Saturday, December 5, 2015

Giving up Dating, Part 2: An Update on the "Forever Stop"

This is a ridiculously long essay, but I feel it is necessary. The essay that this follows up on, The Forever Stop: Giving Up Dating, is the most viewed on this blog, and so in standard "Hollywood" tradition, it makes sense to have a sequel! In this case I hope that you find this to be more than just a trite re-hash of previous themes; perhaps more of a further examination or extension of the original themes. Who knows...this may end up being a trilogy! Read on and enjoy...

There are certain things that one should not "let go of". Fear is a classic example of one such thing. "Let go of fear!" Do you know of anyone who has successfully let go of fear? I don't. I do know many people who have tried to let go of fear, and as a result now suffer not only from fear, but also anxiety and the shame of failure. The idea of "letting go" of our feelings is right on par with the religious expectation that we should strive to never "sin". It sounds good on paper and sells books, but it only generates disaster when applied to real life lived by real humans. With fear, what generally works is leaning into it, as Pema Chodron advises. With fear, "letting go" does not work. It often results in something more like chopping off the hand that is doing the holding. How do I know? Because I know.

But you are welcome to try it out yourself, since my authority no doubt means nothing to you. The next time you feel anxiety or fear, go ahead and try to ignore it, or be happy. Go ahead! Then if you succeed in having it "go away", I will eat my shoe for charity. But I like my shoes very much, so I doubt this will happen. But you are free to try.

However I am not writing about fear in this essay. This essay is about what happens when you choose "letting go" in a situation where it can work. Dating is a classic example of one such situation. With dating, "letting go" can work because it suggests the loosening of one's grip on control, not avoidance or distraction. Control, in this example, often shows up in the way one thinks about dating, and it often goes something like this:

meet, attraction, sex, date, commit

Granted, those categories can be arranged in any possible order--it is not the order that indicates control, but the reliance on categories that yield a consistent low return. On their own, these categories can be quite harmless, but combined together, in any order, they rally their power to steam a train along a rickety track. Time after time I have noticed it in myself and others: if I meet someone and there is attraction so we have sex and if that is good then it means something so we date and if we date then we must at some later date commit.

Or perhaps that was just me.

Regardless, I made the decision at the end of last year to let it go, forever. I made a decision to break up the chain gang of categories and throw them up into the wind to scatter and fall where they may. I let it all go--the story, the expectations, the format, the need, the interest...the control--and I decided that I would just busy myself with living my life.

This essay is my follow up report on that strategy, a year later.

Nothing happens unless you do something. While I wouldn't build a scientific theory around this statement, it succeeds in communicating a basic idea. I tell my clients this all the time: If you want change to happen, you have to do something different. Letting go of dating was just one step in my process. Why did I not stop there? Because in my desire to let go, I was not inferring that I was giving up; instead, I was starting a process. There is a difference. I was making room for something different; the nature of this something was more vague than I preferred, but I was willing to start with "something". That something was a desire to re-ignite my creative, playful nature, and to find out how to trigger erotic connectivity.

Why did I want to do this? Primarily, my motivation was the desire to feel something other than a sense of efficiency in my life. Do any of you identify as taskmasters? Well, hello there, I am your leader. Building a business from scratch is a lot different from baking a cake from scratch. My livelihood depends on the results of my efforts. In the process of doing this, I got a bit safe in my emotional life. I am not sure why I felt this was necessary, but it is what I did. Freud used to say that we have a finite amount of energy to direct, but he used to say a lot of crazy things that have no scientific validity. I suppose that I felt that all my energy had to go to business development, or else I was being lazy. I also think that I knew the energy focus would be temporary, until things began to hum. It worked, from a business standpoint, as I now have a mildly supporting fledgling practice that continues to build momentum.

As my business grew, so then did my restlessness for some sacred messiness. I liken it to recovering from a broken limb, when you get the sense that you have progressed far enough to try and "get back to it", as it were. I was surprised by this resurgence, but not disappointed. And since I like to explore my instinctual inclinations, or at least the sober ones, I decided to look for opportunities to pursue this. At this point I will cut to the end of the story and save you the suspense, not because I am a nice guy, but because the opportunities are not what I want to write about. I want to write about the results.

Ain't nothing easy about "relationships", I always like to say. My opinion is supported by the culture, the media, and certainly by the couples who come into my practice struggling with unanticipated difficulties. I have long suspected that the stories we are fed about love are similar to the apple that dooms Sleeping Beauty--enticing but numbing--they lead us into a state of constant unfulfilled desire. I am currently reading a book that talks about how we spend most of our time in relationship with our partner's unlived self, and I see this as the result of a story of relationship that resides nowhere in our lived biological or emotional lives. Not that there is no truth to the story of romance, but it is just one of many ways to be with another, and at some point every couple has to get off the cloud and face the question of "Why am I really with you?"

