Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Forever Stop: Giving up Dating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 12, 2014

High Fives and Hovering Butts: The Illusion of Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you guess what?

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

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

Locals setting up coffee and treats!

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

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

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

They were hoping for "high-fives". 

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

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

Crops to help us live well. 

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Age of Michael Jackson

I suggest that the best way to "consume" this essay is to read it from top to bottom, pausing to play the inserted videos as you come across them. Trust me, the time will be worth it. You will be happy, and you will thank me later.

Michael Jackson was always the undisputed star of the Jackson 5, and everybody knew it, except, perhaps, for Michael. If he had known it, he might have emancipated himself from his abusive father, and taken his talent and run. But it was a different time then, the early 70's. That is for sure. Instead, he stayed with the family and, along with his brothers, recorded hit after hit after hit. I remember how much I loved his pure, perfect voice, and my favorite song at the time was, without a doubt, "I'll Be There". There has never been anything like it since.

Back then my brother and I, like any kid in the day, had several stuffed animals, but there was one key difference between his stuffed animals and mine. Mine had secret identities. My favorite animal was "Sam", a stuffed bear, who I named in such a way as to allow him/her "fluid gender expression". To my family, Sam was a boy. To me, Sam was a famous and glamorous female pop star, and she had the "voice" of Michael Jackson--remember Michael's pre-adolescent voice was high and beautiful. My brother and I used to play "Rock Band" in our room, using the various animals as band members, and we would use the window sill as a stage, since it came with a draw curtain (perfect!). I don't remember exactly how my Sam got the position of lead singer, but to this day I can usually get what I want if I want it bad enough. Those seeds were planted somewhere! Anyway, we would play our Jackson 5 albums, and pretend that our "band" was performing the music. Of course, the big hit of the show was always "I'll Be There".  Kids!

"Sam" today. Notice the remnants of blue eye shadow.
The music of the Jackson 5 is timeless, and Michael's voice only elevated what was already brilliant songwriting. Many people to this day consider the 80's the heyday of Michael Jackson, but not me. I feel his flame burned brightest in the 70's, while he was with the family group, and then shortly afterward when he teamed with Quincy Jones to record his fifth solo album, Off The Wall. I will even go out on a limb and say that Off The Wall was a stronger complete album than Thriller, but you may have your own opinion, which you are free to share in your own blogs! It just seems that on the former record, Michael accomplished the huge feat of differentiating himself from his family and the Jackson 5. It was a coming of age record, and it worked, much in the same way that the Control album would work for his sister Janet 7 years later.

In addition to the Quincy Jones production and Michael's own personal and musical development, there is another reason Off The Wall is notable. It came out in 1979, a truly magical year for pop music. I was 16 at the time, going on 17, so this was an important year of music in my own coming of age. Disco was in full bloom, and it was inescapable. There were those who hated it, but they were mostly the 60's rock/folk leftovers, people who hated the introduction of synthesizers into music and didn't get any form of dancing that didn't include nudity and pot (ironically, my favorite style of dancing currently!). For me, disco music signaled adulthood, freedom, and yes, sex. Say what you will about it, disco is sexy music. And in 1979, there was a lot of it that is still considered classic today. Michael Jackson was not the only star on the music charts, there was Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Chic, Sister Sledge, Gloria Gaynor, The Village People, and more. Rock music was still hanging on, with groups like The Knack, Styx, Supertramp, Cheap Trick, Dire Straits and Elton John fighting it out with disco. Some, like Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, and Blondie, straddled the fence between rock and disco, but no matter where they landed, they were making memorable music. Even "soft music" had its stars in Barry Manilow, Olivia Newton John, Rickie Lee Jones, and Billy Joel. Take a look at just one of the single charts from that year and tell me that most of these artists and songs are not remembered, and played, even today:

TW LW Wks. Song-Artist
 2  3  8 We Are Family-Sister Sledge
 3  6  6 Ring My Bell-Anita Ward
 4  5 13 Just When I Needed You Most-Randy Van Warmer 
 5  1  9 Love You Inside And Out-Bee Gees 
 6  7 13 The Logical Song-Supertramp
 7  8  8 Chuck E's In Love-Rickie Lee Jones
 8 10  8 She Believes In Me-Kenny Rogers
 9  4 14 Reunited-Peaches & Herb 
10 19  6 Boogie Wonderland-Earth,Wind & Fire
11 28  4 Bad Girls-Donna Summer 
12 15  9 You Take My Breath Away-Rex Smith 
13 14 14 Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy-Bad Company 
14  9 18 Shake Your Body-Jacksons
15 12 14 Disco Nights-G.Q.
16 18  7 Minute By Minute-Doobie Brothers
17 13 12 Goodnight Tonight-Paul McCartney & Wings
18 20 12 Makin' It-David Naughton
19 24  8 I Want You To Want Me-Cheap Trick 
20 25  5 Shine A Little Love-Electric Light Orchestra

Michael hit number 1 in October that year with "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" from Off The Wall, and though he may have seemed like just another disco artist on the charts, he stood out due to the fact that he had already been a star for nearly 10 years. Unlike artists who came out of disco (Donna Summer, The Village People, Gloria Gaynor, Anita Ward, etc.) or stars who moved into disco (The Bee Gees, Rod Stewart, Cher, Diana Ross, the Jacksons), Michael, as a solo artist, changed disco. Off The Wall was an artist's statement of identity, not just a jump on the disco bandwagon, and more importantly, it was a signal of things to come--it moved disco forward. The album is not thought of today as a "disco album", but rather as a seminal R&B classic. Is it really hard to imagine the impact that this, and all the music of that year, had on my teenage self? A teenage self struggling with young adulthood, sexual feelings, and yes, homosexuality?

