Saturday, April 4, 2015

Age: It's All In or Nothing

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

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

So, yeah, I do think about my age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing what it knows how to do.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

"This House" #2: Relevance and Dementia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 17, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I notice details.

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 1, 2015

"Happy New Year, Faggot!"

They say that the new year is a time to start fresh, but upon even a cursory shake of the head, one can see that the reality is just more of the same, one day later. So why do we insist on marking this day so outrageously? My theory is that we do this because we can't live easily without the concept of "new beginnings". Even though life is a running through-line, we do better with sudden starts than we do with slow builds. The interesting part of this for me is that sudden starts are rarely lasting or effective--it is the slow build that yields the greatest and longest lasting results.

Everyone is familiar with the idea of the New Year's resolution and its comical track record of failure. I gave up making resolutions for myself many years ago, remaining content with reviewing progress on the slow builds, and occasionally suggesting resolutions for others that would make my life better. One of the areas of slow build that I continue to monitor is how I deal with my own anger, particularly when it springs from the effect of others' narrow-mindedness. Since the world is still overwhelmingly narrow-minded, you can imagine that I have spent a lot of time in the anger zone, mostly to my own detriment. However, by attending to the slow build, I am happy to report that I am much better at responding to narrow-mindedness, and as a result I am less at the effect of such.

The key ingredient to my progress in this area is the strengthening of the idea that the majority of narrow-minded behaviors are not about me. They are, rather, all about the initiator, and I find that a better use of my time is to worry more about what my response will be, and less about whether the behavior is right, fair, or should be happening at all. Some times I am better at this than at other times, as you can imagine. That is called being human, not perfect.

For me, the importance of the slow build places a different emphasis on the significance of New Year's. Rather than looking forward at what I hope to do more and less of, I prefer to look back and review what I have done more and less of, and make mental adjustments as needed. This results in less self-criticism, and more appreciation. As I always say to my clients in the therapy room, the best way to know if you are making progress is to see if you behave differently around the same circumstances.

This New Year's Eve I had a couple of close friends over for a home-cooked "fancy" dinner, and we had a wonderful time. As a good host, I naturally provided horns and noisemakers to be used at the appointed hour to usher in the "new" year. Right before midnight, we huddled in the cold on my patio and prepared to unleash a sonic celebration, which we did at the stroke of midnight. We blew our horns, we cranked our noisemakers, we screamed "Happy New Year", and we reveled in the sound of near and far fireworks and similar celebrations. New Year's Eve is one of the few times when it seems that everyone is on the same page, and it is not entirely inappropriate or unwelcome to wish complete strangers a happy new year. What my friends and I got, however, was far from a welcome return greeting. Fifteen seconds into the new year, we heard someone from the apartment building across the street yell out the door. What he yelled was, "Happy New Year, faggot!"

Happy New Year.

If you are gay, and perhaps even if you are not, you know the toxic sting of that word, loaded with painful history as it is, and it is easy to think that in 2015 we are in a "post-faggot" world. Alas, this is not any more true than the idea that we are living in a "post-racial" world. And yet I do notice that as the voices of ignorance and hate get louder, they more closely resemble dying gasps than they do war cries. It does seem that when the oppressed are actively oppressed, there is little reason for the oppressor to defend or assert the oppression in the open. Lately, as the barriers to equal rights continue to fall, I hear dying gasps all around me. Funny, that classification does little to comfort me, all the same. Last night, when our celebration was pierced with the sound of homophobic ignorance, I saw red.

What I wanted to do was walk across the street and confront the young man who had made the offensive remark, and I wanted to do this in front of his family and ask them what could possibly make them think it was acceptable for this to be yelled out the front door. I wanted to ask them why they place so much emphasis on community in their own family and circle of friends, but find it okay to treat their longtime neighbor like an unwelcome stranger. I wanted to tell them that this was not to be repeated, and that they owed us an apology. I wanted to scream at them, slam my fist into their door, spit on their window, hurt them. But I did none of these things.

