Thursday, February 7, 2019

Ruth Margie


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Heart of Resolution


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get off the phone. 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clean up your mess. 

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

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

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

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Twenty-One Observations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15. I am not a brand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Hell Is Hella Silly


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

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

And people wonder why I struggle with anxiety at times.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

There is your black and white.

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

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

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

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

***
The Moral Compass

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 11, 2018

Mom's Recipe Box


Do we ever really know our mothers? I certainly didn’t, not really. By the time I was born in 1962 she was already 40 years old—she lived a lifetime before I ever showed up. In addition, she had been married three times before she married my father, and had a 20 year-old daughter from her first marriage. I think that mothers' lives can be easily divided into two categories: before our birth and after our birth. A simplification to be sure; but it is not a reduction, just the establishment of a point of reference.

I knew her, obviously, after my birth, and so I knew her as "Mom". While that is a title that contains a whole lot of context, it is still limiting as far as a definer. It wasn't until I became an adult that I got to move past her role designation and explore the woman behind the title. 

Ruth, my mother, was born in 1922. Each decade of her life would show her cultural changes she could not have possibly imagined, and yet she seemed, at least to me, to adjust naturally into each period of change, as though she were a product of the time rather than a precursor. The truth is that she was a product of the times, as much as I am a product of not only the 70’s and the 80’s when I was growing up, but also a reflection of recent years. With my mother, however, there were certain roles that did not change so much over time.

Mom did the cooking in our household (just like moms did in most households back then). I seem to remember that the only place where men could cook was on a BBQ, involving meat. Mothers rarely were seen cooking outside, they were relegated to the kitchen, and back in those days that is just the way it was. Nobody seemed to mind much, but then I don’t recall anyone ever asking the mothers what they thought of it.

When I think back on my mother’s cooking, I have an overall sense of pleasantness. I liked her food, though truth be told she cooked from scratch only half the time. These were the days when convenience foods showed up and came into vogue—the grocery frozen aisle held all kinds of modern miracles that simply required "heating up". I remember with fondness the many nights of Swanson pot pie dinners—I could not decide if I liked chicken or turkey the best—but I do remember that the beef pies seemed “exotic” to me for some reason. For many years I only knew vegetables that came thawed from a box or limp and pale from a can. Salads, a staple of my adult diet, were universally made back then with iceberg lettuce and served with bottled dressings (I preferred 1000 Island--I never even knew that dressing could be made at home!).

When my  mother did make something “from scratch”, it often involved soup mix from an envelope or chunk pineapple from the can. My favorite of her from scratch recipes was her tacos, for here she would go all out by frying the corn tortillas herself to make them crisp/soft. The shredded beef was from a can, but it was just the way things were done! She would put out shredded cheddar cheese and lettuce and pair them with canned refried beans. I loved it, and make my tacos similarly today, though I cook the meat myself and also add sour cream and taco sauce.

***
Imagine my surprise and delight when, after she died, I discovered a recipe box among her things. I suppose I knew that she used recipes, but as a child I was so seldom involved in the act of preparing food that I never really thought much about it. When I opened the recipe box I found newspaper clippings, typed index cards, and hand written recipes all in a loose alphabetical order. Look! There is the Two-Toned Fudge she always made at Christmas (I have since continued the tradition). There is the Hawaiian Chicken she would make with rice on special occasions! Boston Baked Beans! Upside Down Peach Cake (when did she make that?)! Macaroni 'Seafarer" Casserole (what the hell?)!

I am not sure why, of all things, I decided to keep the recipe box, but I am glad I did. It is comforting to see her cursive handwriting on the cards--each section is a chance to explore what she thought might be an interesting family dish. There were certainly many other things of hers that we had to go through when she died, and for me I wanted to get through it as fast as I could. How do you dissemble a person's life? I still don't know the answer to that question. What I do know is that every item we agreed to discard felt like a slap to my mother's face. Does that resonate with you?

She had a bunch of condolence cards from 45 years ago when she lost her daughter Marla to pneumonia. I was born one month after Marla's death, so I never met her, but her life and the effect of her death were all around me growing up--in the photo album pictures, the home movies, in my father's alcoholism and my mother's over-protectiveness. As I read some of the cards, I realized that Mom had kept them all these years because she probably could not bring herself to throw them out. How could she? And now here I was holding them in my hands, trying to decide on whether to keep or toss these reminders of a child's tragic death. 

