Sunday, September 29, 2013

leaving the control

The sign above one of the theaters near my apartment.
A late summer night in Los Angeles, California.  Specifically, the middle of Hollywood.  A hot night, music in the air, kids across the street milling about, cars occasionally speeding down the street on the way to god knows where on a Friday night.  Everything that I see from my patio, everything that I hear from my patio, has a precedent.  This scene could have happened in the 70’s, in fact, it probably did.  But most of the people I see from my patio were not even born until after the 80’s, so they mistakenly think that they are being original.  I think, as I sit on my patio, that I am being original.  What a laugh. 

It all goes down easier with liquor.  the drinking does not control me.  Youth is a shitty guardian, and quite devoid of control.  At my age, I am in charge of the liquor, even in the letting go of some control.  I am in charge. 

The corner liquor store
I came to liquor late in my life, having decided early on that I would never become my father (an alcoholic).  In some strange manner or reasoning, as youth are wont to do, I decided that if I took up alcohol, I would become just like him.  Well, he was so much more than his drinking, I should have known this—but no regrets about my choices.  There is something to be said about drinking later in life.  I don’t know what it is that is to be said, but goddamn it, somebody ought to say it.  I might as well say it.

My father did not drink like I do, completely. He drank to contract, whereas I drink to expand.  At times, I could see my father expanding when he was drunk, but it was a sad visage nonetheless—like a bird trying to fly in a cage.  Here in Hollywood, on my patio, on a summer night with music in the air and kids milling about and cars speeding along, I have no cage.  I am expanded.

My brother drank when he was young, and it controlled him (among other things).  Big mistake, big brother!  Now, he does not drink, and the only expansion he indulges in is the one that threatens to put pressure on his belts.  The thing with control is that it too, too, often goes against the physics of the world.  The physics of the world are the furthest thing from control; rather, the physics of the world are all about change. 

My reticence to drinking early in my life was an attempt at control that worked until it no longer worked.  In order to enter the pool, it is advisable to wear a swimsuit, so to speak.  The funny thing is that by the time I put on a swimsuit I preferred to enter the pool naked.  Naked, when older, is a glorious thing. 
On a late summer night in Los Angeles, California, I am naked to the world.  Many, perhaps my brother, would think that I was needlessly exposed.  He would be wrong.  The correct assumption would be that I am exposed to my nature.  The poisons that run through my veins are the poisons that kill the toxins of control.  Control is much, much more fatal than chaos.   I suspect that my father knew this.  His flaw, the flaw that killed him, is that he feared this. 

Dad, you don’t need to worry about me.  I got this.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

leaving the safety zone

there is a similarity between my previous career as a stage performer, and my current career as a psychotherapist.  don't worry about wondering what the similarity is, because i am going to tell you outright and make it easy!  in both of these careers, my experience with the "emotions" involved were one step removed. let me explain.

as an actor, i expressed some strong emotions onstage:  rage, passion, grief, sadness, joy, desperation, and on and on.  but though i was expressing these emotions, they were not necessarily mine.  i was bringing to life a character through my body and my voice, so i liken it to drinking a hot beverage without any danger of burning my tongue.

does that make sense?  it was SAFE to be an actor, because it was a place to experience intensity within the confines of the stage environment.  no matter how bad it got onstage, my tidy, safe life was waiting for me right outside the dressing room door.

i left the stage for many reasons but mostly because there came a point where i felt tired of "pretending" all the time--i found myself yearning for experiences of intensity that were mine and mine only--not just those belonging to a playwright.

eventually, i became a psychotherapist.

what do i do in the therapy room?  i sit and listen to the intense experience of my clients, and i "ride the rollercoaster" with them through the rage, passion, grief, sadness, joy, desperation, and on and on.  but though i may be at their side, it is their ride we are on. my experience in the room is one step removed from the reality of their experiences, so it is safe for me. once the session ends, they continue with their experience, while i go back to my tidy, safe life.

perhaps not so much of a progression, methinks.