They say that love can break through walls or build them. Actually, I just said that, but it sounds like something "they" would have said. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the "purpose" of relationship as far as it applies to my work and my personal life. I have come to the conclusion that the "romance story" can only exist within the realm of lack: something must be missing (self-esteem, confidence, purpose, meaning, excitement), and it can only be attained from another. Once the illusion of lack is shattered, romance must assume a new identity. It must naturally move from its status as headliner to supporting player. But then what takes its place at the top? Is there a true purpose for getting together with another? No, not in that sense inferred in the romance stories, but there are reasons that are really very simple and based in evolution. Well, two reasons. One is ancient--we are mammals and we evolved to attach to others in order to survive and nurture our young. The second is modern--it is in relationship that we have a chance to heal emotional trauma. The rest is dressing to the turkey--delicious, but not essential, but since you are having the turkey, why not have the dressing!

As an older man, I have continued to ponder my own reasons for intimate engagement, because they are not the same as they were when I was younger. Not that the previously mentioned reasons no longer apply, but it has become more of an effort to give a shit as I have gotten older. Life is pretty damn good even without romance. But I have been feeling that there could be a benefit to my personal development were I to explore the arena of relationship, so to speak. As I dip my toe in the water once again, I have awakened the pondering, and here is what I have come up with so far in regards to why I would date.

There are three basic reasons I currently identify as draws to relationship in my advanced age:

Ignition: Have you ever just felt blah about life? Sometimes the blahs are on the surface, and they can be responded to with something as simple as a strong cup of coffee or going to a new restaurant; at other times, the blahs are more than skin deep. Sometimes they are pervasive, such that they cast a sheet of dullness over every activity, every thought, every interaction. This is not a good thing, by the way. This level of the blahs warrants immediate action, lest one either succumb to them, or resist them with harmful attempts at stimulation.

During a recent run of the blahs, I resorted to neither remedy; but I knew I wanted to interrupt them. Ignition invites in interruption, but they are equally dependent upon each other, since you can't get to the former without the latter. Why is ignition a draw? Because it feels good to feel good. Ignition dispels the blahs by interrupting them and inviting in excitement, newness, and curiosity, and as the name implies, that is just the start. Ignition can lead to more actions toward relationship, but it can just as well lead to action toward anything. As I see it, there is no downside to ignition because it is not an end in itself, and it works like a charm.

I call ignition a draw to relationship due to the fact that the source of ignition is generally another person or an event tied to another person (both can be interruptions). Ignition, by its nature, assigns meaning to the presence of the other. Meaning is one key ingredient to relationship due to its application to both event and person: an interaction with significance attached to it tends toward relationship; and a person designated as meaningful typically triggers ignition! Ignition increases the sense of meaning, and on and on it can go, the whole process infusing life energy into the trigger and the triggered. This can be especially powerful when one is older, when one's "motor" tends to stall more often.

Companionship: This is an option that is settled into by many couples who have been together for a long time, but it is also an option that is the first choice for some older folks, who don't have the energy or interest in romantic love. I get it--it is wonderful to have someone around as you get older--just not too close! Studies have shown that "loneliness", which is different than solitude, is one factor that can lead to an early death, so a relationship chosen for companionship can be helpful in that regard.

I have a couple of friends who are dear companions. I have even discussed the idea of marriage with them, but truth be told, they are holding out for romantic love. That is fine. For me, I like the idea of having someone around who I like and trust, but am not obligated to entertain or fill all their emotional needs. I think it can keep one sane. I know that there are those who will argue that getting older does not mean that you can't have romance, and I would agree, but I do have an issue with the idea that you must not stop wanting romance. Why, in god's name, would I want the same things I wanted when I was 25, or 35? There are basic needs, which rarely change, and surface needs, which are age, culture, and development dependent. Being "in love" satisfied a need when I was young that I no longer have today. Companionship can fill in the blanks very nicely.

Fair Exchange: This is actually more attractive than it sounds, and truth be told, is the basis for every traditional relationship, whether you admit it or not. The gist of it is that you find a person who has something you want, and you trade them for something they want. End of story! The items on the trade sheet might include sex, company, activity partner, cuddling. This is a specific terms engagement, as both parties agree to the limits of the exchange.