At one point, not five minutes into the new year, I found myself benefiting from the progress of the slow build. I realized that what I knew was that someone had yelled out their front door, and that they had used the word "faggot". What I didn't know was why they did this, or if it was directed at our group at all. I thought that perhaps our noisemaking had awakened this person, and that he had responded to that interruption; but it didn't matter what the story was, because whatever it was, it was not about me, and I was not interested in starting my new year off with a confrontation. Those who know me know that I am not one to shy away from conflict, but there is a difference between letting someone walk all over you, and stepping out of the way. The former is making someone's actions about yourself, the latter is making it about them. Stepping aside is not the same as lying down. My decision to not engage was a way to keep the power of choice in determining my experience. I choose not to ruin the evening by making someone else's bad behavior about me. The anger dissipated like a mist, and we went on to enjoy the rest of the evening, though not without some effect.

I am a faggot, I am a queer, I am attracted to men and have been for as long as I can remember. This is just how it is, and there are many more like me, and this is nothing new. Same sex attraction is not a "sin", and we are not ruining anything, and for those who continue to think this way, you are approaching the day when you will have to admit that your god is prejudice.

The world is always waiting right outside for us, in fact I never really forget this fact, and last night it didn't take 15 seconds for the world to remind us that it is "more of the same, one day later". But my friends and I made the choice to continue celebrating regardless, because we have much to celebrate, and because the slow build reminded me that I have a choice. Last night we chose to step aside, rather than taking the punch or turning the other cheek. It worked, but not like a magic charm--this is the real world after all, and I do have tears on my face as I write this.

But it's progress. The slow build continues. More than I can say for the young man across the street, who may have a long life of shattered illusions ahead of him. Let's hope--both for his sake and for mine.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Forever Stop: Giving up Dating

I am not sure what I was thinking, writing an essay this long, but I decided to not divide it into two parts. Instead, it is a five part essay--but please realize that a discussion about dating cannot be done succinctly. That would only confuse and frustrate. So pour yourself a cup of coffee, or a glass of Scotch, and take in my latest perusal. It may be the last of this year...unless it isn't. 

Everyone in Los Angeles has a story or two about dating, even the men.

This is true regardless of age, but when you pass the age of fifty, you often have more than just one story or two. Yet I notice that stories told by men over fifty are somewhat different than those told by women of the same age. Generally, women bemoan the difficulty of finding a man who is interested in them in spite of their age, and how they just want a companion who displays occasional romantic gestures (ladies, I get it!). Men's stories, however, describe the same hope they longed for when they were younger--the desire to get laid and have someone take care of them (shame!). I sometimes suspect that dating, as we know it, was made up by women at some point. This is not a bad thing, except that the purpose of the exercise seems to have gotten a bit muddled. They say that people date to "get to know each other", yet in my observations this task is rarely seen all the way through to an accurate assessment of compatibility.

I strongly suspect that there is no man alive or dead who has ever actually liked the act of dating--if you are one of them, then you are probably just lying to yourself. Historically, men haven't had much of a choice in the matter, have they, since dating has been part of the cultural context since at least Victorian times. Gay men have mostly been spared this dilemma because until recently they could not even date publicly, so they didn't, and would instead cut to the chase. For most men, gay and straight, this approach sounds absolutely ideal; it gets one right to the finish line without having to run the track. It does seem that dating is a heterosexual phenomenon--when two gay men try to do it, it can resemble trying to corral wild wolves into taking a walk on a leash.

Now that the country is on a gay marriage rainbow bandwagon, the pressure is on for gay folks. If society is going to "let us" play their game, then they expect us to follow the same rules they have had to suffer under. While that might be appealing to the younger people coming of age (who still buy into the cultural dating discourse and its sparkly promise), it presents a substantial challenge to those of us who have been ditching traditional dating protocol for twenty or thirty years of our adult lives. What are we supposed to do now, start dating each other? Well, from what I hear, that is exactly what gay people are doing, complete with dinners and chaste kisses on the cheek at the end of the night. Good grief! (Actually, most gay dates, if they have gone well, still end with sex, so we haven't really changed all that much.)