I threw them out, and it killed me. I hate to even think about it. But they were my mother's sacred reminders, not mine. Now that she was gone, who needed to be reminded of what happened that day? I certainly didn't.

Have you ever had to throw away a loved one's valued keepsakes? I hope you never have to.


***
The recipe box was a part of my own memories and so I chose it, along with the wedding dress my mother made for when she married my dad. These items have her touch on them; they are reminders of two of the skills I most noticed about her when I was growing up: cooking and sewing. Though I am sure that whoever goes through my things when I die will discard both the recipe box and the wedding dress, I am okay with that, because the memories should end with me. Nobody else would care about them, I think.


This Mother's Day, I am making Mom's Chicken Cacciatore for a group of friends. As a kid, the very name of it was almost too much for me--it must be foreign! But I have fond memories of the dish and how it made me feel as though we were very cosmopolitan for eating it. I will add a few ingredients to snap it up, after all, I have moved past cooking with soup mix, and my friends and I will remember our mothers over shared food and drink. I think she would have approved, and she would have been happy to let someone else do the cooking for a change.



Sunday, March 18, 2018

THIS IS MY BOYFRIEND



"Can you please stop at Sunset to drop off my friend?"

***
The other night I thought about wearing my blue hair wig to a Fisherspooner show here in Los Angeles, but I thought better of it. I have a bit of trouble showing my "freak" in mixed company, and I was not sure what crowd would be at the show.

I was right to be cautious. While Fisherspooner is rightly looked at as a queer act (based partly on the number of mostly naked mens who populated his stage show in versions of g-strings and harnesses), one can never be too careful about self-expression these days. Upon arriving, I noticed that the majority of the crowd was indeed queer, but also quite "normie" in that they easily could have fit in at the local Target without getting a single double-take. There were, of course, a couple of dolled up drag queens and one or two who-gives-a-shit fashion boys who bravely carried the torch for the rest of us closet freaks. But that was okay. At 55, I don't need to wave my flag for all to see anymore.

I was dressed, nevertheless, in a way that some might call "stretching it", were it not for my level of fitness and good skin. If you aren't sure of what you can pull off and what you can't, what can you be sure of? So despite my outfit I was confident of my safety on the stretch of Hollywood Blvd. that houses the Fonda Theater. I was queer, but not uncomfortably so. This is how I prefer to walk through the world.

***

I have written before about how my personal becomes political merely by being a gay atheist. I mean, I am pretty much a target for half the nation from the time I walk out the door by virtue of those aspects alone. Fortunately, the half of the nation that has it out for me is not too sharp in the skill of decoding subtlety, so most days I return home unscathed and unthreatened, just another white guy returning home from the world.

I like it this way. I prefer to wage war with actions taken within the confines of my apartment; actions that are effective despite being less demonstrative than, say, marching in the streets. Have I ever mentioned that marching in the streets strikes me more as individual empowerment than as a tool for systemic change? No matter--to each his or her own. But if you have not picked up on this yet, these days I would rather fly "under the radar". This is out of respect to both my safety as well as the well-being of those who care about me. (Don't they say that true war is not waged in the battlefield, but rather in the boardrooms?) In other words, if I am going to fight, I am going to fight smart. I have no intention of getting hit by a stray bullet or an errant bayonet. That's no way to go, I say. I still have way to much to do.

***
So the night of the concert, after I had left the theater, I found myself in an unanticipated situation when my boyfriend asked to ride with me in the LYFT to Sunset Blvd., where he could then easily walk back to his place. It wasn't his presence in the car that was unsettling, it was the fact that now I had to let the driver know that we were dropping someone off on the way to my place. I did it sort of like this:
"Can you please stop at Sunset to drop off my friend?"
You may have spotted the gaffe, but if not please allow me to point it out to you. I had just publicly referred to my boyfriend, my gay boyfriend, as my friend.

Believe me, it was noticed, not so much by the driver, but certainly by my boyfriend. He proceeded to repeat back to me, "Your friend? Your friend?", until it became obvious to me that it must also be obvious to the driver that we were, in fact, gay boyfriends, and that I had just referred to my gay boyfriend as my friend.