Some of my most successful engagements have been Fair Exchange, where we both know what we want from each other while also knowing what we don't want from each other! These relationships can be short term or long term, and are usually without conflict or fuss. The reason they work so well is that they are devoid of the expectations that conventional relationships come saddled with--instead, both parties get what they want while giving what they have agreed to give. You might scoff, but tell me it doesn't sound appealing!

This type of arrangement can also be known as "lovers", in which the item up for exchange is fairly obvious.

None of the aforementioned is "better" than the other, and in fact, they can be combined into a sort of combo reason.

So where does that leave us after this rambling perusal? Well, hopefully in a state of deeper thinking concerning dating and relationships. You know how they say that things are better enjoyed if you are present for the experience? In a similar way, I propose that dating is better if one thinks about why one is doing it. Dating is not just an activity to do so that you have something to publicize on Facebook, or at least not in my book. (Sorry, almost everybody!)  Dating can just be plain old fun; it can also be a powerful form of engagement with the potential to heal emotional trauma. Why not make it both?  This is currently my personal intent around all this nonsense. I like to think of it as a sort of mud run. You are going to get dirty, perhaps filthy, and you will fall down and get burned at times and shocked and scared and wet and bruised and discouraged and insecure, but if you have a certain intent at the start you may get through it with joy attached, experiencing the challenges as worth the price of admission in order to feel that alive.

See what can happen when one decides to stop doing things the old way? You might find that your engine is not quite ready to stop. At least not forever.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

I Wish You Joy

Most people don't understand that very funny people are often extremely serious.

I, on the other hand, have taken notice of this misunderstanding my entire adult life. It is a subject of interest to because I myself have been branded "serious" more times than I can count, and yet people don't usually elaborate whether they are making an observation, or just accusing me of doing something wrong. (Sometimes the two go hand in hand.)

I remember walking the halls of my junior high school many many years ago, just minding my own business, and having other students yell out "Smile!" to me as they passed. I was usually taken aback, as I did not realize at the time that my face needed adjustment; I did not realize that their day was so greatly affected by my display of emotion, or lack thereof. I did get the impression that I was doing something wrong, but I was not sure what that might be. I now realize that my only crime was not living up to others' expectations, and, perhaps, bringing to the forefront of their awareness the idea of existential dilemma. But I shy away from granting them too much credit for thought.

I agree that I am a rather serious person. But I have never felt the need to "smile" to cover this up, as if there is a required way of being when out in the world. I suspect that the commenters in the halls of my junior high were, at their best, just wanting me to be "happy", and at their worst, trying to comfort themselves. But why were they even bothered by my seriousness? Let me clarify that what I mean by serious is that I think about things--a lot--and I observe just about everything that is happening around me. Now, I suspect that I do this because I am curious about things, but there is another reason; the narrative of my life required serious editing once I hit my teenage years.

This edit necessitated a great deal of thought, since I did not have much to reference from my public education or catholic upbringing that might have been helpful. I learned to label this practice "seriousness" not because it lacked humor and smiles in the hall, but because it often included solitude and brow furrowing, while lacking a certain carefree frivolity. In other words, I smile when I have something to smile about. Is this a rule? No, it is not. But I have found that frivolity, especially the carefree version, mostly works against contemplation--while being perfectly suited to social engagement. In days of yore there was not so much engagement in my seriousness, because contemplation is best done alone, but don't mistake that for a lack of humor.

Because I am funny, goddammit.

Louie CK, sad clown
It seems that Joe and Jane Public are genuinely shocked to find out that their favorite comic is in fact a very serious person. Everyone I know seemed shocked when Robin Williams committed suicide, not understanding how someone so funny could be depressed enough to want to end his life. Well, the question I have for you at this point is: Where do you think funny comes from? True humor comes from pain, and the best comics mine their own to come up with it. Currently, Louis CK is at the top of this game, so if you like him, you know what I mean. I suspect that Robin Williams was not able to mine his pain so well in the long run, and perhaps that is why he was depressed. I also suspect that this is why his humor was not funny to me, since it relied on shtick more often than pain. I saw him as a clown, not a comic. But even clowns take off the mask eventually.

Back when I was acting, I was a comic actor who occasionally did drama. When I was required to be funny, I would literally do anything for a laugh, unselfconsciously. My aim was to use my insecurities for the audience's benefit, and ultimately, for mine. To me, it was about triumph--by using my pain to make people laugh, my pain no longer hurt me so much. It was still there, it just had little to no power over my choices. If you confront your worst fear in front of others and survive, you may find it can no longer terrify you. I like to think that I was absolutely hysterical in my comedy roles (sometimes I was, sometimes I wasn't), because I had a lot of pain to mine, and the control I had onstage over my audience was preferable to the control that my pain had over me for so many years.