What is heard about less often is when someone decides to stop dating completely--not to nurse a broken heart or to sow their oats--but a cold, hard, forever stop. It seems there is an assumption that, if you are single and over the age of 18, you must either keep at the pursuit of love until the day you die, or at the most let aging or illness force you into retirement. Who in the world would make a conscious choice to quit, especially when you still have a few laps around the track?

Well, I am an over-fifty year old gay man, and I have decided to forever stop dating.

In show business, they always say that it is best to "go out on top", and yet somehow this rarely happens. Lucile Ball continued to work in television long past the time when she was getting good show scripts. Joan Crawford insisted on acting in movies even when Hollywood did not want her anymore (of course she needed the paycheck, poor thing!). To this day, Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up occasionally in "action" films, even though his face and body are sadly deteriorated from his 80's heyday. I have always admired the character played by Ruth Gordon in "Harold and Maude", because she made a decision to end her life on her 80th birthday, before time and age took too much of a toll on her body and mind. Now that is taking control of things!

I would like to go out on top, or at least as close to the top as I may get.

Dating, for gay men, tends to be either a joke or a nightmare, and seldom does it land in anywhere near the middle of the two. As I said earlier, when I was much younger I never engaged in anything like gay dating--just gay sex. For me, that would sometimes lead to something resembling a relationship (what I called it at the time). Truth be told, the relationships I had in my twenties were little more than gay sex, but with names attached. But damned if I didn't think I was in love. It sure felt like love, or how I thought love should feel. What it was, actually, was immediate infatuation with a healthy side of attachment injury. Fun!

Over the years I have tried my hand at any number of approaches to dating. None of them were complete failures, but many were jokes, and a few were nightmares. But then I am not really sure what would qualify as success, either. How do I define success unless I know why I am dating? In my youth, the goal was simple: I wanted to fall in love and be loved in return. FOREVER. I didn't care how it happened, I just wanted it to happen. Today, as a couples therapist, I see men and women all the time who set out for that same destination only to find themselves arriving instead at resentment, boredom, and disappointment. Is true love no more than a big shiny car with a broken steering wheel? What the hell is true love anyway? Why in the world would I want to date at this point in my life?

One time, in a therapy group composed of gay men, I had just finished ranting on the shitty men of my love life, and one of the group members said to me, in response to my complaints, "What if it's you, and not them?" I looked at him incredulously, wondering how he could dare say something so insensitive and cruel. How could it be me? I wanted love so badly--why would I possibly do anything to send it away? Since that time, I confess that I have sent many loving men away, and I find myself wondering, in the dark of the night, with the sound of my youth crumbling to the floor, "What if it is me, and not them?"

Today, I have come to the conclusion that it is me, and, well, it isn't. Both participants in a relationship are responsible for how it turns out, and I am willing to own my part. But I am not always difficult and demanding, I was just drawn to react that way, in certain circumstances, through early life experiences. It is a bittersweet dilemma that I find myself in, because even though today I am aware of having more choices in my dating behavior, I have recently concluded that nobody is good enough for me anyway. Nobody. You were right after all, Mom! Nobody will ever have my back the way I have had it all these years. Nobody could ever take my side, heal my pain, celebrate my joy, or let me enjoy solitude as well as I can. Life has forced me to become the best I could ever be for others, but more importantly, I have become the best I could ever be for myself. Nobody could possibly ever live up to my own expectations of myself, or of them.

So that is why I am giving up dating, because it is an activity with no finish line. I just cannot settle on a reason to continue doing it. People who date and get married are celebrated as if they are they have achieved the only interpersonal goal worthy of celebration, but what about when someone does a great job nurturing themselves, or having an alternative type of relationship? Like Carrie Bradshaw once said, why don't people celebrate when you get through life successfully on your own? I do not need someone to take my side, heal my pain, celebrate my joy, or leave me alone when I need solitude. I do not need what I can give myself. I don't.


