Cats have nine lives, supposedly. But from what I have noticed, they don't change one bit throughout any of them--they do the same shit every single day of their passive-aggressive lives. I know what you are saying right now: "The nine lives thingie is about them never dying, NOT the idea that they change lives!!"
You went back to add the second exclamation point just to make sure that I got how dumb I am for saying that. But it didn't work. I know that cats don't change lives! They don't even change what they do because they don't work! Dogs work!
I saw a bit on the Today show where they were introducing puppies who were soon to become service dogs. The trainer was explaining how the puppies got to have a few weeks of "just being puppies" before the training would commence--but she assured us viewers that once it did start they would be having a good time because "the dogs LOVE their jobs!" Really. Stupid dogs!
Cats would never fall for that trick. But don't think that cats actually have the better deal. Cats may not get suckered into work that is "fun", but they sure as hell can't escape their miserable lives either. At least not until the tenth attempt, but by then, can it really be called living anymore?
Humans are not so simple as to be classified solely as stupid or passive-aggressive, though you don't need me to convince you that there are some humdingers who are examples of either or both. I am fortunate to have avoided these two particular experiences completely: I am not stupid, and I am certainly not passive, uh, in my aggression. I am aggressive-aggressive, but you will have to believe me when I tell you that in some circles that is greatly appreciated (if not welcomed). I try my best to direct my wanderings within appreciative circles. I am not always successful, but in those instances, I think others suffer more than I do.
How do we come to be who we are? Though the process can be tracked linearly, close inspection will reveal multiple detours and stops, backtracks and potholes, straightaways and hairpin curves. My life has been no exception. At the age of 54, I find that my memory of where I began sometimes gets muddled. Did I really do that? When did that happen? Was that me? Why don't I remember?
Fortunately, I have stacks of old photos, and I found myself going through them the other day for a reason I cannot remember now. But as I flipped through the albums, I noticed having a strange feeling. I knew the lives I was seeing in the pictures, I knew the places, I knew the people. But at the same time it seemed as if it were another life, not mine. What was once known was no longer known, only familiar. It felt like I was re-reading a book I had read a thousand times--enough times to know what the characters were going to say and do.
But these lives, these places, these people, they are not mine anymore. They are just road stops I hung out at on the way to where I live now. Road stops that exist only in memory, and in photographs.
I like who I am now. I recognize who I used to be. But rather than being connected intimately to this past, it is, alas, only familiar.
What makes us believe parts of our story that are not in our memory? Do we simply go on the authority of those who are telling us the story? Why do we accept these stories without question? A silly question, I will admit, and yet why don't we question them when it is our story that is at stake? Sample questions could be:
1. How do you know this is me?
2. Why should I believe you?
3. Do you have proof other than your word?
4. How does knowledge of this change how I have previously thought of myself?
But the familiarity ends with these associations. My connection with this little boy is no more intimate than that with a character in a well-read novel. The familiarity at this point is based on a known story more than a lived sense. It is a memory of me, but a memory nonetheless. It is no more a part of who I am now than is a meal I consumed a month ago.
What happens when I look into the eyes of this little boy with the outrageous and yet theme-appropriate shirt? I try to "see" me. I know I wore this shirt and took this cake somewhere, but my related-ness with this boy springs more from compassion than recognition. Compassion for how innocent he truly was, how much he loved his mother, not realizing that even here, nearing 50 years of age, she would leave him far sooner than he preferred. Compassion for how Mom helped me bake this cake, and how she put on her "Mexican" blouse so that she would be theme-appropriate as well. Compassion for how much this boy wanted to do well at school, how much he wanted to be liked, how much he really really like this shirt because on some level it represented "fashion". Compassion for landing in this family somehow, and instantly being declared a part of it (naturally), yet never realizing that membership came with conditions.