I am not acting anymore. Instead, I have gone into the rather serious profession of psychology, which suits me to a tee. But lately I have noticed that I am missing the art of humor a bit. Mind you, this is not an indication that I no longer have pain to mine.

I recently attended my final meeting with a men's process group that I had been participating in for nearly a year, and some of the members were sharing feedback with me. One of the guys said to me that he would miss my contributions to the group--that I always got him thinking. But he also said that there was one "side" of me that he regretted never seeing--he never saw me "laugh out loud". I blinked with surprise, realizing that he was right, at least about how I presented in the group; suddenly I concluded that my seriousness was taking over the entire house. I have been so intent in the last couple of years on building a private practice and so careful about not spending money that I have choked off a lot of "fun", so to speak. I have stifled my magic, semi-retired my sexuality, locked up my laugh, tampered my colorful creativity.

This was done in the name of my career, which is very important to me, and I do enjoy what I do. But I realize that, beyond the need to support myself, this career has taken on a disproportionate amount of importance primarily because it is the one thing that is all mine, or so I think. I feel on one hand that it is all I have, and on the other hand I feel that I don't even need anything else. Have you ever had the sense in your life that you have complete control over something? Though it can never truly happen, we can still get the feeling from time to time. And for a person like me, where for many years I wanted nothing more than to be left alone so I could take care of myself, this feeling is comforting and powerful. I think I was willing to sacrifice everything else for this level of control. In the process group, I suspect that they were more aware of the cost to my life than I was, and I also suspect that this is what they were trying to tell me during my final meeting. (This, by the way, is the value of group therapy--becoming aware of how you present in life.)

Control is alluring for many reasons, but I don't think it was always alluring in the way it is now. I see control today as a constructed response to a cultural effect: the lie that there is an order to things that benefits us. Since order, or not, is a result of cause and effect (not divine intention as many believe), there is often a little tiny part of us that spends some of the day in a bat-shit crazy panic. You might know this as anxiety. The antidote to that panic is feeling a sense of control or knowing. But when you replace an illusion with an illusion, it just delays the inevitable breakdown and reassessment. What usually works for me is to stare randomness of order in the face and form a response where I make out as well as I can, given what I know. Sometimes I err on the side of caution in this process, becoming very serious in the act. I would do well to remember that laughter never hurts when one is confronting a lack of complete control.

Before the therapy group ended for the evening, this same man said one more thing to me, which I appreciated the most. He said, "I wish you joy." He did not say that he wished me "happiness", because then I would have asked him to define his terms. He said "joy", which is an emotion, and not a fictional state of being. In this moment, I felt that he truly "got" me. Has anyone ever wished this to you and really meant it?

The dictionary definitions for joy are inaccurate and vague, linking it to feelings of happiness or success, without ever really describing what it is. That is like describing green by linking it to a marker pen. So let me give it a try.

As I said, joy is an emotion. So what does that look like? JOY is living fully. JOY is celebrating what or who is in front of you, whether you know what it is/who they are or not. JOY is being surprised by someone's love. JOY is seeing the effect of your caring towards others. JOY is holding the hot jerky movement of a baby. JOY is the pleasant activation of various senses individually or all at once. JOY is feeling appreciated. JOY is giving and sharing, knowing that you won't run out. Joy is creating art. JOY is eating summer strawberries from your garden. JOY is listening to music as a primary activity, not as background noise. JOY is grass on you bare feet, swimming naked in the ocean, riding you bike in a cool summer rain, doing yoga in the sunshine.

You might call these things happiness, but I don't. I see happiness as a marketing term, made up in order to sell things; it refers to a "mood state" or a "personality" (he is a happy person) that has little to no relation to an experience in the moment. Rabbi Irwin Kula, the writer of one of my favorite books, Yearnings, says that "Being happy isn't only about feeling good, but also about doing good." I like to think that he uses the term "happy" as I use the term "joy", because I like the definition. The form of joy he describes is one of many things we can feel throughout the day, and its contextual and transitional nature is why it feels so welcome when it happens. It is not an expectation, in the way I see culturally defined happiness, so it often surprises us in the best way. And it is relational, whereas happiness it often associated with personal happiness--something you feel about yourself, by yourself. Joy can be felt in solitude, but even then it is still the result of a relationship with nature, silence, or gratitude. And doing good, going back to Kula's definition, is a relational activity. "Happiness is," he writes, "therefore not just a feeling or emotion but a profound connection to the world (italics mine)." I strongly suggest reading Kula's book to learn even more about joy, love, relationship, and more. I recommend it to nearly everyone I know!

