Sunday, October 10, 2021

Leaving Hudson Avenue, in Five Parts, With Some Pictures


This essay, which I expect few to have interest in, is a compilation of the thoughts that went through my head as I prepared to move from an apartment I have been in for 20 years. Initially I was going to publish each part separately, but then I decided to join them together. What the hell. Ultimately, this is a piece about change. I wrote it to sort thoughts in my head, but if it resonates with you then I am very glad.

Part 1: Madonna Released

June 2021

I am moving.

I have not moved in 20 years, so I don't remember much about how to move. I know that "moving" is involved, but what else other than that? How does one actually move?  

The funny thing is that the move is less than a mile away from where I am now. So maybe I am really "budging" instead of moving. Nevertheless, something is happening that I have not done in a long time. 

The other day, in preparation for the move, I gave away a large bin containing magazines with Madonna on the cover that I have been collecting for nearly 30 years, starting around 1985. I think I stopped doing so about 5 years ago, mostly because Madonna is on fewer magazine covers these days, but also because I think I care less than I used to. 

In 1985, however, pretty much all I cared about was Madonna, and the magazines were a way to track her ascension in pop culture and as an influence in my life. In 1985, I was 23 years old, and I badly wanted what she had: looks, confidence, style, attitude, sex, talent. Who didn't? As a gay man navigating my identity and manhood amidst the collage of templates in 80's culture, Madonna offered the whole package, and then some. In fact she created many of the templates herself. I cared very much about all of that back then.

But in 2021, at 59 years of age, not so much. 

If you happen to be over 50 yourself, I wonder if you notice your priorities shifting? I have with mine--not all at once--but slowly over time, like sand dunes manipulated by a gentle wind. Things that I used to care very much about don't mean so much to me anymore, and things that I did not value so much as a younger man are becoming more important. My Madonna magazines reside in the first category. 

***

When I started collecting the covers, I was very much influenced, like many young folk, by pop culture. When Madonna hit, she was both in and out, hot and cold, master and servant, slut and virgin. With her as inspiration, I realized that I didn't have to settle for just one way of presenting, or experiencing, myself. She helped me to reconcile, accept, and ultimately celebrate the dualities within myself.  

She offered so many variations of herself that it was dizzying at the time, but they were all pretty damn perfect and so believable that every time she morphed I would question whether the previous incarnation were in fact a false version the whole time. Magazines documented all of it, with great lighting, and I would buy and keep them as a sort of record, I suppose, of something happening during my time that had not happened before (and has not happened since, I would argue). She graced so many magazines, because Madonna on the cover guaranteed an audience. She was a goddess in our midst. She was both one of us, and above us, a much more appealing example of the divine than the catholic god I had grown up with (who was not one of us at all, despite, you know, Jesus). 

***

The other day, a man who found my ad on Craigslist showed up in a truck and took the whole lot from me. It was over and done with in minutes--30 years of carting that bin everywhere I moved, and now they are in the custody of someone else, to be offered to those who currently care more than I do. And that is okay. I no longer need them to anchor or guide my identity. Let them go to those who do.


Part 2: Letting Go Of The Shoeboxes

In Part 1, I wrote about letting go of my collection of magazines that feature Madonna on the cover. If you read that part, you may have come to the conclusion (understandably) that it is "easy" for me to let things go. You would be wrong, of course, but don't feel badly--I think most would come to the same conclusion. Truth is, it's as difficult for me to let go of things as it is for many people. So when I need to do this, I simply extract the emotional component from the decision and allow myself to be guided by practicality and rationale. 

We all do this whether we realize it or not. It's a crude example, but every time you flush the toilet you are letting go of something that was very recently a part of you. Most of us never even think about it, nor do we question the decision. It leads me to suspect that when it is difficult to let go of something, it has less to do with the something, and more to do with the meaning we have assigned to it. 

***

I was talking with someone the other day who was had been going through old letters and pictures, deciding what to keep and what to toss. This person does not have children, which adds a particular emphasis to the deciding process. He was concerned that if he tossed something out, the memory might be lost forever. I think he may be right. If we discard our past or there is nobody to whom we can pass on the record of it, does it disappear? And if it disappears during our lifetime, what impact does that have on present-day us? In other words, how much of our present-day self is reliant on our past self? 

Do you ever think back to a year of your childhood and wonder how much of it is lost to memory? We forget much of our lives, because there is really no reason to remember that much of it. Journaling or keeping a diary is no guarantee we will hold a memory, because I have read some of the journals from the past and cannot remember living through what I wrote about. This makes me wonder something else: is memory what makes a life, or is it something altogether different? 

***

When I was in my 20's, I was trying rather hard to not be gay, or at least not to be thought of as gay, and a female friend of mine tried to help me with this doomed project. We decided that it would be best to discard any written evidence of the gay in my life: cards, letters, correspondence from men I had gone out with that I had kept as mementos (I think I wanted evidence of being loved). We gathered many of them up and threw them out a dressing room window in the dance studio where we both studied ballet (I know, right?). The window emptied into an alley that was closed off from the street. Anything that fell into that alley would probably stay there for eternity. 

I remember watching the letters and cards of my love life float down to the ground, and wondering if I were making a mistake by throwing away my (gay) history, the written memories of my romances. At the time I (we) thought we were doing the right thing. Today, I can say in hindsight that it was a mistake, because those cards and letters would have meaning to me now--they were a record of my emotional and sexual past, a roadmap to my adulthood. At the time, they were a record of a past I was trying to forget. 

The Madonna magazines were less a record of my past and more of a record of the past--a past that is accessible anywhere on the internet today. So letting go of them was really only letting go of a physical record. I can look up any of those magazine covers online at anytime. The magazines themselves have lost meaning to me--my identity is no longer influenced by how Madonna lives her life--I find meaning elsewhere these days. 