Oh the pain.

Despite my best efforts to fly "under the radar" long enough to get safely home, I had now been outed by my own best efforts to stay in the closet with this LYFT driver.

I cannot and will not blame my boyfriend. He was 100% right in pointing out the mistake, and I can only thank him for doing it with a sense of humor instead of outrage. But the question lingers in my mind: "What the hell was going on with me to say such a thing?"

***

I have lived thus far without too much overt damage from the effects of homophobia. All in all, I would say that I have fared far better than most. Oh, I have had my share of indignities, to be sure. In grade school I was teased because of my "sensitive voice", my close friendships with girls, and for wearing V-neck sweaters as shirts (it was a look, dammit!). I suffered the self-loathing that results from my Catholic teachings that homosexuality is a sin just a smidge less evil than, say, murder. I recall to this day the feeling of my stomach nearly turning in on itself as my 17-year-old self reluctantly answered my mother's question of whether I was a homosexual with a shaky I think so, followed by wanting to throw up. I came of age during the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, when my 20-year-old sex drive was forcibly smashed into submission by the utter terror at possibily catching a deadly and horrible disease that the government did not care about and nobody yet knew anything about, including how it was spread. I was openly told by my brother, while struggling through my first year at the U.S. Naval Academy, that my being gay was the cause of my father's alcoholism and the reason the family was falling apart. I was once lectured by my sister, who informed me that my "need" for family acceptance was not nearly as important as our mother's peace of mind, because, well, I was smart and could take care of myself (she was half right). I remember standing, after a show, outside the Celebration Theater in Hollywood when a passing driver threw glass bottles at me and my friends while yelling "Faggots!" (fortunately, their aim was as off as their intellect, and they missed us). I remember being verbally assaulted and physically threatened by a passerby while discreetly leaning against my then-boyfriend in front of his apartment building one night in Hollywood. But still, I have fared better than most.

Those are just the overt examples. The covert homophobia is not so situational. It is, rather, systemic, affecting gay men and women everyday in a variety of ways, even if it is affecting them from within their own emotional lives.

When I referred to my gay boyfriend as my friend, in my mind I tried to tell myself that I did it to protect him, that I was keeping him out of harm's way in case our LYFT driver was not as progressive as I might hope. But that is not the truth of why I said it. The truth is that I was motivated by shame--the same shame that I felt over 40 years ago when my voice was ridiculed for being senstive, the very shame that caused me, years later, to manipulate my speaking voice into a more masculine tone. It was the same shame the made me re-think the blue hair wig on the night I went to see Fisherspooner, despite how great I look in it. It was shame that influenced me to put my boyfriend's feelings second to my fear of being judged. I wanted to avoid seeing the driver's eyes checking out his gay passengers in his rear-view mirror. I wanted to avoid whatever I thought he would think. I wanted to be just two passengers--like any passengers he might drive that evening--I didn't want to be political simply because we are gay and my boyfriend needed to be dropped off on Sunset Blvd. on the way to my place.

I wasn't protecting my boyfriend. I was protecting myself.

***
I decided to write this essay because, though I am not proud of what I did, I want to be proud of what I do now. I love my boyfriend. I love being gay. I love that he is 30 years younger than I because there is nothing like his 20-something-year-old lips. I love how he accidentally coughed into his mimosa the other week and sprayed me with the beverage inadvertently. I love how when he tries to act sexy he ends up resembling a drunk Lana Turner. I love that he loves me and that we are both men and that we have had sex together so many times that if there is a hell (there isn't!) I would have a front row seat at the foot of Satan himself. I love that he went out of his way to understand why Borderline, by Madonna, is such an important song to me. And I love that at the ripe age of 55, I can finally love someone without hating myself.

I did not demonstrate my love for these things the night I asked the driver to let my friend out at Sunset Blvd., but we are never "done", are we? That night I may have diverged from my goal of affecting systemic change, but in this essay I hope to get back on track. And I will never again refer to my boyfriend as my friend, not because the designation "friend" is a lesser descriptor, but because it does not tell the world the truth of who he is to me, or the truth of who I am to him. And I am tired of shame keeping me from telling the truth.