I think the cake kicked ass in whatever "contest" it was entered into. At least that is how I would like to remember it. If nothing else, we should have won for our outfits.
|Me on the right with my mom and brother|
Now we're talking! Familiarity verges with knowing when I look at this picture. I loved this vest, and you can surely tell just by looking at me. This was the early 70's and Mom made a lot of our clothes, which meant that, on occasion, I got to pick out the fabric I wanted. I picked a doozy here, and I knew exactly what I was doing.
The thing about style is that you either have it or you don't. Fashion can be bought, but not style. Style is part of one's personality, and it springs from creativity and imagination, courage and vision. It is the result of paying attention, and reflecting what is seen with spin and interpretation.
I had this look down. My brother, not so much so. But take a look at my mother here and you know where I got my sense of style. Poor Mark (my brother). He couldn't even compete with me and Mom. He was such a dork as a child, and he didn't find his footing until he found the ocean waves and paired them with a surfboard in his teenage years. Unfortunately, he also paired them with cocaine, among other things, but I suspect that is because he never really trusted himself as I did.
To this day I have a hunch he still doesn't. But what do I know about hunches. What I do know is how to pick a good fabric.
When I returned from the two week program, my brother had moved all my stuff out of the room that we shared. He told me in no uncertain terms that he didn't want anything more to do with me. He was done. I was brokenhearted. I think he had decided that I was not cool enough for him. Silly boy. Did he not see how I looked in my rainbow zig-zag vest?
Even with my devastation, I had just returned from the adventure of my life up to this point. I had been out of the goddamn country! I had been to Mexico City, and visited pyramids and bars (yes, they let us in!). But most importantly, I experienced my first crush.
|My first crush.|
Meet Scott. I mean, just look at him. At fourteen, looks carry a lot of weight, because, for me at least, they represented perfection and love and all the things I thought I did not deserve at the time. When Scott looked at me while I took this picture, he seemed to be saying, "I know." Of course he wasn't, he was just using that sleepy-eyed charm that I am not sure he was even fully aware of. But I suspect that he did know something.
My familiarity with this time reminds me of a night while we were all in Mexico City. Many of us students had gone out, and we miraculously got into a disco even though we were all frightfully underage. But it was Mexico in the seventies--I think the legal age was six. Scott had not joined us for some reason, so when I got back to the hotel at around three in the morning, he was already in bed asleep. He and I were sharing one of the double beds, and our other roommate, Dean, would sleep on a mattress on the floor. Dean would not share a bed with another boy. His loss was my gain.
As I slipped into the bed, I realized that Scott was literally taking up the whole mattress with his body splayed out like an "X" from corner to corner. He was wearing only underwear, which for me was pretty much like having Satan tickle my balls, and I had to make him move if I were to ever get a night's sleep. I quietly asked him to move over until he finally roused, but then he did something that will be seared into my memory for all my days. Instead of moving over to his side of the bed, he rolled over onto me, with his whole body.
Let's just consider this incident for a moment. Scott was an athlete at his school, and had the strong muscular body of a developing teenager; he was quite the opposite of me, still underweight for my height, and certainly lacking anything resembling a "build". Scott was a god to me, and more than that, on this trip I became his best friend, which was like being given a pass to the good life. And now this god, my best friend, was on top of me, splayed out in only his underwear.
I did what any closeted fourteen year old would have done in that instant--I fucking panicked. I pushed him off me within a moment of his skin hitting mine, and I acted as though I was totally grossed out about what he did, while he acted as though it had all been a grand joke on me.
Which I suppose it was. Scott was straight, and he was just playing around. But I was in puppy love with him, and I realized that he could never ever know this about me. But if he ever reads this essay, he will now know that I have never forgotten, nor lost my familiarity with, the brief moment in time when he rolled on top of me and ignited my desire.
Perhaps, just perhaps, he has never forgotten either.
My family lived on Christmas Tree Circle. What this meant was that every year, for the month of December, the whole block would light up and decorate for the holiday. Can you imagine what this must have been like for a little boy with great taste in fabrics? Talk about being fed unrealistic expectations about the world! At our house, my dad would go nuts with the decor outside, while my mom expressed her insanity on the indoors. I loved it.