What would be nice is someone to stand by my side, hold my pain, share my joy, and respect my need for solitude on occasion, to change things up. I just suspect that I would not find that person through the act of I know it. I may not find that person by dating at all. How might I find that person then, assuming that this desire even becomes something I want to pursue? First, I must tell you the truth about dating, and why it is a terrible way to get to know someone and find out if there is relationship compatibility. You are free to disagree with what I am about to say, but that does not mean that I am not right.

Dating, as it has been done for the last 100 years, is fraught with pitfalls, primarily because it inspires expectation.
The expectation centers around the perfectly reasonable hope that we will find our date attractive and emotionally compatible, but those two desires can conflict with each other in the early stages, causing our rationality to jump the track. The result can be inaccurate evaluation of compatibility based on high sexual attraction, OR the dismissal of compatibility due to lack of initial attraction. Neither case is helpful in our goal to form a good relationship. So what do we do?

Before the onset of Internet dating in the mid-90's, a portion of heterosexual couples met at work. By 2005 that number had decreased, with the Internet eventually taking over as the place where a lot of couples met. Studies go on to indicate that the divorce rate increased during the same time period that incidents of partnering with someone at work decreased. The significance of this fact is that there is a major difference between meeting someone at work, and meeting someone online. That difference, in my opinion, is expectation. In a work setting, romance can come slowly as one gets to know another. There may not even be a physical attraction at first; it may appear and grow as one gets to know another casually without the expectation of romance. Even if there is a strong attraction, we generally proceed with more patience because of the shared work environment. At work, we get a chance to see others in "regular" situations, both good  and bad, and we get to observe a variety of their responses! This way of getting to know someone does not guarantee a happy union, but it does lend more strength to the possibility of that outcome.

Conversely, online dating provides the space to prepare our best faces and responses in an ideal presentation framework. Compatibility decisions are usually made based on sexual attraction and romantic behavior. This is not a bad thing altogether, but it does make it harder to know what someone is going to be like in the long run. I could write much more about these differences, but the take-away is that we have a better chance to determine compatibility when we are around a person a lot, over time, in regular and romantic circumstances, without the high expectations of romantic dating. Most experts agree that at least a year is a good amount of time to get past the honeymoon stage and get a glimpse of who someone will be on a daily basis.

For gay men, this presents a unique challenge, since our regular work circumstances tend to be primarily populated by heterosexuals (and closeted homosexuals)--not the most fertile dating ground! However, gay men do not need to work around other gay men to experience the growth of feelings over time--any work situation can give one the opportunity to notice the effect that prolonged exposure has on the way we think about someone. But if a gay man is looking for romantic relationship, then somewhere, somehow, there must be another gay man involved in the process, and therein lies the challenge.

For me, it is difficult because I no longer use dating profiles to find dates. That is because I am done with being attracted to a profile more than the person behind it. I am done with presenting myself as a commodity to be approved or disapproved, based on a photo and a paragraph. I live in a city where most people know how to write good copy (including me), but know less about how to live it. So I see online profiles as an expendable middle man that gets in the way of the authentic experience of a person. I know they serve as introductions, but if that is misleading, and more effort is put into glossy introductions than a quality first act, then what is the point.

So I am not going to do that anymore. That is the cold, hard, stop. I will not date that way anymore, I am giving it up. What I will be doing instead is still up for discussion, but I do know that it involves real time, real life interactions and in-person chemistry. Maybe. I don't even know if it is that important to me anymore--to date someone or to be in a relationship. I am different now than I was when I was in my 20's; then, I thought that a relationship would give me what I needed. Now I think a relationship could give me what I prefer--but what is that? I described some of it above, but if I am going to date or consider a relationship in order to obtain these things, it is going to start in a completely different way than what has come before. I am giving up the cultural norm of dating. I am stopping that, forever. For me, it has never yielded a satisfactory emotional outcome, only the physical equivalent of farmer's market fruit: sweet and satisfying when consumed right away, but rotten a few days later.