Disco, as Michael and so many others understood it, was about joy. It came from funk and soul music, and was created and embraced early on in East Coast clubs by the counterculture, gays, Latins, and African Americans. It was first heard by people who wanted to dance. It generally had a heavy syncopated bass line over a "four on the floor" beat, and the vocals were prominent and soaring. Love it or hate it, disco made you feel happy, and it made you dance. Michael's album even had a track called "Get on the Floor"! Just listen to the first 20 seconds of "Workin' Day and Night" and try to tell me it doesn't make you want to dance!

I miss this music. I miss disco.

Fairy Sketch by Elle-Cosplay
I am not a curmudgeon who laments the lost music of my youth while disparaging today's artists and styles. Like many creative folk, I am engaged with current culture, and find myself stimulated by new things. I have more "new" music in my collection than old music, but the new music nourishes a different muse. Disco nourished the sprite in me: the lonely boy with wings who wanted to fly. The music of today provides a different function for me, no less valuable, but different, and I like to fly. The popular music of today is often either profoundly introspective or vapidly superficial, at least the music that is on the charts. Can you tell me with confidence that many of the artists on the charts today will be remembered, revered, and referenced 30 years from now? Well, perhaps Loude, because she is so young and so interesting, and perhaps Beyonce and Gaga, and maybe Katy Perry, but that is a toss up.

There are interesting things happening in music today, however, and a lot of it is due to an artist named Pharrell Williams. An innovative producer and writer, he has worked behind the scenes for years with many artists, crafting peppy singles and forward thinking music. As a solo artist though, he recently made his biggest mark, dominating the charts with the infectious hit "Happy", an unlikely single from the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack. If you have not heard this song, then you are living underground, as it has inspired people to dance all around the world. Literally. I mean, EVERYBODY wants to dance to this song. Why is this? It is not that complicated lyrically or musically, but it does make you feel happy and make you want to dance. Sound like a type of music we have been discussing so far? Here is a video of people all over the world dancing to this song:

I could imaging "Happy" being on the singles charts in 1979. It has that similar joyful energy of many of the singles of that day, and by the reaction of millions worldwide, this type of music is missed and desired. I don't know about you, but I get the sense that people are tired of twerking, grinding, slow-jamming, and the other versions of dancing that are basically f**king on the dance floor. Disco was sexy, but it was not sex. The magic of disco is that it captured the ecstasy of falling in love in music. Today's music more often than not eschews romance for the act, throwing out joy and feeling along the way. The joy has to be added back in, so to speak. (You did not need to down a handful of drugs to dance to disco music.)

So what does Pharrell have to do with Michael Jackson? Well, a lot. Pharrell's hit singles, like the aforementioned "Happy", as well as the infectious "Get Lucky" (Daft Punk) and the funk-influenced "Blurred Lines" (Robin Thicke), have fueled a change in music today--leaning it toward the type of joyful, danceable, and yes, sexy pop that Michael Jackson crafted so well on Off The Wall. And this full circle phenomenon is no better illustrated than with the newest release from, you guessed it, Michael Jackson! In the album Xscape, there are newly produced, previously unreleased songs from the vaults that go all the way back to the 70's. The lead single, "Love Never Felt So Good", was written in 1983 by Jackson and Paul Anka, no stranger to hit making himself. But the current producers wisely chose to dig back to Off The Wall and use drum riffs from "Workin' Day and Night" in the song. The best news? The song is fantastic. And it makes you want to dance. And it takes me back to a time when Michael Jackson was a beacon of promise and change as he carried music forward with his supernatural talent. Leave it to a Michael Jackson song to take us back to where we want to be--I can't imagine any other artist who could better initiate both a look backward while looking forward. Feels like 1979, the age of Michael Jackson. And just like back then, he has everybody dancing all over again.

Here is the official music video. This could have been terrible, but it is the opposite. Now get up and dance!

Friday, April 25, 2014

I don't deserve s**t!

There are some ideas in modern society that just puzzle me to no end, primarily because, despite all debasing evidence, they are widely accepted by most. At times, it really does seem as though many citizens are nothing more than lemmings who follow one another off the edge of the cliff.

Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis
It strikes me as peculiar, to say the least. The most peculiar part is why people willingly subscribe to an idea that reveals itself to be no more than wishful thinking. Is it possible that we are in such need of even false comfort as to put our faith in the most obviously dismiss-able of concepts? I would certainly find it reassuring were I to know that others shared my perplexity. There must be others, there simply must!