When I look at this picture I see a typical family holiday photo, all in appropriate jammies, yet Mom was still made up with her hair done, as though she actually went to bed like this. She didn't. She used to take her makeup off, of course, but she would also use pink "hair tape" to hold the set in place while she slept. It was interesting to see, to say the least. That look was never captured in a photo.
My brother had glasses, which I suspect he hated, but he was blind as a bat without them. My dad was, well, my dad. He seemed to me, at least for the first fifteen years of my life, to be a caricature of a dad. How little I knew.
They are pictured in front of the artificial Christmas tree that Mom put up every year--this was the early seventies, and everyone had artificial trees, at least on my block. They had them for the same reason that everyone ate TV dinners and margarine--it was okay for upper middle class families to do so. I doubt I ever even tasted real butter for the first 18 years of my life. Rest assured that since then, I have caught up on both real butter and real Christmas trees.
I recognize everything in the picture, but two of these people are dead (Mom and Dad), and the other one I have not talked to in over a year. Are they my family? Were they my family? What was I hoping to capture by taking this photograph? Was I trying to convince myself of my place among them, or hoping to reveal evidence to motivate my escape? We were a pretty happy family at this time, though shortly the shit would hit the fan in the guise of my brother's bad behavior and my queerness.
But on this Christmas Eve, long long ago, we were still a "family", albeit one that hid its washed faces and pink hair tape. And what I recognize in my mother and father is the reality that being this family was very important. For them, a happy family was the mark of success, a refuge from the battles they endured in younger days. For me, a happy family was...hmmm...was my first conscious experience with abandonment. The smiles in this picture were real--not just for the camera, but they were conditional, which is something I did not realize then. They were conditional on me and my brother enrolling in our parents' version of refuge, and neither of us could do that. Their expectations eventually shattered, in different ways, our sense of belonging in the family; for me at some point it was made clear that my insistence on being treated like family would bring about the very destruction of the same.
I don't blame them. Anymore. Most families were like this in the seventies: parents from an earlier time trying to raise families, in a way that was familiar to them, during a time of massive cultural change. Their vision of family turned out to be as artificial as the plastic Christmas tree in the background--pretty, but certainly not living.
I made it out alive, and I tried with limited success to drag my parents along with me in my explorations, but they were too bound to their histories. I wish I had seen this--I would have spent more time loving them and less time trying to change them. Interestingly, this is the same issue that many of my couples clients struggle with in their relationships. My parents did what they thought was right and good for us--at some point the rest was up to us. I can say that I have made a remarkable life for myself, both because and despite all that my parents did. My brother, I am sure, would say the same thing, and I suppose some would agree with him, but I will tell you that he lives in the same house, and still puts up an artificial Christmas tree. You can do the math.
Even familiarity can be infused with familiarity. When I was a in my last year of high school, I participated in the senior play. The big dance number was "We Go Together", from Grease, the biggest film of 1978. Grease was, of course, a fond look back at the high school culture of the 1950's. In this picture me and my partner Diana were about to go onstage for the big number. We are somewhat dressed in period costumes, though I think Diana did a better job than I did. I just kind of rolled my t-shirt sleeves up, or so it looks.
The fifties were fun from a filmic standpoint. I think that in reality, they were really only fun for straight white men. But when you turn anything bad into a song, it automatically becomes a hopeful lesson! Our nostalgia for the fifties during the seventies was a yearning for familiar unfamiliar. We wanted to remember the world as it never was, because it made us feel better about what it was now. So even back then, as a seventeen year old, I was trying to connect with the familiar.
Who was this boy? Was that me? Do I still have those arms? That smile? Those eyes? (I know I no longer have that hair!)