In a gay men's group that I am currently in, one group member said that he was planning to stop working so hard at trying to get dates, and instead just "live his life". That sounds like a good plan. Funny things can happen on the way to the Forum, and that is just what I intend to explore. I am done with dating. Time to just live my life and pay attention to who I bump into in the process.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Rewriting the Stories of Summer: The Corned Beef Sandwich, Part 2

Rewriting the story...
For Part One, please go here.

As a narrative therapist, my work involves helping clients to "re-author their lives", or at least certain painful parts of it. It comes down to the idea that you can't change the past, but you can change how you look at it, and you can have a say in your future. I have used this concept on my own life, especially when thinking of my childhood and realizing the effect of what I did not get from my parents. It has worked well, resulting in more compassion not only toward my parents, but also toward myself. However, I have never tried to rewrite the corned beef sandwich story. This is probably because, even though I did not care for these sandwiches, eating them did not cause that much distress or trauma. It was just an unpleasant experience, one of many during my childhood, I am sure, but one that I remember vividly. Maybe it does hold more weight than I should grant it. If I am to be totally honest, I may have made up a story about it involving the possibility that my mother must not like me very much if she did this to us year after year. Regardless, I have decided that it is time to bury the negative association I attach to corned beef, and to this memory. For the story of the corned beef sandwich, please see Part 1 here.

There are about a billion Jewish delicatessens in Los Angeles, and many of them specialize in pastrami and corned beef sandwiches. I could easily ride to Canter's Deli in the Fairfax District if I want to have a Reuben, but there is something about Canter's that is just too "regular" for me. Even though it has been around for many many years, the only thing on the menu that I feel is worth going there for is the matzo ball soup. I also know that anything "regular" wouldn't have a chance of rewriting my childhood sandwich memory of 40 years ago. I needed a sandwich that would force me to take notice, a sandwich that could re-wire my brain. I suspected that I would find what I needed at Wexler's Deli.

Wexler's is making a huge splash in the downtown Grand Central Market.
It recently opened as an expression of "Jewish Soul Food", which, as a descriptor, cracks me up more than it whets my appetite. But from what I hear, if there is any place to get a corned beef sandwich, this is one of the places. If anything, it is another reason to visit the Market, which I have been exploring a lot more since quitting my day job over a year ago. Most cities have a similar place--I remember years ago going to a central market in downtown Philadelphia, and I loved it. The concept is simple: combine good food with quality grocery items and a bar or two and you have the makings of a classic gathering spot. Wexler's is part of the recent transformation, redesign, and upgrading of the L.A. Market--the good news is that it looks as though it is part of the original crowd of vendors--the design is authentic, modern, and nostalgic all at once.

I arrived midday on a hot Thursday afternoon in August. The market was teeming with people--a mix of the usual lunch crowd,
tourists, and people like me who were not working and had the time to go downtown in the middle of the week to mill about the Market. Wexler's was busy--a good sign, so I got into line and looked at the old fashioned menu board. I immediately saw my destination sandwich--the Reuben: so classic that they don't even give it another name like they do with the pastrami sandwich (the MacArthur Park).

When I was young, on family vacation, we did not call the sandwiches in the cooler "Reubens". They were just corned beef sandwiches, cold ones at that, and they certainly did not have sauerkraut or Russian dressing on them. They may have had cheese, but I doubt it was good Swiss. I do remember them being on Rye bread, and that I did not like this bread. In contrast, the Reubens at Wexler's are made to order, with thick slabs of warm corned beef, sauerkraut, dressing, and Swiss on homemade rye bread. I got mine handed to me by chef and owner Micah Wexler--how cool was that! It came alone on a cardboard tray--I had declined the pickle and side salad--there was no distracting me from the task I had set out to undertake. The sandwich looked promising. I took it to the tables on the upper deck of the Market, and I found a table with Coca-Cola signs on it. Actually, all the tables had Coca-Cola signs on them. The company must have sponsored the purchase of the tables. Either that, or the Market just got a good deal on a gang of Coca-Cola tables. I did not get a Coca-Cola to go with my lunch.