***

My partner has more trouble than I with letting go of things. In preparation for our move, I told him that I would go through his closet and toss anything "unnecessary". Not things he needs and wants, mind you, but items such as empty shoeboxes, for example. He objected to this proposal, telling me that "You never know when you are going to need a shoebox." While this may be true, I responded, "When you need one, I am sure we can find one." Today I threw out several of them while he was out of the apartment, sparing him witnessing the carnage. I also changed out his mismatched clothes hangers for ones that match, because if there is one thing I can control, it is whether or not the clothes hangers match. 

I take my wins where I can get them. 

His challenge with letting go of things seems to be different than mine. He is less concerned with losing memories, and perhaps more worried about having future regrets. In this regard we are certainly cut from different cloths--I have confidence in my ability to pivot in the future. He would rather make the right decision in the present moment. I feel that my skill is more useful for the world we live in today, but of course I am biased...and also right. Fortunately, there is room for two perspectives in our household. 

As long as I get to throw out the shoeboxes.  


Part 3: Keeping the IKEA shit

Who has not bought IKEA furniture? The trick to doing so successfully is to know what to get, and what not to get. Trust me, there is more of the latter, so perhaps that is more important to know. Over the years I have purchased items from the store, but not too many. I am one of those people who can walk into IKEA, take a carry basket rather than a care, and not actually fill it up. But of course I can't completely live without their products. I currently have some furniture items from IKEA that have been in my apartment for 20 years, and they still hold up, perhaps better than I. 

As my boyfriend and I prepare to move 3/4 of a mile away to a new and larger apartment, I decided that I would be taking the IKEA furniture I currently have with me: a large cube bookcase, and a dining room table with extensions and chairs. I decided that I want these items to last through one more apartment before I let them go. Our plan is to stay in this new place for a couple of years, then hopefully buy something in either San Diego or Portland. 

I don't know if this is a rule or not, but I will not be taking the IKEA shit to the place we buy. 

***

I know someone who has a few million dollars. Actually, I know a few people who have a few million dollars, but this is Los Angeles, so that is not unexpected. Anyway, one of the people I know who has a few million dollars told me that when he moves to his new home, he will not be furnishing it with anything from Pottery Barn. According to him, you cannot get good furniture at Pottery Barn, or at least not furniture good enough for a million-plus dollar home. If you want good furniture, you have to buy if from a custom store or from Europe. 

I see his point.

I wonder what he would think of my IKEA cube bookshelf and dining table with extensions? I wonder what he would think of my desk made with pressed wood, the one where the pressed wood is already peeling on the edges? 

I don't know what he would think about them, but I know what I think about them. They are what you buy when you don't have millions of dollars. They are what you buy when you are in an apartment instead of a million dollar house. 

I don't take great pride in the furniture I have, but I did take some pride in it back when I first purchased it, because it was mine, and I bought it new as opposed to getting it at a thrift store. Buying new furniture, at one time, was as important to me perhaps as it is to some people to buy quality pieces from Europe. I don't blame either of us one bit, not one bit. Don't we all do our best to make ourselves feel good in our homes? And we do it within our means. 

I am not ashamed of my long-lived IKEA pieces, because they represent the best I could do at the time, and they have served me well, and will continue to do so through one more apartment. Once we buy a place, I cannot promise that I will buy European furniture--I may in fact take a look at Pottery Barn, but you never know. What I do know is that it won't be a million dollar place, but that is just fine. For me, it is the same as I suspect it is with those who have a few million: we are both interested not in what it costs, but rather how well it will fit. 

It would, however, be nice to have a desk that does not peel on the edges.

***

For the apartment we are going to, I am keeping the IKEA shit. In my book, IKEA is fine for an apartment, but not for a home. I am aware that it may be different in your book, and I respect that. We are all entitled to have our own books. 


Part 4: Goodbye, cunt!

Have you ever wanted to call someone a cunt? If you have, I would imagine that you thought very carefully about doing so, because once you call someone a cunt, you cannot take it back. There is no way to "accidentally" call someone a cunt--it is an intentional affront in every instance of usage. I have thought about calling others cunt much more than I have actually done so, which is a good sign or a bad one. I am undecided. But I do wonder what it says about my life that there are people I consider to be cunts, without a sliver of doubt, in my world. 

What exactly makes someone a cunt? Well, they must be mean, and by mean I mean they don't care much about how others feel. But wait, there's more! To be a cunt, one must not only be mean, they must also feel justified in being so; in other words, they can't see their cuntiness because they are too busy playing victim. For these people there is no turning back from cuntitude, because they have already decided that they are right and the other is wrong, end of story

I like this passage  by Hannah Croft from this page that defines cunt compared to other words used to describe female genitalia: 

"While vagina describes part of the interior sexual organ, and vulva describes the exterior, the word cunt encompasses the whole thing – it’s the only word that describes the whole shebang. More than this, vagina literally means “sword sheath”, in other words, a “dick-passage”, so you could say cunt is actually the nicer and more anatomically correct word to use.

Semantically speaking cunt is simply the female equivalent of dick, as both are signifies for a sexual organ, and when you look at it like that the whole hoo-hah surrounding the use of cunt in conversation does seem somewhat strange."

It does seem strange, doesn't it?  

What's the difference between calling someone a "dick" and calling someone a "cunt"? I guess it depends on what country you are in. In the UK, cunt is used more frequently, mostly to indicate that someone is being a jerk, whereas in the U.S. the word is seen as reprehensible and offensive primarily to women. Perhaps, beyond the meaning ascribed by the receiver, the aggressiveness is because of the hard "c", which practically begs the user to spit out the word. Americans have a hard time with hard consonants, I notice. They generally prefer soft consonants, words like prayer, flower, and lasagna. The one exception is the word God, which is practically all hard consonants, but that does not seem to bother the fussybutts. Strange. I suspect that the hard consonants are the reason that so many scream out "Oh God!" during sex--it is a primal utterance! 

"Dick" has a hard "c", and is more acceptable in society, still I find it odd that so many insults are about labeling others as sexual organs. 

