potential

Me, with remaining potential

Sunday, January 17, 2016


I have a vivid memory of my first exposure to David Bowie, and it was not at all pleasant. Mind you, unpleasantness is not always a harbinger of bad relationships; sometimes it is the effect of a particular time and place. In this case, it was certainly that, as I recall being only a boy of 11 at the time, living in Chula Vista, CA. It was 1973, and for some inexplicable reason, I was given a copy of the album "Aladdin Sane" for either my birthday or Christmas--I can't recall which. The story gets even stranger when I tell you it was my parents who gave me the album. Why was this strange? Well, it was 1973, and if I was listening to anything at all, it was probably what was on pop radio in those days: Jim Croce, Helen Reddy, Diana Ross, Elton John, Roberta Flack, and my parents were not what you would call "current" on the music the kids listened to.

Hell, I was not current on the music the kids listened to. I was 11!

Bowie was not played much on pop radio back then, even though in 1973 he was a bona-fide rock superstar, one year after the breakthrough release of his album "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars". Elton John was a rock star too, but his music was embraced by radio since the songs largely fit the format of what was being played--Bowie was an altogether different beast. Elton John was outrageous, but David Bowie was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, making music that was unlike anything ever heard before. He was definitely unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Even though I don't remember exactly when I got the record, I do vividly remember opening it up and gazing for the first time on the cover. It freaked me out completely: the makeup, the lightning bolt, the hair, the naked torso. And what exactly was the meaning of that pool of liquid on his collarbone? (It is supposed to be a teardrop.) I didn't know what to do with it. I could not identify at the time the feelings his face brought up in me, but now I would describe them as a mixture of shock, disgust, curiosity, and fear. I do remember that I felt it must be somehow evil, and I didn't want to play it, so my parents returned it. I don't remember what I got in its place, but it was no doubt less memorable. To this day I continue to be curious about why my parents thought it might be an appropriate and appreciated gift to give to me. I never asked them about it, but I like to think that they were appealing to the "outsider" they sensed in their boy, or perhaps they were just trying to keep up with the times. I will never know. What I do know is that as an 11 year old, I was not ready for David Bowie.

I did not encounter Bowie again in a significant way until several years later, around 1980. This was an electric time for music, as disco was waning and new wave was just starting to show signs of life; but many artists were caught "in between", and many of them never made it out to the other side. Bowie had never become a "disco star", so he made the transition quite easily, especially since his 70's music was already showing signs of the future. In 1980 he released "Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)" to critical and commercial success, and I became aware of the song Fashion because it was being played on certain radio stations and in certain youth oriented retail stores. I distinctly remember visiting Georgetown University in Washington D.C. during my first year of attendance at the Naval Academy, and while in a record store I saw the video for Fashion playing on the TV. Now this was before MTV was launched the following year, so I am not sure how it was playing, but it was actually the first time I remember seeing a video for a song, and it struck me as something new and cutting edge. (Music videos had actually been used to promote songs since the 60's to some extent, but of course entered the zeitgeist with the launch of MTV.) 

Fashion is a hypnotic song, and I love it to this day. At that time, it signaled to me the possibility that music could be more than just pleasant songs to listen to--it could also excite and stimulate, seduce and challenge. Fashion is not Bowie's greatest song, but it made an impact on me in that it awakened the artist, it appealed to the outsider, it flirted with the explorer. When I saw the video and listened to the song that day, something in me started to change. I became aware of possibilities in expression that were not shown to good Catholic boys from Chula Vista, California. Bowie signaled to me that there was a whole other world of people who lived differently than I did. And I wanted in. 

My roommate at the time on campus was a big guy named Kevin, who was from Los Angeles, and he was older than we were since he came to the Academy from the enlisted ranks. Kevin was brilliant but lazy, a common combination that keeps many people from accomplishing many things, but he did introduce me to real rock music. He had hundreds of albums from most of the great rock acts of the 60's and 70's: The Eagles, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Elton John, of course, as well as the "city" bands: Kansas, Boston, Chicago. Kevin introduced me to a world that was richer than the pop landscape I was familiar with, and for the first time in my life I learned that rock music was not yelling and screaming, but actually thoughtful, challenging, melodic, musical, theatrical, seductive, and my favorite--transgressive. 