I sat down, and the first thing I did was to smell the sandwich.
My actual Reuben sandwich
The corned beef smelled less "corned beefy" than I remember my mother's sandwiches smelling, but that is also because I was smelling warmed Rye bread and tart sauerkraut. It smelled fantastic, I must say. The corned beef, as they advertise, was sliced thick, and was glistening with juices. As I bit into the sandwich a couple of things happened. Have you ever watched a show where there is a speedy and blurred "rewind" to a previous moment of time? That happened. I was back in the car with my family, on the way to my sister's house, and we had been handed our corned beef sandwich lunches from the cooler. I will come back to this in a second.

The second thing that happened is that my mouth rejoiced with flavorful sensation; you can recognize a perfect combination of ingredients when the sum of the parts creates something greater than the individual pieces. The crunch of the toasted bread gave way to the richness of the dressing and the tart sauerkraut, paving the way for the seasoned warm juiciness of the meat, which was supported by the smoothness of the cheese. Whoever created the Reuben was a fucking genius, and I bet it took a while to get it just right. The sandwich was remarkable, and I ate every single bite of it. I thought of how, just minutes earlier, chef Wexler had smiled and handed me this creation with pride, with the implied hope that I would enjoy it. And then there at the Coca-Cola table, as the taste of the finished sandwich lingered in my mouth and my senses, I was back in the family car again, opening up the plastic bag that held my cold lunch sandwich.

But in that moment, in my memory, something changed. I suddenly was aware that the vacation sandwiches were not some kind of punishment from my mother, or an indication that she did not like me, or that she could not care less what I liked or did not like. Instead, those sandwiches were made with love, by a mother who cared deeply for me, and who was trying so very hard to make the whole family happy. They were made by a mother who was expected to make the family lunches, and make them right, with very little acknowledgement or appreciation, because it was her "job". They were a way to avoid having to stop at some crappy fast food joint to eat god knows what made by someone who did not care about us in the least. They were made, just like chef Wexler's sandwiches, with pride, care, and love. And in my self-involved youth I did not see any of that, all I saw was a sandwich that had been undone by my own narrative. It was not the first time I failed to notice my mother's loving efforts, but that never stopped her from making them.

And yet, given all that, what is clear to me is that she most definitely did not make us Reuben sandwiches. A cold corned beef sandwich minus Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing is just a cold corned beef sandwich. And that was her mistake. My mistake was making up a story about it that was not true. I guess we have all made mistakes where family is concerned. Perhaps it is even required. But my mother had more at stake back then than chef Wexler did on the afternoon that he made my Reuben. On this afternoon, he was in charge of overseeing the execution of a product he had overseen thousands of times, with great success; the odds were in his favor. My mother, on the other hand, was in charge back then of pleasing a husband and two young sons with different tastes, and limited information. She was in charge of conforming to the role of a wife and mother in a culture that rarely empowered either; she was in charge of pleasing everybody but herself. In that light, it is easy for me to rewrite the corned beef sandwich story.

Making a mistake with someone is not the same thing as not loving them.