***

My "neighbor soon to be ex-neighbor", who is also a "tenant soon to be ex-tenant", is definitely a cunt extremis. She is mean to the core, and only cares about others feelings when she is being treated well, or when she is playing with other cunt-victims like herself. When she is not getting what she wants, she turns on you, fast. And when you call her on this, she feigns shock, as though her wonky brain cannot fathom her own bad behavior. She is a cunt. 

She has been a cunt, off and on, for the 20 years I have known her. When I first started managing this building, I remember she came over and knocked on the door, and demanded that I unlock the electric meter panel for the power company. I asked her why this needed to be done, and she replied, "You don't need to know, just do it!" I laughed at her and slammed the door. And there you have the root of cuntiness: entitlement. Entitlement is always, always, a coping mechanism enlisted in the task of protecting one against a fear of loss.

A couple years after the electric panel incident, the police were called on her when she dragged her then-boyfriend down the street a bit as he held onto the door of her car. He wisely flew the coop, never to be seen again. 

The sad part is that, for much of the time, the cunt and I were able to achieve a sort of d├ętente in our interactions. We greeted one another with pleasant words, and I did her favors like taking her packages in when she was away. But the civility was, in hindsight, condescending of her. She tolerated me because it worked for her to do so, until it didn't. 

Fortunately, I will never have to see her again after I leave Hudson, and hopefully I will think of her less and less. There are too many people like her out there, the funcional mentally disordered, who act like toddlers throwing tantrums but in fact are far more dangerous. The neighbor hides her cuntiness behind the veil of "social justice warrior", which justifies her meanness, because, after all, she is fighting for the oppressed! The problem is, I don't think she really cares about anyone but herself. I suspect she only helps the oppressed as a way to validate her cunty ways. 

There are so many things I would like to tell her, but I won't, because I am invested in my peace of mind at the moment more than I am invested in disturbing hers. But if I did tell her things, I most certainly would tell her that she is a cunt. The cuntiest of cunts. The Cunt Queen. Cuntilia of Cuntsville. A cunt through and through.

I am moving away and moving on. She will have to wake up to the reality of herself for the rest of her days, and I can't imagine that makes for many pleasant mornings. No matter. I am leaving Hudson, and her, behind. 

Goodbye, cunt.


Part 5: Hello Mansfield


The grass is rarely "greener" on the other side, but one could not be faulted for hoping it is at least green. That is all I want with this move. Anything more will be "gravy", as they say. Green gravy. 

The other day I had to speak with the manager of our new apartment because the electricity had not yet been turned on. A technician from the power company was there, and the manager called to assure me that all was good. But wait. He then handed the phone to the technician so that I could speak with him. "Hello", I said, "do we have juice?" (I was trying to sound cool.) He responded that there would be juice in about two minutes. 

But wait. The manager got back on and asked if they could go into the apartment to "test" the lights. I agreed to this plan. But wait. He called me back from inside the apartment and assured me that the lights were, in fact, now working when turned on. He then wanted to put me back on the phone with the technician to "thank him again". In the background, I heard the technician say, "Tell him that all is good and to have a nice weekend." That poor technician! 

But wait. The manager then proceeded to reiterate why it was the right decision for me to take the apartment, because with him as manager, I will be "safe" there. He then told me for the millionth time that he trusts me and I am a good guy and a "gentleman". He continued on until it started to wear on me, and I finally had to say to him that I had to go.

But wait. Earlier in the week, I got a text from him that said, "Do you miss me?" I assumed he was thinking he had texted another person, but it concerned me nonetheless since it came to my phone. I responded, "Excuse me?", after which he then called me to profusely apologize for sending it by mistake. I tried to ease his discomfort by joking, "You probably thought you were texting your girlfriend!", and we both had a good laugh. Ha ha ha!

New street, new apartment, new nonsense. At least the nonsense at the new place amuses me. I prefer amusement to annoyance.

***

I have never been a fan of "starting over". While I understand the romance of thinking that way, it's a fool's illusion. We can't start over! But we can change directions and head toward a new destination. Though I am only moving 3/4 mile away, I am hoping that it will be a huge change in direction for me. In fact, I am counting on it. There is no way I would have put myself though the difficulty of moving if I thought it would be otherwise. 

One thing that eased the difficulty of the move was when I just pretended that instead of moving, I was  doing a "deep cleaning". 

***

I have always had a certain confidence about changing directions. I feel very fortunate in this regard. I have read that some people, especially those with certain types of Attention Deficit Disorder, have no confidence in changing directions. Where I see fresh possibilities and the ability to adjust course if needed, they often see only negative outcomes and the potential for regret. Had I been born with a mind that worked this way, there is little chance I would have had the life I've had, because my life has been all about changing directions with confidence. 

Wherever I go, I find a way to make it work. And wherever I am, I will stay as long as I can make it work. Hudson has not been working for me for a long time. Mansfield Ave., you're up. 

***

It is perfectly okay to walk away from a situation that is not serving you anymore. But walking away is only half of the action--walking toward is the other half. I have walked away from stress, walked away from judgement, from guilt, from disrespect, walked away from being treated as a means rather than an ends. I have walked toward peace of mind and greater control over who takes up my time. And all it took was three months of hard fucking work and a shift 3/4 of a mile northwest. 

Sometimes the biggest moves are just 3/4 of a mile away. 

I wonder, at times, if my desire to keep moving in some way is caused by a fear of death or a zest for life. As I write that, I realize that a true zest for life can only spring from a healthy fear of death. Fear of death does not have to mean a literal fear of dying--it could mean a fear of not living anymore. The difference is that the former is about avoidance, and likely rooted in the future, while the latter is about embracement, and rooted in the present moment. 

When one is embracing the present, regardless of what is happening, why would you want life to end? Even in painful moments, there is an aliveness to present experience when experienced in the present. This cannot be done when one is dead, obviously. 

Perhaps my desire to move from Hudson is a little bit of both fear and zest. Perhaps. Now that I think about it, maybe saying goodbye is always both fear and zest. Maybe. I don't mind a bit of fear as long as there is some zest in the mix. 