The idea that most recently demanded my attention is the one that says that we deserve stuff. This came up in a recent conversation while discussing my somewhat hilarious run of dating in 2014. I won't share the details of the dates for fear of reducing your high evaluations of me, but let's just say that so far I have scored 0 for 6. This year. Zero...for...six. May I remind you that it is only Spring? Beyond the hilarity of this situation is the opportunity for me to evaluate my process of choosing, for it simply cannot be me.
Anyway, during the conversation, I shared how one of my recent dating attempts (number 6) waited a full two weeks before responding to my invitation to get some beers and happy hour vittles. TWO WEEKS. I wrote the dating prospect off after the first week without response, but then a week later, just as I was going about my day, I noticed an online response from the cad. He apologized for "being busy", and then offered exhibits A, B, and C to support his claim to such, wrapping the whole thing up with an enthusiastic endorsement of the "beers and vittles" idea! Oh the joy!


I responded to the email that I appreciated the apology, but it would have been preferable to receive even a brief response much sooner. I wrote that I had since "lost interest" in further encounters with him, and that is the truth. I wished him well and bid my farewells. Thus far there he hasn't responded to that, which speaks well of him, but also ascertains his level of interest. Now, just for context, you should know that I had gone out with the guy three times, and the dates went well, even if they did not rewrite history (include sex). After an investment of three dates, you are either are into it or not, and etiquette suggests communicating accordingly, in a timely fashion. This is not a rule, per say, but instead merely the minimum response-ability that I prefer in a potential dating interest. I don't want to be, as Blondie once said, "Hanging On The Telephone". 

So that was that. In the aforementioned conversation where I shared this tale of woe, I was congratulated on my firm boundaries and then told, "You deserve better!".

People mean well when they say things like this, but I disagree that I deserve "better", or frankly, that I deserve anything at all for that matter. Why would I say such a thing? Mostly because it is true, as there is no evidence to support the idea that anyone is owed a certain result based on how they conduct themselves. Now before you rush to the comment section with your lectures on "karma" and such (don't get me started on how the concept of karma is misunderstood in our culture), let me say that I am not fond of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. Ideas, even bad ones, are usually derived from experience, or at least the desire for experience. For example, we may have an idea that it would be fun to see a movie on the weekend. This idea could be based on previously successful movie outings, as well as a desire to have another such experience on the upcoming weekend. Absolutely nothing wrong with this!

Using that example, the idea of deserving could have come from an experience with cause and effect that turned out lovely for someone, as well as the desire to have another lovely cause-effect experience. Nothing wrong with this! But...when the hope or desire for a lovely experience is then upgraded to an expectation, based on the feeling that a certain cause guarantees us a certain effect, well, we just took a leap into magical thinking, and there is indeed something wrong with this.

Magical thinking makes us feel better. It comforts us and gives us a sense of safety, security, and community. All good things. All of us are engaged in some sort of magical thinking, even if it is the assumption that we will wake up alive in the morning. Sometimes magical thinking includes strong evidence supporting the probable actualization of the desired effect. However, magical thinking works against us when it sets us up for an expectation that may not be met. Expectations do not allow room for chaos and outside random influence--they falsely lead us to believe that our power in the world is greater than it really is--that we have more control over outside forces than we actually do. Expectation invalidates the role of the environment in influencing the effect of a cause. As I mentioned before, I suspect that the concept of deserving came from someone's experience of a string of expectations that were fulfilled, despite outside influence (not impossible). It is my hunch that this person, or persons, then concluded that a certain way of behaving guarantees a particular outcome. My hunch goes further in suspecting that this person or persons most probably benefited from privilege. And we have been fucked ever since.

What is the alternative? Well, throw the bathwater out, but not the baby. Get rid of expectation, and revert to preference. That's it! Now like most simple concepts, there is a rub. In this case, the rub comes not from the concept, but from the interpretation. Some may say that preference allows "room for failure", and that it is a way to be passive about your needs and desires. Though it does allow the former, the latter is a false interpretation that could only come from a culture that values entitlement and separation over shared humanity and community, or, as I like to call it, fantasy over reality, or, as I used to call it, me vs. the world! Rather than being seen as merely distilled ambition, preference instead is a fearless acceptance that things may just not work out the way you want. What this means is that you may have to work harder, or enlist the help and cooperation of others, or (gasp!) look at your own responsibility for what happens or does not happen in your life. These actions are the furthest thing from passive--allowing space for failure requires that we acknowledge the influence of others, and honestly evaluate our own efforts. Hard work, but you also increase your chances of getting what you desire.

Just because I am a nice guy does not mean that I deserve to meet someone and live happily ever after. As long as I foster the causes that influence the effect of me becoming "nice", I will increase the chances that I will receive the same in response. But there is no guarantee. This is why dating, for me, is an adventure. I am never sure what this new person, with their own agency, causes, and effects, is going to do in response to what I do. In some cases, like the aforementioned number 6, the response will be too little, too late. No matter. The non-fulfillment of a preference leaves me disappointed, but not devastated.

On to number 7...