Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Personal Is Political, Unlike Coq Au Vin



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what about when people are not primed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Friday, December 30, 2016

A Familiar Life


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***
My first crush.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps, just perhaps, he has never forgotten either.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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


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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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