Saying goodbye. I have done this before, and I will likely do it again. I have said goodbye to the Naval Academy, Starbucks, my brother Mark, my niece Summer, my cousin Patty, and others. It is perfectly okay to say goodbye when you are not treated well. Goodbye, Hudson. Goodbye, Madonna magazines. Goodbye, cunt. 

Hello, Mansfield. 

ANTIDOTES TO FEAR OF DEATH
by Rebecca Elson

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

A Dining Room fit for dinner parties

Home.


Sunday, May 2, 2021

Time After Time


In 1983, I was 22 years old, and living in San Diego, CA. I often think about times in the last century when I would have liked to have been 22 other than the time when I actually was 22, and it usually narrows down to the following years: 1922, 1950, 1960, and 1979. I have selected years where, at the age of 22, I would have avoided the drafts for wars that were occurring around those times, while still enjoying major cultural shifts. The exception to this of course is 1979 and the War with AIDS. There is no way to have reveled in the glorious glow of the Sexual Revolution/Gay Rights Movement/Disco Era without intersecting with that crisis, but I think, I think, that it would have been worth it. With COVID-19, most people who die have little to show for their suffering, whereas if you succumbed to AIDS in the early 80's, you could at least say that you had danced like a motherfucker

1983 would have definitely been on the list even if I had not been 22 at the time. It was simply a banner year in many ways. For one thing, it was a bit easier to avoid AIDS in 1983 as a 22 year-old because I came of age late enough to adjust my sexual behavior in response to the horrors around me. Had I been born just a few years sooner, I doubt this would have been the case. 

For this essay though, the main reason it was a banner year is because of the music that was released. In 1983 we enjoyed first albums by Madonna, REM, and Cyndi Lauper. I could stop right there, but in addition there were superb new albums by David Bowie, U2, R.E.M., The Police, The Talking Heads, Eurythmics, and so many more. The previous year, 1982, was when pop music embraced New Wave so much that many feel that the 80's, at least how we think of them musically, did not actually begin until 1982. Though both disco and New Wave were danceable, the latter emerged from the punk scene of the 70's, while disco came from the black, gay, and European underground dance club scene. 

While I was enamored by Madonna at the time (like everyone else), one could not ignore the impact and raw talent of Cyndi Lauper, who released her debut album She's So Unusual. Unlike Madonna, who was sexy and confident, Lauper played the other side of the hipness coin: the freaky outsider. She played it to perfection because she was not playing. Madonna was a freaky outsider as well, but her beauty and fashion sense won her entrance into the accepted crowd, so much so that she took over the room, changed it, and ruled it, whereas Lauper was forever the one screaming her head off in the parking lot. Her saving grace is that she screamed really, really well, so well that she drew a crowd, and along the way she showed them that she could also whisper. That whisper is well utilized on the ending of her iconic song "Time After Time", which became Lauper's very first number-one single. 

Since 1983, "Time After Time" has never truly left pop culture, or the culture in general. A song added as an afterthought to the album has since become unforgettable, recognized all over the world as a soulful expression of patience, the yearning cry of one who has no choice but to watch their lover struggle, recognizing that the struggle is not theirs. What greater love is there than to attend to another's pain despite the pain one feels themselves? 

I remember that when the song was first released, I did not think that much of it. I was much more into the quirky danceability of She Bop or the melodic romance of All Through The Night. To me these were masterpieces because they spoke of masturbation and in-the-moment romance, two of my favorite pastimes in 1983. But nobody is really singing either of these songs in 2021. What did I know? 

***

Currently, my partner and I manage a small residential apartment building of 16 units. In the middle of March, one of our tenants, a kind elderly woman who has been a resident for over 30 years, committed suicide in her apartment. She turned on the gas from the stove, tied some plastic around her neck to constrict her airway, and then got into her filled bathtub, fully clothed, knowing that once she passed out from the gas she would slip under the water and quietly drown, ensuring her death. I was working offsite that day, and when alerted by another tenant that there was a smell of gas in the stairwell, I sent my partner over to investigate. He ended up breaking open the door to get past the chain lock, and that is when he and the other tenant found the body. 

She was already dead by several hours. but that did not stop my partner, who is training to be a nurse, from checking her for a pulse and trying to lift her water-logged body out of the water. He could not do so, her body was already too saturated to lift easily. Eventually, the police and paramedics arrived, and they took over, and my partner frantically messaged me about what happened--messages I received in between client sessions. 

I consoled him as best I could in the moment, put my own shock in a "container", and showed up for my clients for the rest of the day.

***

Death is never the end, at least not for those who are still living. It will be months before I, as the building manager, can even begin to deal with the apartment my tenant left behind, because I am required by law to wait until contacted by either family or an executor of her estate. In the event that neither happen, then we are required to store her belongings in the rare case that one of her family show up in the future to claim belongings. In the meantime, for the next three years I will have to inform any prospective tenants, if they ask, that someone died by suicide in the apartment. That should be a draw!

My partner, in the meantime, continues to experience the aftershocks of finding a bloated dead body in the middle of a Saturday morning right before his final exams week. I cannot even imagine what he is going through, or what it was like for him to find her cold, heavy corpse. He told me that he was glad that she was floating face down in the water so that he did not have to see her face. I would take the experience from him in a fucking second, because I have 30 years of resilience and life on him, and I would rather be the one holding the memory and the pain. But I can't do that, no matter how much I want to. He has to hold it himself, while I watch and get ready to catch him should he fall.

"If you're lost you can look and you will find me,

Time after time.

If you fall, I will catch you, I will be waiting,

Time after time."

"Time After Time" is a song about wanting to ease the suffering of a loved one. Who has not felt such a desire? It could be called "love" to take on the suffering of others, but it isn't really. It's selfish in a way--while also being a certain form of caring. Real love is about trust, and belief in the tenacity of the beloved. Real love knows that suffering is bearable because it is washed through the body by sadness: the emotion that kneads a heart into beating again. Real love holds, it does not take. Real love does not bear another's sadness, instead it bears witness. Real love has faith in the beloved's ability to move through pain; real love cushions, but does not stop, the fall. 