as followers of this blog know, i have spent a considerable amount of time this past year deciding how to be a gay man who is over 50 years of age (here, here, and here). one of the conclusions that i arrived at early on was that this milestone age marker perhaps signaled my transition from "active shaper of society and culture" to the somewhat more passive position of "observer of society and culture", combined with the adoption of the "wise elder" moniker.  you know what i am talking about:  the guy gently rocking in his chair with the twinkle in his eye and candy in his pockets for the kiddies.  the guy who you go to if you need a bandage on your knee or a salve for your broken heart.  the guy who has seen and done it all and who is now content with offering sage counsel to those poor younger folk who continue to struggle with all the existential angst that life has to offer.  the guy who has lived fully but is not yet ready to die, who knows it all but plays dumb for laughs, who does not mind renouncing passion because that is, after all, a young man's game.

but funny things often happen once we come to a conclusion about anything at all. messiness interferes.

for years now i have talked to my clients about the nature of life, that it is not all neat and tidy like in the movies, nor does it abide by the rules of religion or society (as history has shown).  the only rules that life abides by are the rules of physics, and the only rules that the earth abides by are the rules of nature (another word for physics), which is governed by cause and effect, and which is constantly changing due to multiple forces creating cause. thus, messiness.  but nature's messiness can often be glorious--it is not at all like the messiness of a dirty clothes hamper or an unflushed toilet (which can be poetic in its own way).  not at all.  the messiness i refer to is the messiness i so often portrayed on the stage; the messiness i so often listen to in my therapy office; the messiness i have so carefully tried to keep outside my door.

here is the part of the story they don't tell you.  that guy, you know the one i just described who is sitting comfortably in the rocking chair with the twinkle in his eye?  well, he is facing his own messiness: his impending death.  he may be calm and peaceful and wise, but he also knows that his time is running out, and that it may get painful on the way there.  messy.  and yet if he is wise, he just continues rocking away, not to avoid the messiness, but to face it.


i have been a bit too careful in my life--not in all areas, but certainly around my emotional life.  how do i know?  well, two signs.  one is that my tidy, safe life was feeling, um, how shall i put this--uninspiring?  just a bit.  the second sign is that a big chunk of messiness just dropped into my life out of the blue.  yep.  and all of a sudden, i am feeling and reeling and experiencing all over the messy place.  i am doing in my life, suddenly, what i have years of experience doing secondhand.  i have been yanked out of the fucking rocking chair by a force of nature, and after the initial shock, i am finding that my feet can still run.  and my heart can still beat. messy.  glorious messiness.

i have had reasons to be careful.  they are good reasons.  really good reasons.  but being too careful while i am messily alive is kind of like trying to dry myself off while i am still in the pool.  doesn't really work.

there is a big difference between being reckless and being risky.  the former is foolish and dangerous, while the latter is a way to embrace messiness.  currently, i am discovering why i was drawn to portray all those messy characters on the stage, and why i am drawn to listen to all those messy experiences my clients bring into the therapy room.  THAT is where life is.

in the messiness.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

leaving non-fiction

no place like the beach in the summertime...
"I wrote this short story earlier in the year as a contest entry--I didn't even place in the contest, but I still think it is a decent story!  Plus, we are exactly in the time of the year when the story takes place, so I thought it would be interesting to take a "Fiction Break" from my usual essay style of writing and give you something different.  I have populated the post with pictures that I took when I was at the beach just after Labor Day--in other words, the exact setting and time of the year for the story.  How great is that??  Enjoy!"

"The Non-Endless Summer"

The most perfectly melancholic paradox I know is the phrase “Endless Summer”.   

He was in love again.  Shit.  No, he wasn’t.  Yes, he was.  Fuck!  Where was S---- now?  It had taken until September this year for it to happen, but at least it had happened.  Fuck!  Where was she?  He wandered north on the boardwalk with more purpose than that demonstrated by the people surrounding him.  He made good time on the stretch just below the pier that veered toward the water only to retreat back to its original path.  He then entered the cool darkness of the tunnel running under the street that dead-ended at the pier entrance.  

He had always liked this short tunnel—the darkness inside a striking contrast to the bright-white heat of the late afternoon pushing in at either end.  He always suspected (hoped?) that upon exiting the tunnel on the other side, he would emerge in another time— a time most likely in the past.  