What is the familiar? When does it become less familiar? Does familiarity have a limit, or is its intensity based on proximity to the event, place, or person? I went into the Naval Academy for two years right out of high school, but my time there is as fresh in my memory as what I had for lunch yesterday, whereas the particulars of the year right after I left are vague. Why do certain times feel more familiar than others that are more recent?
In this picture I am saying goodbye to my mother at the airport before flying to Maryland for my first year at the Academy. I had never been to the east coast before, or spent more than two weeks away from home, so this was a BIG deal for both of us. When I look at this picture, she seems to be hanging onto me for life; I seem to be hanging onto her with a mixture of relief, sadness, and anticipation for what was to begin for me at the conclusion of that hug. I was her baby, the youngest, and had a very close bond, yet as an adult I have come to realize that the bond was never as close in reality as I thought it was in my mind. Oh, she loved me, make no mistake, she would have killed anyone in a second had they tried to harm me. But our bond originated out of tragedy--the death of my sister one month before I was born, so her love for me would always weigh heavy with desperation and loss.
I did not feel like her baby--I was 18, and itching to start an adventure as an adult. I would not know for many years how it took every fiber of her being to not stop me from getting on that plane. Her desperation deferred to my needs regardless of the cost to herself; this is why true selflessness is grievous--it is born out of fear of loss. Not all of my hugs carried so much meaning. This one on the left was simply and completely about affection.
This is me with Christie Brinkley, of course, circa 1982. She was a guest star on a television special that Bob Hope was filming from the Naval Academy grounds, and I had the good sense to volunteer to be on the crew for the show. During rehearsal week, she was friendly with everyone and we all got chummy, and it was my first taste of celebrity. Not surprisingly, Christie seems more at ease here than I did--she was lying on the ground when I asked for the picture, and she eagerly asked me to join her there, but I was too nervous so I asked her to stand up. She did so gladly, and promptly threw her arms around me as though she had been friends with me for years. This was how friendly and unpretentious she was--she acted just like "one of the guys", but she wasn't. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in person, and little did either of us know that she would soon be touched by tragedy, as only a year later her fiance would die tragically in a racing car accident. Had I known that this was going to happen to her, I think I might have hugged her more tightly.
What is music, when you sit and think about it? Is it rhythm? Is it melody? Is it lyric? I remember hearing some story about how the first music was probably created by sticks hitting against stones or something like that. Percussion, you know. That makes sense to me. I like to imagine that the first percussive music was an attempt to externalize our inner rhythm--the heartbeat--but at the same time I also like to think that it is connected to something less romantic but more universal--that rhythm is a part of nature's vibration, and that when we move, we are simply joining in.
What is the point of it? Why does the body move to a rhythmic beat, sway to a lovely melody? I think that it is the body playing, both with its own abilities and with its relationship with the world. When they say, "get into the groove" they are talking about joining the flow of life--not just what is happening in our little worlds, but what is happening all around. Have you ever watched a flower turn toward the sun? Perhaps this is a similar process, where the organism seeks out, and responds to, that which provides life. I think that music helps us live. I think it provides movement. Movement is life.
I don't know about you, but I can't think of music without thinking of movement, with each being the effect of, and the stimulus for, the other. It doesn't even matter which came first, because it is impossible to imagine a time when one existed without the other. For me, movement to music was an effortless undertaking. My mother and father were both incredible dancers, and at some point in my early teens I discovered that this new thing called "disco" had a power over my body. I was tall for my age, and to be able to dance at fifteen meant that I was popular with the girls at the school dances--they didn't have to bend over to slow dance with me, an important point for young women who are eager to start wearing high heels.
My father, as I said, was an astonishing dancer from way back to his own school days, and he used to tell me that dancing is "all in the hips". I believed him, at least as far as social dancing goes. But I remember how early on I yearned to move more than just my hips. The music of the day seemed to be calling me to go further in, deeper, harder, and longer. I could not ignore it, nor did I want to, because for a skinny sissy boy who was known to be "sensitive", the dance floor was the one place where I outshined them all. On the dance floor my body came into power. It just knew.