Death comes to us all--this is not news to anyone (except those who live in Los Angeles), and yet when it comes it often feels like a poorly planned surprise to everyone involved. Surprise: life ends! (At least for the one who has died.) While many would rather not think about such things, it is the thinking about such things that makes life worth living in my book (and in the book of Existentialists, among others). 

The concept of there being time after time seems to reference the present (time) and the past (after time). It says nothing about a future that is uncertain--merely the implication that time will continue on and on, repeating itself. But if the '80's taught me anything, it is that time rarely repeats itself; rather than time after time", more often it is "time, and new time, and more time, but different". This certainly would not make a good pop song title, and takes nothing away from Lauper's timeless tune, it simply differentiates between those who take their lives and those who choose to stay and live (and bear suffering). 

Suicide is an example of the misguided interpretation of time after time--the belief that death will somehow "catch you if you fall". Newsflash: it doesn't! Life, on the other hand, is an example of time and time: the moments that ebb and flow from suffering to joy, dark to light, despair to love. Romantic notions may lead to great pop songs where relationship breakups are seen as the Hero's Journey, but they do not, in themselves, lead to a great life. 

Suicide is a fake Hero's Journey, the false conclusion that death will somehow redeem all, when in fact it just creates a bigger fucking mess. What my partner did that day was not courage but love--he acted, I suspect, from the knowledge that once you are dead there is no getting back up. You can only do that when you are still alive. He acted hoping that he could help the old woman get back up. He was, by no fault of his own, too late, and so he suffers now. And yet if anything was to be born from this death, it is my greater love for him as a result of his actions, and the knowledge and conviction that I will live to catch him if he falls. 

Lest you think I have no compassion for the old woman, let me assure you that I do. She was always kind to me, and generous in her appreciation for what I did as building manager. I had no clue that she was suffering, if in fact she was. But I can be upset at those I care for when they do things that create a mess for me to clean up. And in case you need further proof that I am not a monster, cleaning up her mess is my continued caring for her despite my upset. 

***

Cyndi Lauper does a surprising thing in her hit song--she cuts the title phrase short--twice, uttering "Time after..." rather than all three words. On first listen it is easy to dismiss this as artistic license, until you realize that she also ends the song this way. 

As I write this essay, our world is on the verge of figuring out what the "time after" will look like, even though we are still in the suffering of a pandemic. As I said earlier, when one says "time after time", they are implying that something will repeat itself, over and over again. But in our current case, we cannot rely on this implication. The "time after" may look like nothing that has come before, so can we still call it "time after time"? 

As I get older, I have fewer time after times than when I was a young man. I realize that death, when it comes, will introduce a whole new category of "time after", altering the meaning of time after time from "over and over" to "life after life". The time after my death may indeed be more time, but it will be time without me. That never really mattered that much to me until I got into a relationship I cherish. Now I think about what my partner's time after me will look like.

My dead tenant did not seem to give much thought to "time after", so now I have to give thought to it, unfortunately. I shouldn't have to do this, because her time (life) was not mine. And yet here we are. In my life today, I am focused on making choices for the time after so that my partner benefits from his time with me in the time after me. His time after me will still have plenty of me in it, if I have any say in the matter. 

But...I am not there yet. I still have time after time, or so I suppose. I still have time. Time after...

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Milkshake


This post was written about activities and thoughts that occurred on 5/3/2020.

The boyfriend wanted to get a Cookies and Cream milkshake from Fatburger today, so that was the plan. I thought that as long as we were going there, I might as well get one too, but I decided on "Banana" flavor. Call me crazy.

These are the days when it takes just one activity to complete our "to-do" list, especially on Sundays. I will admit that, on occasion, the Sunday "to-do" list has no activities at all; this admission comes without guilt, because, well, Sunday. So this Sunday I was excited to have a activity on the list, even if that activity consisted of only one mission.

What is it about milkshakes that make them so appealing? Do I even need to explain it to you? Give me anything with ice cream and all discernment is tossed out the window. Milkshakes are a treats you can enjoy either with a meal, or on their own. If you choose to have a meal with it, the contents are not up for discussion. It must be either a hamburger or a hot dog (preferably a hamburger!), and if you respect tradition, french fries. Milkshake appeal does not migrate beyond these items for good reason--once you find the perfect match, don't fuck with it.
***
Milkshakes are often tied to one's childhood--they carry a nostalgic element in that many happy memories either began or ended with a milkshake. When I think of my childhood, milkshakes were like a kid's version of an orgasm; they were the best thing in the world at the time, and each time you had one it was like your first. Not that they were sexual, they were just perfect, every time, like a mother's hug after you fall down or running naked in a warm summer rain.

Perhaps we all have nostalgia for treats from childhood. Isn't childhood best viewed through nostalgia's lens? In reality, being a child is not that great--though we may remember it as a time of unfettered freedom, the truth is that our enjoyment was often cut off at the knees, and there wasn't a damn thing we could do about it. This is because our freedom, if you could call it that, was without responsibility--that was held by our parents. Our freedom was not free. So maybe it wasn't actually freedom at all then?

***
Freedom is a firecracker topic these days, and for good reason. I notice that many of those fighting for it have no real idea what it is. They think they do, but what they really imagine it to be is the child's version of freedom: without responsibility. This country was supposedly founded on the idea of freedom of expression, but when you read between the lines, it was more like freedom of approved expression, or freedom of my expression but not yours. We see this going on today on both the left and the right, sadly, so it is not a partisan issue.

The truth is that freedom of expression means exactly that--whether you agree with or like what is being expressed or not. As long as the expression is not threatening to anyone, the sky's the limit! I find it interesting that the only time one is held responsible for the effects of their expression is when the expression is a threat in some way--otherwise you have to clean your own wounds. The bigger problem is that the ones doing the expressing rarely take any responsibility for their words, even when threatening, while holding others responsible for theirs. Conditional freedom.