This never happened, of course, and this never failed to make him just the slightest bit sad.  He walked out the other side into the sunshine and scanned the surroundings, blinking back the light as his eyes re-adjusted.  Then he saw her—riding on her old cruiser bicycle as if she didn’t have a care in the world besides whether to bring potato salad or coleslaw to a bar-b-que.   “S----!!!” he screamed, startling her a bit.  As she saw him standing there she smiled and gently applied the brakes. 

S---- walked the bicycle across the pedestrian boardwalk, then between the cushion-like walkways traversing the child and adult play areas, and eventually onto the actual bike path; oddly, it had just as many people walking on it as the pedestrian boardwalk—a fact she has never understood.  The tunnel where she was supposed to meet 
R----, the one he had just emerged from, was not so far away that S---- needed to ride the distance, but she felt somehow ridiculous walking a bicycle on a bike path.  So she mounted the cruiser and pushed the pedals for a couple of revolutions—just enough to get it going—and then let it coast easily toward the tunnel. 

Her thoughts along the way were a jumble, a contrast to the ease of the short journey.  She crinkled her sunburned nose while imagining what she would say to R---- when she saw him, the possibilities shifting each time she considered how he might open the conversation.  She only knew one thing for certain, and that is that she would tell him the truth.  The truth.  

The words dissolved in the late summer sun as soon as she thought them.  The difficult thing about the truth is finding our way there, she thought, noticing how the truth of the coastline was imposed upon by the pier, by the boardwalks, by the play areas, by the parking lots, by the people.  What is a beach other than the place where the ocean meets the land?  And yet, here in Southern California, on this hot, hot August afternoon, it was a million things more. 


When you grow up near the beach, it becomes a part of your personality.  You become a “beach person”, of sorts.  And yet it is not the same thing as being a “mountain person”, or a “city person”—it is not the same thing at all.  To grow up near the beach, to have it become a part of your personality, is to ingest a mood, not just an environment.  Mountains and cities can be said to have moods as well, but unlike beaches, these environments affect us by their sheer power—one has no choice.  We become affected by mountains and cities.  But beaches, well.  Beaches have perhaps more power than either mountains or cities, but beaches don’t force themselves on you.  Beaches seduce.  And therein lays the difference.  And it is during late summer, that time stretching from right before Labor Day up to late September, when the beach is at its most seductive.  As the tourists slowly leave, its attention is no longer divided.  There are times, especially during early morning or late night, when a person can feel that they have the beach all to themselves! 

And yet, even then, there is tension in the relationship.  To understand this you must first get that the thing about late summer is that it is, well, late.  We can track the days getting shorter, the sun setting sooner, the crowds thinning.  In some ways, during this time of year, our beach love affair is on borrowed time—we can never be certain when the weather will turn to a chill—when those early mornings or late nights will be better spent inside where it is warm and bright.  The joke of it all is that we know this, yet we carry on as though it will be endless—an endless summer. 

It is a beautiful truth that the loveliest of things always come to an end. 


R---- watched S---- glide toward him on her cruiser, and it took all he had to keep from running to her and bridging the remaining distance.  But he stood his ground and waited, ignoring the stomach knot that indicated restless emotions, knowing that if he were to release any movement at this time, more than just movement would be released.  S---- hopped off the bike and walked the last steps until they stood facing each other in the sun.  She looked at him, saying nothing, waiting.  And then it came from him, all at once.  “S----, it’s over.  He is gone…this morning…with his family…back home.  He’s gone.  He’s…”  Then he stopped, falling into her arms, and she held him as she knew she would when this moment came.  “I know, sweetie.  I know.  He had to go, and it had to end.  I’m so sorry, sweetie.  He loves you, but summer is over.  Summer is over.” 

The crowds continued past them, meandering either north or south on the boardwalk, while R---- and S---- stood still together like the axis point of a compass, pointing the way to the inevitable change of seasons.  Nobody paid attention. 

The sun may shine.  The waves may crash.  But summer on the beach…summer…is not endless.  That is why it is so lovely a time.

my summer feet