In a recent attempt to have a profound connection to the world, I attended a men's weekend gathering in the mountains below Big Bear through the group CalComMen. My intention for going to the event was to renew, through community, my creative and playful leanings. As I have said, I can be a bit serious, and since devoting myself to taking exams and building a practice, I have certainly nudged out play, at the very least. I saw this camp experience as an opportunity to leave the world behind and fan the creative flames and let play run the house for a few days. 

It worked. I hiked without lights in the mountains. I swam nude. I wore blue eyeshadow to the "Rainbow Dance". I read nasty haiku in the Talent/No Talent show. I canoed. I participated in a heart circle. I played bongos in a drum circle. I connected strongly to other men--young, older, cisgender, trans, big, small, and otherwise. And in the course of the weekend, during my re-ignition, within a community, I came to fulfill the generous wish bestowed on me by the caring process group member. I experienced joy. Sometimes it is required that we move out of our familiar context in order to have a new experience of ourselves. Nature can often be the ideal place to move into.

Back in the flat-lands of Hollywood, the tingle of joy has not deserted me. Its glow warms me and reminds me that it is readily accessible via connection and play. The other morning it rained in Los Angeles, and you know what I did at 6am when I woke up? I walked outside and let the rain hit my skin. It was wonderful. It was joyful. And as it was wished upon me, I wish the same upon you.

Now get out there and play a little...with others.

Me--serious from a very young age.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Time to Talk About Dad

I have written a lot about my mother. For some reason, she beckons to me as a portal from which to explore myself and my responses to the world.  If I may be so bold, I contend that my relationship with her is the birthplace of my initial relationship skills. This is, of course, a plus/minus statement, in the way that most statements about families tend to be. But I have come to a place where I don't expect it to be any other way, and at this point I am far enough from my lived experience with Mother to mine it for literary inspiration without getting covered in soot. Thank you, Time.

My father, on the other hand, holds a more slippery position in my evolution. I suppose it is past time to give him some due--not that I would deny his right to it--it is just harder to categorize the benefits derived from our relationship.

Dad worked for Safeway for years
Fathers have had a rough time of it, haven't they? From an evolutionary standpoint, it is a fairly modern definition of paternity that dominates the landscape today; the father role used to be, like most everything else, something that was shared by many. I would suspect that things changed around the time that agriculture came around (the new blame dump--and you're welcome, mothers of the world!). Since the time that land ownership became a "thing", there needed to be some structure to the passing down of property. Suddenly, paternity, and the heirs produced by the same, became very important and localized, and the idea of sharing receded from being a community value to serving the immediate blood family circle. This, of course, was a shame, but for my purposes it serves just as a meditation on history so that I can frame the impact of my father's legacy.

The consensus on this legacy? I give it a 5 out of 10.

This is not a bad thing, so before you jump to conclusions about my level of appreciation, let me clear things up a bit. Mother scores a 10 on the scale, but that is not necessarily a wonderful thing. A scoring of 5 is remarkable in its own way, in that the impact of a 5 is influential while evading lasting damage. A score of 5 is, for my father, perhaps the greatest compliment I can offer him. It means, essentially, that I got out of it alive and well with more than a few stories. That, in itself, is a success!


Dad had no fucking idea what to do with me once I turned 15, so he focused on my brother, who suffered quite a bit as a result. (Dad never practiced wrestling with me, but he did with my brother, who remembers the competitive nature with something other than a "warm" memory.)
My brother, Dad, and me.
Dad instead left me to my mother's devices, which worked, unless it didn't. I was studious, and quiet, and quite sensitive, which does not exactly generate enthusiasm in a father who lettered in practically every high school sport that was offered. But do not assume that my father ignored me, or was disgusted by me. Not in the least. I suspect that instead he feared me a bit because I represented something he did not understand, something that had the potential to reflect badly on him, but that was nonetheless connected to a part deep of him. I was able to be sensitive while my father was not. He had to be a man very early on, while I got to skirt the issue until after I had done some "research" on the subject. He was proud of me, but I doubt he was sure why, since my accomplishments weren't flashy. I would like to think that he was in awe of me, and that is why he kept his distance, but perhaps that is just a story I have made up. (I like it though.) 

I do know that he loved me as a son--as his son, and that his encouragement showed in his eyes rather than his voice; his kisses to the top of my head and salutations of mijo that reminded me I was his son and this meant something to him. What it meant, he never told me, but I like to imagine that I personified the freedom he rarely granted himself. For all my passivity, I was quite fearless at times, and the more I corralled fear, the more he was corralled by the same. My ascent matched his descent, and there was little I could do about that but embrace my time, just as he did with his many years before.