In a world where the norm is to let yourself off the hook, I have to ask myself: Why I have spent a lifetime feeling guilty?

***
The founders of the country were trying to escape tyranny, which is admirable, but there really is no perfect system of government, is there? That's because governments are created and run by people. The Constitution is a groundbreaking document is because its writers knew this about governments, and about people, and necessary checks and balances were put into place to keep any one person from having too much power. It was a bold experiment back then and continues to be so--can we let the people have personal freedom while safeguarding them with laws that limit the same?

Ideally, yes. But the problem today is that this idea assumes that the people being governed are adults, not children. Children, on the other hand, are to be governed by the adults. What could go wrong?

Here is what went wrong. The people who run the government became more interested in their own well-being than the well-being of the people, leaving the people to choose between parenting well and making a living. Children left without parenting have to parent themselves, and we all know what happens when that happens: no regulation, no limits, no boundaries, no restrictions. Children not only don't want those things, they also lack the ability to self-administer them until a certain age. And when they never get those things they grow into adults who continue to think and behave like children, wanting freedom without taking or holding responsibility for their actions.

Today, adult children are having tantrums because they want to go to the beach in Southern California, which, by the way, I do understand. The weather is gorgeous. We have been cooped up for nearly two months due to COVID-19. We are an active society here, with fitness being more important than god (as it should be!). But the truth is that we can't go to the beach yet, because it is not safe. It is not safe for those who go or for the people they then are around. It is not safe--and the science backs this up.

Adults can understand this. Adults, functional ones at least, understand that sometimes we don't get to do what we want to do, don't get to have what we want to have, don't get to say what we want to say. There are no restrictions on what you think, so go wild in that area if you want, but restrictions in the other areas are in place for one reason only: we live among others. And when you live among others, there is a shared responsibility for one another. Don't believe me? Try zipping through a red light next time you are driving and see what happens.



I have always wondered why traffic lights are one rare area where people mostly cooperate with each other, and I think the reason is because if you don't, the effects are immediate and potentially tragic. By contrast, going to the beach seems harmless, doesn't it? And yet the science of this virus tells us that a whole new cluster of COVID infections could result from just one infected person coming into contact with others on a leisurely walk on the boardwalk. It just doesn't happen in your immediate awareness, and you probably wouldn't know those who become infected. But what if the tables were turned, and you did know those who were affected by your behavior? What if they were your family? Would that be enough to make someone rethink their need to go to the beach?

It should, of course, but it shouldn't have to come to this. It should matter if other people become affected by our choices simply because they are other people. To adults, this should matter, not just because it is morally right, but because it is right right and how a civil society works. In a civil society, though there are differences in beliefs and opinions, people share responsibility for one another's well-being, since they see themselves as part of a culture, not just an individual taking what they can take. This is freedom with responsibility, and this is what the bozos wanting to go to the beach don't realize--that they are chasing a false form of freedom--a freedom that exists at the cost of others'. Sometimes, even children know that this is not a good way to behave--so what's our excuse?

The excuse is not that people don't care (though some don't), but that our culture is dysfunctional (the reason some don't care), and for many the only way to win in the short term is as a lone individual; this is understandable (but sad) because it perpetuates the dysfunction. I am not interested in winning while others lose if I can help it (though I admit that sometimes I do, because I am white, male, educated, tall, and privileged), so I make an effort, with my own choices and behavior,  to influence the culture to change. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, but I never lose sight of the world I want to live in, or the world I want to share with others.

***
My values are solid not because they are better than yours, but because they are internally rather than externally sourced--I occasionally veer from them because they can be externally influenced. This is why it is important to surround yourself with people who support your values. One of the reasons I am with my boyfriend is because we support each other's values (mostly) and each other's vision of a more functional society (completely). We make each other better. But when it comes to milkshakes, one could debate if we are aligning with our values or veering from them. Sometimes the answer is not so clear cut!

Dairy products are controversial because of the effect of dairy farms on the environment. The plastic cups and straws our shakes came in, as well as the plastic lids, were thrown into the trashcan where they will likely go to a landfill and last forever. In this respect our choice to have milkshakes was not a responsible choice, or one we even had to be responsible for, and we knew this. We still chose to get them because we will not get milkshakes for the rest of the year, and because it is nearly impossible to not have a negative effect on something with every choice you make if you live in a city, and because we normally make sustainable choices, and, well, because we wanted them. In other words, even though we wanted a childhood treat, we choose as adults, aware of the pros and cons, accepting both, recognizing that the norm is more important than the exceptions. We tried to choose responsibly, given the choices available for those wanting milkshakes while out and about. I admit it was not perfect by a long shot.

Sometimes this is the best we can do, isn't it? And sometimes we can do better. The goal is not perfection, but awareness, effort, and conscious choice. The goal is to be a functional adult. And functional adults realize that true freedom comes with responsibility, or it ain't freedom, it ain't freedom at all.

***


This morning, on an early morning bike ride, I rode past a man in a wheelchair sweeping debris out of the curb on Figueroa Street in Highland Park. He was an older man, though I didn't get a clear look at his face, and he had a small kitchen broom and one of those handle dustpans that usually connect to the broom so that you don't lose either (or you lose both). Figueroa Street is a major artery, not a quiet residential street, and I wondered why he was "bothering" with this task. But as I passed by him I suddenly got it, or at least I think I did, and I shouted out "Looks good!" and gave him a thumbs up.

What I "got" is that he was doing what he could to create a world he prefers to live in, one where the curbs are clean and where we all pitch in to keep them that way. I also suspect that, given his disability, this was something that he could do, and that it gave him a sense of purpose and importance, both of which can be elusive for older folks with disabilities. Regardless of whether his intention was along these lines or not, he has no way of knowing that he influenced me. He reminded me that anyone can choose to act as though their choices affect others (responsibly). He reminded me that when we create purpose for ourselves, others can benefit. He reminded me that small actions add up to big change. He reminded me that sometimes a clean curb is the best we can do, but also the beginnings of a larger culture shift. He didn't have to sweep the curb, but I suspect that he did it because he still recognizes that he is a part of a shared world, a shared world that includes other people.