Bowie's music was part of this offering, and the album that shook me up the most was "Hunky Dory". This was some of the most beautiful music I had ever been exposed to, and the lyrics spoke to the boy in me who was hidden: the gay artist masquerading as a Naval Academy midshipman, the sexual explorer pretending to be a heterosexual virgin, the philosophical thinker trying to be a staid engineer. I knew of the song Changes, since it had been a pretty big hit ten years previous, but I hadn't known about Oh! You Pretty Things, Life On Mars?, or Quicksand. One of my favorite lyrics of all time is from the latter:
I'm not a prophet or a stone age man
Just a mortal with potential of a superman
I'm living on
I'm tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien
Can't take my eyes from the great salvation
Of bullshit faith
If I don't explain what you ought to know
You can tell me all about it
On the next Bardo
I'm sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain't got the power anymore.
I mean, what the fuck!!!! This album, as many others have declared, changed my life. It's music and lyrics hinted, suggested, and cried to me about a world where all was not as it seems. It described a life where thought could be a cage or a set of wings, where love could be sticky. If suggested that conflict was a state of aliveness, that one could hold two ideas at the same time and not decide, that you could want to move on and yet not be able to let go. This album showed me that things are not always simple, as I was raised to believe, but that we are all "tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien" in ways that were maddening and invigorating.

Kevin failed out of the Academy before graduating, not because he was not intelligent, but because of his laziness. I have never heard from him since, though I suspect that they sent him back to enlisted ranks. But he did succeed in introducing me to the richness of rock music and the alternative worlds of the artists who created the songs. Thank you, Kevin, wherever you are.

After two years I decided to leave the Academy and take up the study of dance. If you are shaking your head as to why a young man would give up a stable and respectable career as a naval officer for the vagabond existence of a dancer, you aren't the only one, and you do not know me very well. Rather than being a "path", the Academy ended up being a sidebar--it was an opportunity for me to get away from Chula Vista, California, and find out what kind of man I wanted to be. What I found out is that I wanted to be my own kind, not a cloned template cut from the military mold. Like Major Tom, I decided to float away from the spaceship and find my own way, and I knew that the path would be paved with music. 

In 1982, as a 20 year old, and I remember hanging out with a friend I knew when I was in high school. Her name is Annette, and she was unlike anyone I knew, and she was also a fabulous Bowie clone. I had just started to reconnect with the gay world in San Diego after leaving the Academy, and Annette was a willing and eager buddy in this endeavor. We were young, and music was key in our lives as it served as the soundtrack to our attempts at love and laughs. It was during this time that Queen released the duet Under Pressure with Bowie, and a classic was created. Annette and I used to sit on the curb of the street and listen to this song, our song, and we would revel in that particular golden narcissism that only the imagined rebellion of youth can sustain. 

There was something about the ferocity of the lyric that gets me to this day. A sample of my favorite lines:
Can't we give ourselves one more chance?
Why can't we give love that one more chance?

'Cause love's such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Under pressure
I wanted to have this kind of love, the love for the people on the edge of the night. I wanted love to dare me to change how I cared about myself. I wanted love to have me under pressure. I wanted to give myself one more chance (this was my youthful narcissism, as I was just at the beginning of my romantic life!). I did not want to love like everybody else, and you know what? I never did.

To this day I have not yet had my "last dance".


Once you have a hero, it takes a lot to dislodge him or her. Bowie became my hero, and he was never dislodged. He flirted with, and seduced, mainstream pop in the 80's with his hit album "Let's Dance", but he can be forgiven for this affair,
because the 80's drew many mavericks from their course for a time, including Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins, The Rolling Stones, Barbra Streisand, and more. I don't blame them. But Bowie's affair with the mainstream did not last for long, and it had integrity. However, I was glad to see him return to the edge in the 90's with albums like "1. Outside", and "Earthling". This was not radio music. Instead, he surrounded himself with impeccable musicians and, like Madonna, reformatted current music trends to suit his talents and vision.