Right out of high school I went into the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, but I left after only two years to become a dancer. Why? Because, as Gloria Estefan sang, "the rhythm is gonna get ya". I studied ballet, jazz, and tap, and I even taught and choreographed at one point. I remember how I used to lay down and close my eyes while listening to a piece of music that I wanted to set to movement, and afterward I would have to go into the studio and see if the vision I had imagined was even possible. I needed to be able to do everything that I set on other dancers, and I would sometimes practice my own choreography in the middle of the night--just me and the music.
I suspect that my father was envious of my ability to dance--this was one area of skill where I actually had the talent to surpass him. Why he saw this as a threat instead of an accomplishment is beyond me, but I suppose that my dancing caused him to reflect on his own "familiar life", only to realize how detached he was from it.
If he had looked close enough, he would have seen that he was in me, in my movement, my passion for music and dance. For both of us, movement was not a choice--we were called by music. Besides, I could not dance like he did--nobody could. There was no threat, only difference. I wish he had embraced that difference, among the many others, but at this point in his life it was about hanging on to what was familiar--I suspect he was afraid of who he might become if his past glories became unfamiliar.
Have you ever done anything that makes no sense at all simply because you had to do it? If not, don't wait for fucking ever. Find whatever rhythm calls to you, and heed the call, even briefly. Because what you will get out of it is the ability to STOP, at any time, the mandate that every activity must be tethered to an outcome. What you will get out of it is the experience of having an experience, rather than waiting for one or observing one. The world, at least the Western world, is quickly becoming a place that is watched rather than lived in. The appeal, I suppose, is that watching is less work and more entertaining, so where is the downside? The downside is in excess. It helps to know when to stop watching and when to start living. We all have to find that line for ourselves, don't we. Have you?
I think a LOT about love--what it is, what it means, how it looks. The novel I will probably never finish is all about if we can ever know whether what we feel is about the other person or about us, and beyond that, when we can know that it is real. Some say that true love happens when we are more interested in another's happiness than we are ours. To some, this description will sound like co-dependence (a term I abhor), but if you remove that bias from it, it describes the essence of care. Loving another, having concern for their well-being, wanting to make them happy, none of these require that you stop doing the same for yourself; but real love does require that your interest in the other be based on recognizing that they are not you. Why is this important? The way I see it, until you can do this, you are not in love, you are just "in love".
Limerence (being in love) is a real state, but culturally constructed. Attraction and bonding are essential parts of our need as social mammals to attach--the romance part is was made up (courting). But I like to say that you don't have to take the frosting off of the cake, as long as you remember that the frosting compliments the cake, and not the other way around. I observe that most people see it as the latter, and then wake up a year later sick of eating just the frosting. What happens is that, during limerence, we become strongly attached to another, but we don't know who they are. The cultural construct of courting and romance has misled us to believe that attachment equals love, but it doesn't if you go by my definition. What is missing in limerence is bonding, which tends to happen after six months or a year. The key component of bonding, if it develops well, is interest in the other based on healthy differentiation. Bonding is not enmeshment! It is a process of coming together as one while at the same time maintaining a two-ness (Walter Brakelmanns' concept of "Closeness"). If one never moves from limerence to healthy bonding, then the panic begins, as they try to sustain the fantasy connection despite the encroaching reality of disconnection. Bummer.