I rode on down Figueroa St., but could not stop thinking about the man in the wheelchair. I hope that if I ever find myself in the position of being older, possibly in a wheelchair, that I will make the choice of rolling out to the street and sweeping up the curb. I realize that the chances of that happening depend on my choosing freedom with responsibility, more often than not, starting today.

The day after the boyfriend and I drank our milkshakes, he told me that his stomach was "messed up", and that he would not be having another milkshake for at least a year. I felt badly for him, but I also admired his willingness to have the milkshake and accept responsibility for the consequences and choose accordingly rather than pretending that a creamy sugary drink would be good for his stomach. But sometimes, the upside is worth the downside, isn't it? At least if you are willing to take personal responsibility for the downside. The next time we want a milkshake, though, I think I will make them at home, in the blender, and put them in frosty glasses, sans straws. It's a start, I suppose--a start toward making sure my curb is swept clean.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

I TAKE PRIDE


I should not be alive. The first time I should have died was when I was in the womb and only 8 months old. My four-year old sister had just tragically died of pneumonia and my mother went into shock, refusing to eat. If you don't already know this, the time to stop eating is NOT when you are eight months pregnant. It is amazing that I did not die as well at the time, leaving my family with not just one, but two horrible tragedies.

I lived, and was born, and I found a way to thrive, against all odds as they say, by learning to "take care of myself". I probably had my first chance to build this skill on the day I was born.

The second time I should have died was when I was fifteen, and I realized that I was attracted to boys and not girls. Because of my Catholic upbringing, this realization was cause for panic rather than celebration, because being gay meant sure hellfire. I suffered from a depression that I could not talk to anyone about. Music is what got me through.

I lived, and I found a way to thrive, because when all was said and done I didn't want to die. I liked life, I just didn't like how others were defining it for me. So I decided to define it for myself.

Today, at the age of 56, I celebrate World Pride Day and Stonewall 50 by taking pride in who I have become. But I did not become me by myself. I found my people and they lifted me up, and continue to this day. Among them are Carla Stephens, Melani Lust, Eric Rosenblatt, Barry Schwartz, Andrew Tee, David P Organisak, Teresa Onstott, Marta Garza, Zuniga Gloria, and of course Keshav Tyagi. Without them and many others I have lost touch with (Michael, Connie, that Protestant minister at the Naval Academy who understood why I needed to leave), I am not sure I would feel very proud of who I am.

So for a little boy who learned to rely on nobody for anything, I take pride in allowing others in. I take pride in opening the door to them, even if they had to knock for days sometimes. I take pride in pushing against the beliefs of my childhood in order to forge a value system that is real to me, not a relic. I take pride in not destroying the lives of those who have loved me. I take pride in completing graduate school with my own money and my own determination. I take pride in being gay in my own way, by being a man who can cry but also fight for what he believes in. I take pride in loving those who still live in fear. I take pride in surviving an epidemic. I take pride in my beautiful queer community who have offered me multiple examples of how to celebrate my differences. I take pride in loving a man today who refused to give up on me. I take pride in what I do and what I do for others.

I make things beautiful--those who know me know this. It is my way of feeling safe in the world and my way of showing love. I did get this from my mother, who, in the midst of crushing grief and guilt, was still able to create a beautiful home for her tiny queer baby boy. That is what she was capable of doing at the time. It is perhaps the greatest gift she gave me--she showed me a way to love when it seemed there was no reason to do so.

Happy World Pride, Mom. Happy World Pride, everyone. We are all a little bit queer. Fall in love with that this summer. Take pride.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

"You Ruin Everything"


"You ruin everything".

I was told this time and time again as a teenager. This accusation continues to influence my approach to life to this day.

***
In his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck, Mark Manson specifies that an unhealthy relationship boundary exists if one person holds another person responsible for how they feel. Conversely, it is also an unhealthy boundary if we take responsibility for another's feelings. Why might this be a cornerstone of his book? Because when there is an unhealthy boundary in a relationship, it always results in disaster. There is no more self-defeating exercise than to hold ourselves accountable for what we have little to no control over, or when we insist that another is responsible for what they have no control over. Trust me on this--I have been testing this theory over the last 40 years of my life.

Here is the thing about feelings--are you ready? We choose our goddamn feelings. Nobody can make us feeling anything, no matter how important a role they have in our lives. It looks like this: someone does something, we have a thought about it, and a feeling follows. Notice that the middle-man of the process is how we think about what happens. Our thoughts drive our feelings, unless, of course, someone punches you in the face. In that case pain drives our feelings. But the majority of the time nobody is punching us in the face. Instead, they are saying or doing things that cause us to think poorly about ourselves.

***
I was labeled "emotional" and "sensitive" as a kid. Mind you, those labels were not complimentary at the time. In my therapy practice, I see couples come in where the woman is often labeled "over-emotional", and I am quick to tell the man that a woman is NEVER over-emotional--she is in fact feeling appropriate feelings regarding what has been triggered in her. My emotionalism as a teenager was rooted in a fear of abandonment--I thought that if my parents knew who I really was (gay) they would not love me anymore. I was wrong, of course, they would always love me, but they certainly were disappointed in how I "turned out". Isn't that a laugh?

Conditional love is still love, unless the conditions are about who the other person is instead of what you can or can't live with.

As a teen, I felt lost and scared. My homosexuality went against everything I was taught about how be loved and how to get into Heaven. It went against everything I learned about how to live a good life and be a good person. I had such a hard time understanding why I was cursed with this perversion--and I had nobody to talk to about it. This led to depression and acting out--as a teenager sex with men made me feel, for a short while, like I was in fact lovable. But when my family found out that (gasp) I was attracted to men, the shit hit the fan. I was emotionally abandoned by both my parents. My father escaped into alcoholism (for which I was blamed), and my mother escaped into denial. My brother just escaped, and he continues to escape reality to this day with his embrace of Mormonism (he would not agree with this assessment, which is just another form of escape).