Bottom line, the man cared about music. You could tell by the songs he wrote and the musicians he hired and the producers he employed. He wrote about a world where the outsider had relevance, where the "freak" could fly, and the rebel could lead. He wrote about death and solitude and loss and love and a world of topics that you won't find in most music. His vocals "floated" on top of the production, inviting attention and only pulling focus to bring home the point. He blurred the lines of gender and sexuality, showing us that music could be theater and that art could inform as well as entertain. He never wrote a casual lyric. He was both flawed and perfect, which was an example I needed to become aware of as a youth, having been trapped in both worlds; I needed to know that there was such a thing as duality of existence, and David Bowie showed me that there is.

He is dead, but will never be forgotten, as his music will awaken future freaks for generations to come. There was a meme spread around Facebook recently that I liked. It said that we should consider ourselves fortunate to exist in a time that included David Bowie. I would go further than that. I consider myself to still be alive because I exist in a time that included David Bowie. His was a life well lived, and he shared it with the public in glorious notes and melodies. Goodbye, my hero.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Giving up Dating, Part 2: An Update on the "Forever Stop"

This is a ridiculously long essay, but I feel it is necessary. The essay that this follows up on, The Forever Stop: Giving Up Dating, is the most viewed on this blog, and so in standard "Hollywood" tradition, it makes sense to have a sequel! In this case I hope that you find this to be more than just a trite re-hash of previous themes; perhaps more of a further examination or extension of the original themes. Who knows...this may end up being a trilogy! Read on and enjoy...

There are certain things that one should not "let go of". Fear is a classic example of one such thing. "Let go of fear!" Do you know of anyone who has successfully let go of fear? I don't. I do know many people who have tried to let go of fear, and as a result now suffer not only from fear, but also anxiety and the shame of failure. The idea of "letting go" of our feelings is right on par with the religious expectation that we should strive to never "sin". It sounds good on paper and sells books, but it only generates disaster when applied to real life lived by real humans. With fear, what generally works is leaning into it, as Pema Chodron advises. With fear, "letting go" does not work. It often results in something more like chopping off the hand that is doing the holding. How do I know? Because I know.

But you are welcome to try it out yourself, since my authority no doubt means nothing to you. The next time you feel anxiety or fear, go ahead and try to ignore it, or be happy. Go ahead! Then if you succeed in having it "go away", I will eat my shoe for charity. But I like my shoes very much, so I doubt this will happen. But you are free to try.

However I am not writing about fear in this essay. This essay is about what happens when you choose "letting go" in a situation where it can work. Dating is a classic example of one such situation. With dating, "letting go" can work because it suggests the loosening of one's grip on control, not avoidance or distraction. Control, in this example, often shows up in the way one thinks about dating, and it often goes something like this:

meet, attraction, sex, date, commit

Granted, those categories can be arranged in any possible order--it is not the order that indicates control, but the reliance on categories that yield a consistent low return. On their own, these categories can be quite harmless, but combined together, in any order, they rally their power to steam a train along a rickety track. Time after time I have noticed it in myself and others: if I meet someone and there is attraction so we have sex and if that is good then it means something so we date and if we date then we must at some later date commit.

Or perhaps that was just me.

Regardless, I made the decision at the end of last year to let it go, forever. I made a decision to break up the chain gang of categories and throw them up into the wind to scatter and fall where they may. I let it all go--the story, the expectations, the format, the need, the interest...the control--and I decided that I would just busy myself with living my life.

This essay is my follow up report on that strategy, a year later.