A male child moving into young adulthood must be difficult for any father, since there are inevitable shifts in power; in my family Dad's decreased while Mom's solidified. You know what I mean? By the time I was 16, homosexuality became the shiny new love that pulled me from the family, while my father was increasingly lured by alcohol; thereafter the power shift was complete. He then lived out the rest of his life as a shadow, attempting to reach former glories by standing on a bottle of whiskey. He didn't have a chance at this point, and I think that this is when I loved him the most; he became human instead of being the cigarette ad who used to kiss me goodnight in my childhood. 

This is also when I hated him the most. Ain't love grand?

Smoldering as a teen in 1944, bottom row middle
The hate I felt for my father was based in grief. I was losing him to alcohol, and I was left to become a man on my own. He could have taught me so much. My father was an All-Star athlete in high school, as well as being the best dancer and a definite ladies man. He was kind, funny, and affectionate.
Dad and Mom early in their marriage

He was quite handsome, but because I was born when he was 34, I never really knew who he was as a young man--by that time he had learned to accommodate his virility to white culture--realizing that a dark-skinned Mexican man would have to do more than play sports well to gain respect. He succeeded in this, gaining not only respect in business, but also the hand of my mother, who at the time was a tall, striking redhead, and perhaps the only person who could keep up with him on the dance floor. They were terrific together, for a while.

With his baby girl, Marla

I didn't hate my father forever, though. As an adult, I learned that his dependence on alcohol increased after his young daughter Marla died, a tragic story that affected everyone in the family. For all his outer strengths, he was ill-equipped to manage this searing inner crisis.

I often wonder who he would have been had Marla lived, and respectively, who I would have been. Even still, the gay thing was sure to separate us, at least until we ultimately united as fellow "black sheep" of the family. You see, as my mom and my brother both embraced mormonism (lowercase intentional) for the illusion of control and safety (I don't blame my mother, as she was aging and needed those things. I have less compassion for my brother.) As a result, I was soon joined by my father on the family time-out bench. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "You a drunk?"
Him: "Yeah. You homo?"
Me:  (scooting over) "Yeah. Have a seat."

Finally, after so many years, we found a place to connect.

Mom and Dad making the best of it. 
My father died six months after being diagnosed with cancer in his lungs and in his brain. He was stubborn as hell, so he would not go to the doctor despite having seizures and fits of rage, so by the time he was diagnosed the cancer was inoperable. When he died, my mother, now free of the alcoholism that had ruined her marriage, waited just a couple of weeks before throwing out all the furniture they had shared, replacing it with all new things that she wanted in the house.

Ain't love grand?


As Father's Day comes and goes every year, I think about the relationship my dad and I would have if he were living now. Don't we all wonder that of our parents? His life was sparked in a different time and the flame of its peak burned bright and early. He was, like my mother, both a product and a prisoner of his times, but he is 50% responsible for creating me, and I like to think that in some way I am now living the life he would like to have lived. I owe him my life. And for that reason alone, his life was not, as my mother's furniture replacement indicated, disposable. His pain and his triumphs showed me the levels to which we can rise or descend, and our joining toward the end showed me the depth of his vulnerability and forgiveness. He was my father, and he loved me, best as he could goddammit! Love does not require complete understanding or perfection, only willingness. In this area my father's levels never dipped. This comforts me, even to this day. I miss who he was to me during the best of times, but even more so, I miss who he could have been to me during my worst times. We were so close to getting there before he died. So close.

My appreciation for him grows as time continues, not because I drop into a hazy recollection of who he was, but because I better understand the things that kept him from becoming who I wanted him to be. His struggle unites me with him, and his potential was not fully unrealized; it lives in me, his son, and continues to unfold through my efforts to live as a free man. Plus, I am one hell of a dancer.

Ain't love grand?

Me and Dad in my L.A. apartment around 1992

Friday, May 8, 2015

A Letter To Mom: If You Could See Me Now

Circa 1984: Me and Mom
The last time I wrote about my mother was Mother's Day of 2013. And yet as Mother's Days continue to come and go, I find myself feeling further and further removed from it, primarily and directly because the number of years my mother has been dead continues to increase with each passing observance. I guess that is what happens, though, isn't it? You might notice that I did not say that my mother is "deceased", "passed away", or "gone". I wrote that she "has been dead". While that might seem harsh, you would at least grant me that it is the truth. I hate writing it, not because I don't like the word, but because I am using it to describe my mother. Even so, I would bet that it jars me less than it does most, because I have spent years facing and accepting the fact that she is dead, rather than deluding myself into a comforting fantasy of her continued existence, somewhere, somehow, benevolently looking down upon her favored son. Delaying grief via denial is rarely the healthy choice, it is instead only a diversion. Look, she died. It was the saddest fucking day of my life. But even the worst days eventually end, don't they?