THIS IS MY BOYFRIEND.




Saturday, December 30, 2017

23--On The Borderline


Have you ever wondered what your life would be like had you been born in a different year?

I did not choose to be born in 1962, obviously. Despite popular new age thinking, nobody can actually "choose" their birth date any more than they can "choose" their parents. That is just more wishful thinking for people who have trouble with the idea of randomness. However, I often think that had I chosen the year of my birth, it would have been 1951. In choosing this year, I imagine certain charms about being raised in the 50's, well, as long as you were not a person of color, or gay, or a woman, or poor. But I could be mistaken, for I was not there. I just like how it seems that people conducted themselves with more decorum back then, at least in public if not in private. I suspect it would have been a good childhood at the least.

But childhood is not the primary reason I would choose to be born in 1951. I think that, throughout history, childhood has been a mixed bag of love and shit, regardless of the greater culture. The main draw would have been becoming a teenager in the mid to late 60's, arguably the most important time of cultural change in the last century. Imagine it: growing up during the emergence of rock and roll and the gradual shift from repression to expression. I think about being 16 years old and being shaped and shaken by songs from the likes of The Beatles, The Turtles, Buffalo Springfield, The 5th Dimension, The Mamas and the Papas, Jefferson Airplane, The Monkees, and more. I knew songs from these artists during my time, but I was just a child then and they meant little to me other than being catchy and melodic (imagine ever taking catchy and melodic for granted--how I long for it in today's music!). But were I a teen when these songs were released, they would have shaped my development as a young adult in a way that diverged from what I had known.

The new expression of youth in the late 60's
In my alternative life I imagine leaving my parents' home and moving to New York or San Francisco in 1968 and emerging myself in the counterculture as a way to form my own identity apart from how I had been conditioned. I realize that even the counterculture was, or would shortly become, its own culture, but at the time it was a radical throw-off of traditional views, gender roles, and perspectives. It would only become a culture itself once it was discovered that money could be made from it, as the case was with the commercialization of Janis Joplin, with the record company pushing her to be a fashion icon and the voice of the hippies (this ultimately killed her far more than her drug use). In this timeline, I would have been able to avoid the draft and the Vietnam War, since they drew draft lotteries only on men born between 1944 and 1950. While the show China Beach has its charms, it does not make me nostalgic for that particular experience that I did not have.

Had all this happened, I would have eventually, say around 1972, begun to live my young adulthood in the singer-songwriter heaven that was the early 1970's (they say the 60's ended with the Manson killings in '69--party over!). Carole King, Carly Simon, Billy Joel, Janis Ian, Dan Fogelberg, Neil Diamond, and more. And I would have hit my adulthood stride just as disco took over the late 70's--what a time that must have been! In reality, I was in my late teens back then, and though I was indeed a huge disco music fan, I was too young to get into anything other than the young adult disco in San Diego (Stratus was its name!). At least it had a lighted floor like the one in Saturday Night Fever, but I am sure it lacked the cocaine-fueled creative and sexual vibe of adult clubs in New York. Believe it or not, I did once get into Studio 54 before it stopped being a dance club in the mid-late 80's. I was visiting New York during a break from college. I remember standing in line and miraculously getting in, but beyond that my memory is vague. I just remember feeling that I had arrived, when in fact all I had really done was arrive.

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I often wonder what my parents must have thought of the 60's and the 70's. Mom was born in '22 and Dad in '28, so their formative years occured during the late 30's and early 40's. What a shock the late 60's must have been to them! Or maybe not, now that I think about it. For most of the country it was actually "business as usual", with the hippie culture being isolated to small groups of youth in San Francisco. The counterculture was fringe enough that most folks just mildly adjusted their hairstyles and clothing, not their behavior, to keep up with the changing norms. But still, think of it! The fashion, the music, the sexual norms were quite different from what was happening in the 40's--I regret that I never asked them about this while they were alive. At the least it must have been awkward, at the most a relief.

What I find interesting about the time my parents came of age is that there did not seem to be a separate "youth culture" during those years. All the pictures from the 30's and 40's show young people dressing much like adults did at the time, or at least "adults in training". It seemed as though it was the opposite of today, where adults attempt to look like young people--back then everyone appeared to be anxious to grow up!