Nothing happens unless you do something. While I wouldn't build a scientific theory around this statement, it succeeds in communicating a basic idea. I tell my clients this all the time: If you want change to happen, you have to do something different. Letting go of dating was just one step in my process. Why did I not stop there? Because in my desire to let go, I was not inferring that I was giving up; instead, I was starting a process. There is a difference. I was making room for something different; the nature of this something was more vague than I preferred, but I was willing to start with "something". That something was a desire to re-ignite my creative, playful nature, and to find out how to trigger erotic connectivity.

Why did I want to do this? Primarily, my motivation was the desire to feel something other than a sense of efficiency in my life. Do any of you identify as taskmasters? Well, hello there, I am your leader. Building a business from scratch is a lot different from baking a cake from scratch. My livelihood depends on the results of my efforts. In the process of doing this, I got a bit safe in my emotional life. I am not sure why I felt this was necessary, but it is what I did. Freud used to say that we have a finite amount of energy to direct, but he used to say a lot of crazy things that have no scientific validity. I suppose that I felt that all my energy had to go to business development, or else I was being lazy. I also think that I knew the energy focus would be temporary, until things began to hum. It worked, from a business standpoint, as I now have a mildly supporting fledgling practice that continues to build momentum.

As my business grew, so then did my restlessness for some sacred messiness. I liken it to recovering from a broken limb, when you get the sense that you have progressed far enough to try and "get back to it", as it were. I was surprised by this resurgence, but not disappointed. And since I like to explore my instinctual inclinations, or at least the sober ones, I decided to look for opportunities to pursue this. At this point I will cut to the end of the story and save you the suspense, not because I am a nice guy, but because the opportunities are not what I want to write about. I want to write about the results.

Ain't nothing easy about "relationships", I always like to say. My opinion is supported by the culture, the media, and certainly by the couples who come into my practice struggling with unanticipated difficulties. I have long suspected that the stories we are fed about love are similar to the apple that dooms Sleeping Beauty--enticing but numbing--they lead us into a state of constant unfulfilled desire. I am currently reading a book that talks about how we spend most of our time in relationship with our partner's unlived self, and I see this as the result of a story of relationship that resides nowhere in our lived biological or emotional lives. Not that there is no truth to the story of romance, but it is just one of many ways to be with another, and at some point every couple has to get off the cloud and face the question of "Why am I really with you?"

They say that love can break through walls or build them. Actually, I just said that, but it sounds like something "they" would have said. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the "purpose" of relationship as far as it applies to my work and my personal life. I have come to the conclusion that the "romance story" can only exist within the realm of lack: something must be missing (self-esteem, confidence, purpose, meaning, excitement), and it can only be attained from another. Once the illusion of lack is shattered, romance must assume a new identity. It must naturally move from its status as headliner to supporting player. But then what takes its place at the top? Is there a true purpose for getting together with another? No, not in that sense inferred in the romance stories, but there are reasons that are really very simple and based in evolution. Well, two reasons. One is ancient--we are mammals and we evolved to attach to others in order to survive and nurture our young. The second is modern--it is in relationship that we have a chance to heal emotional trauma. The rest is dressing to the turkey--delicious, but not essential, but since you are having the turkey, why not have the dressing!

As an older man, I have continued to ponder my own reasons for intimate engagement, because they are not the same as they were when I was younger. Not that the previously mentioned reasons no longer apply, but it has become more of an effort to give a shit as I have gotten older. Life is pretty damn good even without romance. But I have been feeling that there could be a benefit to my personal development were I to explore the arena of relationship, so to speak. As I dip my toe in the water once again, I have awakened the pondering, and here is what I have come up with so far in regards to why I would date.

There are three basic reasons I currently identify as draws to relationship in my advanced age:

Ignition: Have you ever just felt blah about life? Sometimes the blahs are on the surface, and they can be responded to with something as simple as a strong cup of coffee or going to a new restaurant; at other times, the blahs are more than skin deep. Sometimes they are pervasive, such that they cast a sheet of dullness over every activity, every thought, every interaction. This is not a good thing, by the way. This level of the blahs warrants immediate action, lest one either succumb to them, or resist them with harmful attempts at stimulation.