Mom in her 80's
What is comforting to me is knowing that in her 86 years, she lived a great deal, part of which included making me. I can't tell you how happy I am about that happening! Her death truly flipped me over and turned me inside out, but it also reminded me that you can do a lot in 86 years, if that is how many years you have. It reminded me that when it is over, it is over, so I had better get busy living. It reminded me that nobody hears prayers after they are dead, so you better say what you want to say while they are alive. It reminded me that no amount of creative thinking can surpass the scientific fact that my mother is imprinted in my very cells--that every gaze, every touch she bestowed was received not only on the surface, but also by the interior. She is, for lack of better terminology, inside me. Who needs heaven when I have her in my DNA?

Whenever Mother's Day approaches, I find myself wondering what Mom would think about my life if she were alive to see it today. She was always proud of me, but boy, if she could see me now. I would, of course, have to catch her up a bit.

May, 2015

Dear Mom,

Good gracious I fucking miss you. 

You have been dead for over six years now. Mother's Day is coming up soon, and yet again I won't have anyone to buy flowers and a card for. Thanks a lot, Mom! What am I supposed to do with Mother's Day for the rest of my life? I feel like the "little boy that Santa Claus forgot". Did you think about that when you shut down your body at the age of eighty-six, long after your mind had
deteriorated from Alzheimer's? Nooooooo. Your excuses won't cut it here, Mom. Would it have killed you to have just once, before you died, thought about how it would affect ME? Look at me, I am raving to a dead person, that is what it has come to. But at least I am not as bad as that guy at the gym who sings along to his private music like he is a pop star. Sigh, what does one do when after they have lost the one person who will give them undivided attention no matter where, when, or what. What does one do?

Comedian Louis C.K. has a joke that says how a lot of things happen after you die, just none of them include you! I think that is funny. Well, a lot of things have happened in my life since you died, and while none of them include you, they all are a reflection of you. In fact, my whole damn life has been full of choices influenced by our relationship. My life is because of you, then was developed with you, then was in reaction to you, then in response to you, then in respect to you, then in celebration of you, and finally, in honor of you. 

You are gone, but I won't let go, so I suppose we should at least catch up. 

The first thing you must know is that I finally passed my exams and am now a fully licensed psychotherapist. It was a ten year process, but I love being a therapist, Mom. I have learned so much about compassion and patience, and sitting with someone's pain. There is more to being a therapist than sitting with someone's pain, of course, but that is certainly a big part of it. Nobody "sits" with another's pain anymore, I notice. People assuage, they comfort, they utter bland reassurances, they run away, they publicize, but rarely does someone simply sit, witness, hold, and honor the process. If this weren't necessary I would be out of a job, but it is, so I am not. Our culture does us a great disservice by shaming pain, or maybe the blame should be on the free market for selling happiness as the highest state of being. Whichever it is, I am here to confront the problem and ease the pain.

I feel a sort of "love" for my clients, but it is not the usual kind of love. It is a love based on caring and service, knowing that it may not be reciprocal. And yet I am only able to feel that for my clients because of what I have concluded about love in the outside world. A great deal of that I learned from you. You taught me that love is not easy, but it is also not often a choice. You taught me that love feeds hope, and that it feeds life. Love softens death, and calms the tiger. Love can be quiet, or it can be loud, but it is most often quiet because it does not need to be loud. (Lust is loud, but love is quiet.) You also taught me that love can breed fear--fear of loss, disappointment, need, and change. Fear shows up in the therapy office all the time. I sit with clients who want so badly to control love, and I tell them that they can neither control it nor deny it without disastrous results; so the best policy is to walk with it, notice what it wants to show you, then make some sort of choice. 

Mom preparing a Christmas dinner
Remember that time when I was a teenager, Mom, and I was in so much conflict about my homosexuality that I was acting out like a total ass? You asked me why I was doing this, and you wanted to know what happened to your "Tony". I answered you by saying that I was trying to get you to stop loving me so much (I felt like a fraud of a son). To this day I remember your response. You looked at me and quietly said, "If you think I can do that, then you don't know anything about love." And truth be told, I didn't. I didn't realize that no matter what I did, no matter who I was, no matter who I wanted, that  you would never stop loving me. Never. Not even a bit less. Even if I felt, at that moment, like I did not deserve it. 

On that day, with that response, I learned something about love. 