I knew little about love when I was young. In my 20's I was so desperate to be loved that I would have licked bad frosting off of a dirty knife for a chance at connection. Nowadays, I have a different perspective. I am not so interested in entering the psychotic state of being in love, because that is not so fun anymore--I already feel good about myself, so why go nuts for someone in pursuit of that? Still, it would be nice if my heart were to speed up a bit in response to a person's gaze or touch, I suppose. Is that even possible when the false meaning has been extracted from the process of connection? Can I get back to basics and find an organic excitement that is detached from a cultural narrative? I honestly don't know if this is possible, or even desirable. I suspect that, for me, the longing is for a remnant of the familiar--that which is hanging around until something comes along to replace it. I wonder what that might be...
|Me and Randy in the mid-Eighties. Please forgive my moustache!|
Randy, on the right in the above picture, was limerence big time for me. He was a part-time model (hot!) who worked as a cook at the Crest Cafe (hot!), a little diner where I worked in as a busboy in the San Diego. We were a ragtag group of young people, high on Madonna energy and the genderqueer expressiveness of eighties New Wave. In our youth, I suppose we sensed a new era of possibility within ourselves and the world, and this was reflected in the music of the time: Culture Club, The Eurythmics, The Cure, New Order, etc. We were change set to a dance beat.
Randy used to make me lemonades at the restaurant and hand them to me over the kitchen counter when I was working. He had dangerously seductive green eyes and would let me know that he did this only for me. He was obviously flirting, and my heart sped up a a bit every time. We began dating (having sex), hanging out with his beautiful sister and their friends, and generally getting drunk on our youth, beauty, and coolness. It was a heady time for me. I thought Randy was so fucking cool, and being with him made me feel cool as well (the limerence was about me!). We burned brightly for a few weeks, but the flame died quickly as we realized that sex could only carry you so far. I used to think that he broke my heart, for I suffered emotionally when we split, but I think now that what he did was break my connection to what he represented--acceptance, coolness, relevance--the things that I longed for that meant that I was a part of the world.
Randy was a "door" for me, an entrance into feeling a part of things rather than apart from things. But he was not the only door--there were many through the years, and I tried to love them all. But more than limerence, what I valued most from these encounters was the feeling that I mattered to someone for a while. This proved to be more seductive to me than even green eyes. It represented original love. I just didn't know that this is what I was looking for. Now I know, and I found out that I had to give this to myself, which I did. Perhaps this is why my favorite companion is me. Nevertheless, I don't regret my messy sexy travels through lives and hearts, and I cherish the memories of the Randys who joined me for brief periods of time. Like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I had to take an external journey before I could take an internal one.
At this point, I suspect that I may be interested in journeying outside once again, but this time I think it will be an unfamiliar path.
Reflection is not an odd way to pass the time as the year draws to a close. This essay is more than just a reflection on a year though, it is a reflection of a life. But the reflection is incomplete, as is the life that is reflected upon. I chose to focus on my youth, since that is period is far from the present time, and if you were to ask me the purpose of doing this reflection, I would tell you that it is because it is a prelude to the never-ending question, "What now?" The answer to that question is both beholden to and unleashed from the past, if you can imagine such a circumstance. It is beholden because the answer is influenced by what came before, and it is unleashed because I can choose freely despite what came before.
As the year winds down many people think about their recent choices, and sometimes they vow to make different ones; they "resolve" to change the way they choose in the coming year. It rarely works. This is not because we can't change, but because we underestimate how difficult it really is to unleash from the past. Changing choices is not like changing your shirt; some choices can feel like you are changing your very skin. I prefer to review my choices daily; it is practice in case the results are unpleasant for me or for others. This constant assessment gets me used to movement, and yet even still the status quo calls to me. However, it is getting easier to turn away from it.
Be care-full with your choices--I suggest loading them up with meaning. They make up who you are, and yet they also make sense of who you were. The tether between the past and the present is as fragile and essential as an umbilical cord, and yet the difference is that this tether should not be cut (nor can it be!). My past is both familiar and unfamiliar, but it is mine nonetheless, as is this very moment that has just passed. My goal is to move forward with intention, as much as I can give attention to this, and to be purposeful with retention. I am and I am not who I was. But who I was will always be a part of who I am. Perhaps that is why I so enjoy solitude at times--that is when I can nurture the relationship I have to my history and my future. I like tending to the relationship between the two. It is not advisable to look back on your life only to realize that it is not at all familiar anymore.