During a recent run of the blahs, I resorted to neither remedy; but I knew I wanted to interrupt them. Ignition invites in interruption, but they are equally dependent upon each other, since you can't get to the former without the latter. Why is ignition a draw? Because it feels good to feel good. Ignition dispels the blahs by interrupting them and inviting in excitement, newness, and curiosity, and as the name implies, that is just the start. Ignition can lead to more actions toward relationship, but it can just as well lead to action toward anything. As I see it, there is no downside to ignition because it is not an end in itself, and it works like a charm.

I call ignition a draw to relationship due to the fact that the source of ignition is generally another person or an event tied to another person (both can be interruptions). Ignition, by its nature, assigns meaning to the presence of the other. Meaning is one key ingredient to relationship due to its application to both event and person: an interaction with significance attached to it tends toward relationship; and a person designated as meaningful typically triggers ignition! Ignition increases the sense of meaning, and on and on it can go, the whole process infusing life energy into the trigger and the triggered. This can be especially powerful when one is older, when one's "motor" tends to stall more often.

Companionship: This is an option that is settled into by many couples who have been together for a long time, but it is also an option that is the first choice for some older folks, who don't have the energy or interest in romantic love. I get it--it is wonderful to have someone around as you get older--just not too close! Studies have shown that "loneliness", which is different than solitude, is one factor that can lead to an early death, so a relationship chosen for companionship can be helpful in that regard.

I have a couple of friends who are dear companions. I have even discussed the idea of marriage with them, but truth be told, they are holding out for romantic love. That is fine. For me, I like the idea of having someone around who I like and trust, but am not obligated to entertain or fill all their emotional needs. I think it can keep one sane. I know that there are those who will argue that getting older does not mean that you can't have romance, and I would agree, but I do have an issue with the idea that you must not stop wanting romance. Why, in god's name, would I want the same things I wanted when I was 25, or 35? There are basic needs, which rarely change, and surface needs, which are age, culture, and development dependent. Being "in love" satisfied a need when I was young that I no longer have today. Companionship can fill in the blanks very nicely.

Fair Exchange: This is actually more attractive than it sounds, and truth be told, is the basis for every traditional relationship, whether you admit it or not. The gist of it is that you find a person who has something you want, and you trade them for something they want. End of story! The items on the trade sheet might include sex, company, activity partner, cuddling. This is a specific terms engagement, as both parties agree to the limits of the exchange.

Some of my most successful engagements have been Fair Exchange, where we both know what we want from each other while also knowing what we don't want from each other! These relationships can be short term or long term, and are usually without conflict or fuss. The reason they work so well is that they are devoid of the expectations that conventional relationships come saddled with--instead, both parties get what they want while giving what they have agreed to give. You might scoff, but tell me it doesn't sound appealing!

This type of arrangement can also be known as "lovers", in which the item up for exchange is fairly obvious.

None of the aforementioned is "better" than the other, and in fact, they can be combined into a sort of combo reason.

So where does that leave us after this rambling perusal? Well, hopefully in a state of deeper thinking concerning dating and relationships. You know how they say that things are better enjoyed if you are present for the experience? In a similar way, I propose that dating is better if one thinks about why one is doing it. Dating is not just an activity to do so that you have something to publicize on Facebook, or at least not in my book. (Sorry, almost everybody!)  Dating can just be plain old fun; it can also be a powerful form of engagement with the potential to heal emotional trauma. Why not make it both?  This is currently my personal intent around all this nonsense. I like to think of it as a sort of mud run. You are going to get dirty, perhaps filthy, and you will fall down and get burned at times and shocked and scared and wet and bruised and discouraged and insecure, but if you have a certain intent at the start you may get through it with joy attached, experiencing the challenges as worth the price of admission in order to feel that alive.

See what can happen when one decides to stop doing things the old way? You might find that your engine is not quite ready to stop. At least not forever.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

I Wish You Joy

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

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

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

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

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

Because I am funny, goddammit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me--serious from a very young age.