Teens in the 1940's
I found out that the word "teenager" was not even invented until 1941--it came to be as a result of the outlawing of child labor. Suddenly young people had a time when they could just be young before worrying about going to work and a new developmental category was created! But even still the new teenagers had not yet created a unique culture--they were mostly practicing to be grownup, albeit with a bit less sophistication and sex appeal.

That changed in the 60's, primarily due to involvement in music and politics--suddenly young folks had a voice that differentiated them from adults, and they developed a look that went along with that difference. Perhaps that is why it was business as usual for most adults--they were not part of the revolution. And as a child, neither was I.

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Had I been born in 1951, well then it would have been a different story altogether. Even if I had been missed the draft, I would not have been out of hot water completely, as I would have most probably succumbed to the next deathtrap: AIDS. I surely would have enjoyed the sexual freedom and exploration of the late 70's and the hedonism and ecstasy of the disco age as an adult, but like many who were in their late 20's and early 30's during that time, I would have had a hard time avoiding the virus that affected so many who were part of that lifestyle. 

I was in my early 20's at the time, which probably is the reason I am still alive today--I was too young to have been exposed due to excessive sexual activity. By the time I had opportunities to have sex the rumors of "gay cancer" were already spreading, so I abstained completely from sex for a couple of years. I remember being terrified--this was a period when nobody knew how it was spread. By 1985 nobody (except the government) could deny that there was something seriously scary going on. AIDS cut the 80's in half the way that disco cut the 70's in half, though with far less celbration, obviously. At the time it felt like my adulthood was paused before it even got started.

Want to hear somthing controversial? Sometimes, when I am wistful, I imagine giving up my life in exchange for the "full experience" of the late 70's. But these are just the musings of someone who was not there, and someone who did not get sick, and someone who did not know many people who did get sick and die. There can be a sort of romanticism in nostalgia for what never was, and we are allowed to go wherever we want to go in our minds, but in the light of day I am grateful to have sidestepped that particular timetable, because at the very least I made it to the age of 23.

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A pic from the weekend we met in 2015

I met K when he was 23, and I was 53. Through ups and downs, we have known each other for over two years now and have been officially dating for just over a year as of this writing. I did not want to date a man more than half my age, for a million reasons. But the one reason that applies to this essay is the cultural reason--too much happened in the 30 years between us--it can be quite difficult to share perspectives from one time to another.

As an example, K's 23rd year was nothing like mine. He was working toward an actual career, having already received a master's degree. He had been in one major relationship with another older man, but that did not end well. His sexual experience was fair, but limited, although he had already explored some "outer limits" of his sexuality. In contrast, in my 23rd year I was hoping to be a professional dancer, but I was working various shitty service jobs to pay the bills. It was 1985, a great year for music but a horrible one for sex, since AIDS was now a full blown nightmare in the gay world. Up until then I had a number of lovers and sexual experiences, starting from the age of 16. There is no way my "23" could be the same as K's. They were 30 years apart. But perhaps some bridges could be built.

Music can create such a bridge. In 1985, the year I turned 23, my favorite artist (along with nearly everybody else's) was Madonna. My favorite song of hers at that time was "Borderline" from her debut album. Though it was first released to the world in 1983, it was not until June of  '84 that the song showed up as a radio single. It was a smash, charting 30 weeks on the Billboard charts, and was so enduring that it actually delayed the release of her already finished second album (Like A Virgin). The song's massive success was greatly aided by the accompanying music video, which was directed by Mary Lambert, and shot in Los Angeles in early 1984. That video actually changed my life, as it was my first narrative visual exposure of Madonna, and it perfectly presented her as a fashion and lifestyle icon. It was set in the street and showed the multiracial scene she surrounded herself with, and her confidence and style was fully formed in a way that we all would strive to emulate. I had never seen anything like it before.