It is good to finally be able to enjoy a goddamn Reuben sandwich, especially when it helps me to fully appreciate my mother. Wexler's Deli, I will be back.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Rewriting the Stories of Summer: The Corned Beef Sandwich, Part 1

flickr image by Kari Marie
When I was a young lad, way back in the last third of the last century, there were certain family traditions that were considered standard fare for practically everyone I knew. Many of those traditions have gone the way of the 8-track, in other words, many have been dated out by new technologies. At that time, there was no way to imagine that I would one day look back with nostalgia at more than what was playing on pop radio, but I must admit that I do. I find myself longing for the simplicity of the time, and the comfortable routines that made up my childhood: Sunday church, family dinners, Summer break, the start of school in the Fall, Christmas and birthdays. Though these routines all differed individually from year to year, I could always count on them to serve as markers of time--reminders that I belonged to a particular culture that had a certain comforting predictability. I must say that I took it for granted back then, since it was the only way of living I had ever experienced. Now, as a grown man, I am aware of how fragile traditions can be, and how they require maintenance and fresh effort as time goes on. Otherwise, traditions can change, or even disappear, when newness distracts us from what we know. There was actually a time not long ago when the routines of my adult life were mostly unfamiliar to me. Fortunately, that is no longer the case; I am at an age where I once again find great value in comforting routines that anchor my days. Some of them have been co-opted from my childhood and rewritten with new meaning. I would like to write about one in particular that could use some rewriting.

From as early as I can remember, until the age of about 14, my family and I would spend a week every summer taking a family vacation. These vacations were "routine", in that they usually occurred in July or August, and they most always involved piling into the car and driving up north to stay with my sister in Placerville, CA.
Downtown Placerville, aka "Old Hangtown"
For me, these were fantastic vacations, since my two nieces and nephew were close in age to me and my brother, my sister (their mother) being 20 years older than I. We all got along famously, in fact for a time I considered my oldest niece to be one of my best friends. We would spend the week swimming, running around, playing endless games of Monopoly, and generally being kids, as it was defined in the 20th century before everything was so monitored and monopolized by parents and electronic devices. We never put shoes on, we got tan, and we were skinny. Can you imagine?

It would take us about a day to drive up to Placerville from San Diego, and back then the arrangement was like this: Dad drove, Mom rode shotgun, and my brother and I shared the backseat with a large plastic cooler between us.
To this day, I will assert that that cooler is the reason I am still alive, since it was common for me and my brother to engage in warfare toward each other during the long drive up north. We were only a year apart (he was older), so our closeness often fueled fierce rivalry, especially when we were bored and somewhat dizzy from the cigarette smoke wafting constantly back from my parents' cigarettes. The cooler, in its humble state, served as an effective barrier between me and my brother, so that even when we attempted to strike out at one another, we would be impeded by a hard plastic boundary divider. My parents may have been smokers, but they weren't stupid!

There was only one thing about those summer vacations that I did not look forward to year after year, and that was the lunch my mother packed in the cooler for us to eat. For some unknown reason, she would always make corned beef sandwiches, and I HATED corned beef! To this day I cannot fathom why she settled on this type of sandwich, when the most obvious choice would have been bologna, but then that was my mother. A hotbed of unconventional choices, she was. Everyone else in the family seemed to enjoy them just fine, but I had to choke mine down or else go hungry. I kept my disdain to myself--back then kids didn't DARE question the choices offered for meals! Can you imagine?

Corned beef, as you may know,
Homemade Corned Beef--yum!
is just brisket that is cured with a brine, and the main difference between it and pastrami is that pastrami is smoked after curing. Truth be told, I have never been that crazy about pastrami either, but if you offer me a quality cut of either dish today, I will eat it with glee. There is a huge difference between the taste of good homemade meat today compared with store bought in the 70's. Let's just accept that fact.

As time went on, the family vacation routine took a hit, primarily because it became more difficult to convince two teenage boys to ride in a car together for six hours, divided by a cooler, when they could be doing other teenage things. But I have never forgotten those corned beef sandwiches, and how their presence seemed to mock me from their chilled berth inside contentious cooler. To this day I do not eat corned beef sandwiches.

to be continued... up: the trip to Wexler's Deli!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

High Fives and Hovering Butts: The Illusion of Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you guess what?

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

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

Locals setting up coffee and treats!

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

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

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

They were hoping for "high-fives". 

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

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

Crops to help us live well. 

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

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

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

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

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