You have probably guessed that I don't dance professionally anymore, Mom, but I certainly do dance in my apartment. Music is still a driving force in my life--you passed that on to me. In fact, I think of you every time I play Shirley Horn or Cassandra Wilson or Harry Connick Jr. When I listen to music I wish that you were there with me, because you knew how to listen to music--you listened with your body. I remember that time when I took you to see Cheryl Bentyne perform, and you and I were moving in our seats to her glorious vocals, like some secret language between us. At one point we noticed a man sitting in front of us who was staring straight ahead, motionless, with a grim mouth.
Mom in her 80's in Montana.
It's all about those shoes.
I knew at that moment that we both felt sorry for that man, so unable or unwilling to let go to the music, as though he were immune to a magic that was affecting all those around him. You got the music, Mom, and when it was playing we didn't need to say a thing. 

You would love my apartment, but you would blush at some of the artwork, because there is a penis or two in the pieces. But I would not hide them when you visited, because the paintings are beautiful, and I am not ashamed of my appreciation of penises, and I suspect that at some point in your life you appreciated them too. You would be comfortable in my home, and we would have fun, visiting coffee shops and farmer's markets for sure, but most of our meals would be eaten here since I would cook up a storm for you. Do you know how much I love to cook, Mom? I even know how to make your Chicken Cacciatore. My comfort in the kitchen started from watching you--the way you set a table, your willingness to vary the menu, your insistence on serving a salad with every meal. Granted, what you cooked was based in the 70's aesthetic, meaning home cooking as well as plenty of TV dinners, casseroles, and pot pies, but you were a product of the culture, like everyone else. And your homemade tacos were the best.

You would notice that I have hundreds of books in my place, and almost as many pieces of clothing. The book titles might confuse you, but you would like the clothes in my closet. I buy things that flatter the long legs you "gave" me, and like you, I have remained slender. I favor style over fashion. Don't you think for a minute that I didn't notice everything about your attention to detail and beauty. I took it all in, and have applied it to my life and surroundings. 

My friends love me and show me great care. 
Mom at her sister's wedding.
She was in her 50's here.
I am sure that I would have them over one night and make a big fuss about you visiting. You might be a bit embarrassed, but I could not help myself from showing you off. My friends always seemed to love you, but the boyfriends not so much! You could be cold at times with those who required my love, but you just felt that nobody was good enough for me, and I confess that you have me convinced of that myself. You didn't really do me a favor in that department, Mom, but what can I do at this point. 

Not that it matters that much. I am getting older, which means that I am simplifying, slowing down, and enjoying my own company. Granted, for me slowing down means that I run at the speed of most thirty-five year olds, but it is a slow down nonetheless. It is welcome though, because for so many years I never stopped. I couldn't stop--I wasn't ready to be with myself. But now I am, and I wish I could show this to you. 

Anyway, Mom, I have to go finish another essay I am writing. It started out as a Mother's Day post, but I think it is turning into something more political. It is always good to cloak your opinions in sentiment, I like to say. I am a writer, and I have a lot to say, and some people like to read what I have to say. You would be surprised at how big my mouth is now, but I am pleased to tell you that there is less anger coming out of it now than when I first found my voice. I smile more now.

But oh, the world gives me lots to talk about, Mom. It is, in many ways, a grand mess. There are some horrible people doing horrible things to others in the name of who knows what, but I suppose that has always been going on. You would not like it, I suspect.
1970--I was eight.
You would not understand why people are glued to phones all day, why dating has become something like thumbing through the Sears catalog, or why Kim Kardashian is famous. Meanwhile there are just as many rooting for love and simplicity, who refuse to listen to the story our culture has written. I wonder which camp you would be in, Mom, but not so much. You were always ahead of your time, while still being rooted in it. I wonder who you would have been had you been born in the 50's or the 80's instead of the 20's?   

But what I really want to tell you, Mom, is that beyond the gifts and graces that you gave me, I have really become a self-made man. The life you would see around your son these days started with you, but has blossomed through my own efforts. I have always had a vision of a good life, even when it did not feel so good; not a life full of material goods and success, but one full of people, laughter, support, food, sharing, care, celebration, simplicity, respect, music, nature, and love. That has always been my vision, and this is the life that I want to show you now. In the truest sense, I have made something of myself, Mom. I have become a kind man, and I wish more than anything that you could see me now. You would smile and be proud, knowing that you did alright. You did alright. But above all, I did alright. 

I carry you within me every moment. Happy Mother's Day.

Your son,

Summer 1980--Saying goodbye

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Age: It's All In or Nothing

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

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

So, yeah, I do think about my age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing what it knows how to do.