Besides being unnaturally photogenic, Madonna's video presence spoke to a part of me that was oddly familiar with the unfamiliar--do you know what I mean? Have you ever seen or heard something that is unknown, but feels known? Not as in a past life sort of thing, but as in "this has always been within me" sort of thing. "Borderline" awakened me, so to speak, both activating and displaying the attitude that I would adopt to get me through the second half of the 80's. The video showed me that, despite death (or perhaps because of it), life was all around the fringes of the street, and it's main fuel--love--would not be reduced or diminished. It showed me that I could be aggressive toward my fears; that I could chance taking huge bites out of life as long as I looked great while doing it. Fashion was the armor and style was the weapon against everything that scared us back then. It may sound silly, but most of us were quite literally grasping for something to hold us above water. Madonna's music and image gave us something to be excited about, and her brazen hipness prepared me for the upcoming years--years that would become even worse before they become better. We all were, without a doubt, on the borderline of something.

I watch the video today and I swear it does not look dated--she was that good (and Mary Lambert's directing instincts were spot on). Unlike many other artists of the time, Madonna didn't just wear the look, she was the look. I have tried to convey the importance of this song and video to K some 30-plus years after its moment, and I could tell that his listening was, well, more polite than convinced. They say that if you have not lived an specific experience, that you can grasp it intellectually, but not experiencially. I suppose that I wanted him to share my experience of the song, but that could never happen. The time of my experience of it has long passed, but remains fresh in my memory. I wonder if I would react to the song the same way were it released today? I do think it is a well written song, but I am too attached to it to truly be objective.

Weeks later, K came to me and told me that he finally "got" why I loved it so much. He had listened to it enough that he got pulled into his own experience of the song, 33 years after the world first heard it. A bridge had been built.

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Me in the mid-80's with "Randy". Check out the 'stache!
In the British science fiction series "Black Mirror", there is an episode in Season 3 called "San Junipero". (K actually shared this episode with me, and I am very glad he did because it generated a lot of thought.) I will not spoil it for you if you have not seen it, but the basic story is set in a a fictional 1987, where two elderly and ill women are able to meet and virtually "be young again" via advanced technology. The show, beyond being well written and acted, reminds me of why I have nostalgia for the 80's. If you were young in the 80's, you cannot pretend that you are still young anymore. The women in the episode are artificially inserted back into their youth, it is the only way they can act on what they are thinking. But that technology is fictional--this could not really happen. For me, I cannot revisit the way I looked and acted in the 80's, at least not without looking like a grand fool. I cannot act as though nothing has changed. Everything has changed. It was a period that does not translate into older age, therefore it is a period that will forever be trapped by within its own timeline. Perhaps that is why Madonna ditched the hair rags and rubber bracelets only two years into her career--she knew it would not last and wanted to move on ahead of the others.

K is 26 as of this writing. He is still fully in the midst of his youth. The experience of a 55 year-old with a 26 year-old is far different than the experience of a 26 year-old with a 55 year-old. At times I would try to explain to him that he could not know what it was like to be my age--that it was more than what his fantasies told him, that it also involves some aches and sagging muscles and lost erections on occasion. Not very sexy at all, perhaps. He gets me to rally around his youthful interests once in a while--I had a blast at a Kesha concert that I never would have attended on my own. But what finally worked in getting him to understand who I am now was helping him to understand who I was. This is why it was so important for him to "get" the significance of the "Borderline" song. That song tells him more about my experience in the 80's than any verbal discussion. How does it do this? It conveys the mood of the time. It is experiential. He was able to feel the time, as much as he possibly could without having lived through it.

Love can be a tricky thing. Being in love, a phrase I am not fond of, is usually about who we want the other to be. Loving someone, as I like to think, is about who the other is now, who they used to be, and who we help them to become in the future. Much more interesting to me! Meeting me when I was 53, over halfway through my life, meant that K had a lot more understanding of me to do than I had to of him. It must be difficult to join someone after they had already lived most of their life. But by exploring who I was in my 20's in the 80's, he has been able to catch up a bit. Thanks, Madonna.

I cannot ever be 23 again. That time is permanently a part of my past--it is a part of many peoples' past, and it is lovely to think about on hot summer nights. During these moments, the melancholy sadness of spent youth is replaced by the golden warmth of memory. And memory can be a wonderful filter to look through. I can walk across the bridge made of shared musical experience to join closer with my young boyfriend--not to join him in youth, but in a mid-ground where we both feel ageless for a bit, at least until we cross back over the borderline.