I specifically remember a phone conversation with my brother when I was 18 years old and in my first year at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. He told me that I was to blame for the family's problems, including my father's drinking; he told me that I had ruined everything. And I believed him, because I had been taught that my desires were selfish and unnatural, evil and predatory, and that the only way to honor my family was to deny who I was (resist the Devil).

My brother was wrong about me, he was wrong about my father's drinking, and he was wrong about life.

***
Gay men like sucking dick. Sometimes they like fucking ass, or being fucked. What is the problem with that? Seriously? In this world, there is so little pleasure to be found at times--mostly because our economy depends on us feeling shitty about ourselves, so who could fault anyone for trying to feeling good? Don't you want to feel good?

The problem with religion is that it has criminalized feeling good, labeling pleasure as the "devil's work". What is wrong with wanting to feel good? Religion has flourished by turning suffering into a virtue, at the expense of, well, nearly everything. Pleasure is not the devil's work, y'all. You know what is? Fear.

Fear is what keeps us from making bad decisions at times, but it is also what keeps us from realizing our full potential as humans. I know many good people who are religious, but their goodness is limited by a forced value system that is archaic and juvenile. What is wrong with sucking a dick? I implore you to convince me of the wrongness of that. Certainly the men who are on the receiving end of a dick sucking would be hard pressed to argue against it. While we need fear, we also need to choose despite fear at times, as these choices can lead us to transformation.

When I was a teenager, I just wanted to love and be loved, but fear told me that if I acted on these impulses, I would ruin everything.

***
I was making a pizza with my boyfriend recently, using a pizza peel I had just purchased. I put flour on the peel so that the pizza would slide onto the pizza stone easily, or so I thought. But it didn't slide easily. In fact, it didn't move at all. I found myself in a panic, not knowing how to get a BBQ Chicken Pizza from the wood peel onto the stone, and I was triggered into feeling that I had "ruined everything". In other words, I started to lose it. Fortunately, my boyfriend sensed my distress and came to the rescue, helping me move the pizza onto a sheet pan where it would bake into a crunchy goodness, and I was able to return to the present moment and ease my upset.

I have to do things perfectly--many of my friends know this. Fortunately, there are many things that I do nearly perfectly, but in the rare case where I am challenged in my perfectionism, I am triggered into feeling that I have "ruined everything".

I am tired of feeling that way. I do not have the power to ruin everything. I never did.

***
My parents, as loving as they were, failed me in many ways. I never ruined things--I was simply becoming myself in a way that they were not familiar with. What was being "ruined" was the way they were brought up to think about parenting--that it is an activity undertaken to reinforce prevailing values. I got news for you--it is so not that! Parenting is a noble act in that it is an opportunity to foster a blooming individual into a world that is constantly changing.

You know what I love about tulips? You never know in what direction they are going to reach. I love putting them in a vase and watching them stretch and strive for the sun--wherever it is. Children are like that--we never know in what direction they will thrive, but with our guidance they will find their way to the sun. The role of parents is to protect and shepard, not to proscribe. Shame on you parents who proscribe! You are serving yourself and not your children!

I found my way to the sun, but not without many attempts by the world to cut me down. My parents didn't try to cut me down, they just stopped watering me. They had an unhealthy boundary with me, holding me responsible for their fear. So I found sustenance in other wayward tulips.

I am still reaching toward the sun.

***
It is time I put to bed the notion that I can ruin everything, because I want to be human in the world and with my boyfriend. I do not wish to take responsibility for how he feels, nor hold him responsible for how I feel. I want, instead, to take responsibility for my choices and feelings, with the hope that I will be motivated by respect and love, knowing that at times I will choose, appropriately, myself over him.

We will get the pizza onto the stone, together, and it will be crunchy and delicious, if not perfectly shaped. Sometimes it will stick to the peel, and that is okay. It is okay. It is okay. It will still be wonderful, not ruined at all. Even if it is not perfect.


Saturday, May 4, 2019

21 More Observations

1. You cannot claim "getting married and having children" as an accomplishment if efforts toward those goals are limited to fucking someone.

2. If I can get through the day on only three Ibuprofen, I consider myself to be faring rather well.

3. Being "up to" a relationship is just fine, but not fine in itself.

4. I suspect that reblogging is not as productive an activity as some would like to think.

5. Talking about sex is unsexy only if you are not actually talking about sex.

6. My problem with the general public is that it is both general, and public.

7. The problem with living such long lives is that we have short-life thinking.

8. I refuse to let anyone with an addiction to food tell me what I can and cannot put in my mouth during sex.

9. I am convinced that a sign of maturity is knowing when the story you have to tell is of no interest to anyone else in the room.

10. I worry about people whose range of expressive emotions is limited to "frustration".

11. More often than not I actually buy it when Jennifer Lopez plays "regular women" in films.

12. I shudder to think of the day when "being an asshole" is the only reasonable response to modern culture.

13. The way I see it, in a cost-benefit analysis, veganism is sorely lacking in the latter.

14. Any attempt to reason with toddlers, the fervently religious, or those who are mentally unstable is likely doomed to fail for the exact same reason.

15. I would like to think that my giving up on The Walking Dead is a demonstration of healthy boundaries.

16. When I judge people it is often the result of knowing both too much and too little about them.

17. Wearing a crown on my head doesn't make me a king, but that is of little consequence.

18. Becoming an "entertainer" requires more than just talent.

19. When you buy a $4.99 bottle of wine, you get a $4.99 bottle of wine.

20. I think I may be more attractive in theory than in context.

21. The benefits of religion are like the benefits of red wine; they can all be found elsewhere in places where damage to self and others does not occur.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Ruth Margie


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Heart of Resolution


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get off the phone. 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clean up your mess. 

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

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

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