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Grace

Last week I wrote about Valentine’s from an habitually single guy’s perspective.

Not surprisingly, I got a lot responses in commiseration with my “tragic” fate, but I also got a lot of advice.  My friend Skip pointed out something that got me to thinking.  We are culturally obsessed with sex and love.  Which movie/song/insert-form-of-popular-entertainment-here isn’t about this topic? It is, in fact, my belief that ALL human endeavor finds its origin here.  War, art, philosophy, politics, social unrest, sports, on the job excellence and scholastic achievement each spring from these most basic desires.

Maybe I’m overstating, but not by much.  If you were told you’d never ever get laid or kissed or loved, no matter what you did, ever, would you go to work, do a good job, hit the gym, watch your weight, overthrow the government so you could be king or at least hang out with him and those hot courtesans? Really? The people who flew planes into the World Trade Center did it for the virgins.

So, I was thinking, if this desire runs this deep in our clever species, how vast must the mating industry be?

The list of self-help, web-based, spiritual, magical, matchmaker, mail order, dating service, 900 number, seminar, individual, color-me-mine mating options I can think of is infinite.  Aside from numbers – you know counting from 1 into the zillions – dating catalyst options are the only other concept of infinity that my tiny mind can contain.  And, I live in California, so the fringier psychic, herb, Wiccan spectrum of options are still more available.

As I considered all of these possibilities two things occurred to me.  Of course my first thought was what a great book or documentary following these paths would make.  There would be no shortage of material and, who knows? It might just work.  What also came to mind as I thought about the project was another concept, perhaps not infinite, but certainly vast.

Grace.

We don’t take grace into account much in our instant, drive thru, Blackberry, iPod, download, online, Wi-Fi world.  Destiny is within our grasp and control.  As we become more and more the masters of our tiny universe, grace seems rather old hat.

Webster’s says grace is “unmerited divine assistance” and that, to my way of thinking, better describes the world than any other theory.  Before you dismiss me as some religious nut, think of this.  If, in fact, hard work and merit decide the outcome of human affairs, how do we account for the rise of some of the more odious among us? Are all the stars in Hollywood or Washington, DC there because they are the best, brightest and most talented? Are the best sellers the best written? Are the most loveable the ones who get the best mates?

How many talented, adorable, photogenic kids posted videos of themselves singing and playing musical instruments on YouTube and how many got to be Justin Beiber?

I’m not saying Justin does or does not deserve to be there, but I think it’s worth observing, why him?

My answer would be grace.  I’m more a great spirit, collective unconscious, haven’t-got-a-clue kind of guy than an organized religion guy, so I’m not trying to explain grace.  I’m just saying that I think grace should be factored into the equation as I try to affect destiny through my own puny efforts.

Affairs of the heart seem a particularly vivid example of the power of grace to shape our lives.

Let’s say I picked up a copy of How to Git Hitched.  I followed the examples, I did the exercises, I used the techniques and now I’m married.  Conclusion: Reading How to Git Hitched caused me to git hitched.  Or, I signed up for the website, I filled out the questionnaire, I posted a profile following the guidelines and now I’m living in iHarmony.  But what if I did all those things – and believe me I have – and I didn’t git iHitched? What then?

Using the non-grace based model, the only possible conclusion is that I’m to blame.  I followed the fool proof Git Hitched five steps to bliss and I spent my 52nd Valentine’s Day solo.  That must mean I’m too ugly or unlovable or incompetent to be in a relationship.  And yet as I look around me in the world, there are plenty of married hideous, hateful, incompetents.

Unobserved, my experience of life encourages me to believe that I’m causing my life to work out the way it does.  I believe that the raise and the promotion I got were entirely based on my job performance.  Everyone else, who didn’t get the same raise and promotion, just wasn’t as good or as deserving as me.  Remember the CEO of BP? He got promoted to that job at some point.

Cause and effect is tricky when it comes to human life.  I wore these socks and my team won.  Ergo, these are my lucky socks.  Right? How about, I wore these socks and my mom died.  Evil socks?  Not so much, right? But if I’m causing the good things to happen, I have to be causing the bad ones, too.  If I did it, every blessing becomes a curse and a fearful responsibility, lest I wear the wrong socks and screw it up.

Religions are often interpreted as telling us how to get the kind of luck we want.  “Act like we tell you to and get a new car!” But what if I’m following all the Ten Commandments and still living in poverty? How about all the lying adulterers in Congress? This Karmic cause and effect, also fails to describe my real experience.  I think it’s healthier to look at religious governance as instructions on how to live to good purpose, whatever the outcome or our circumstances, not as how to trick god into doing it my way.

That self help book The Secret, that sold a billion copies a few years back, seems to me the perfect example of the kind of thinking that brings me more heartache than results.  While I do think that making my best effort and keeping a positive outlook improve the quality of my life, it is not my experience that either are guarantees of, or even the route to, success.  Are the folks in Biafra starving because they aren’t visualizing a steak dinner? Is The Secret really a better written book than mine? Is Iran’s President Almondine really the best man for the job or even the one the people of Iran are visualizing?

Grace is a fearsome possibility to consider in such a savage world, but it offers me a better description of how my life has unfolded than the more comforting notions of the self-help or the world religion sections.  I don’t know how the universe works, but it seems clear to me that the work-hard-and-keep-your-nose-clean theory for success in any field is not it.

What I do know, is that when I’m living to good purpose by my way of thinking, showing up for my life as best I can and leaving the outcome of all that I do to heartless grace, at least it’s not on me when my life sucks or I’m solo mio on Valentine’s.  And when things do work out? I can be truly and humbly thankful for the gift.

 

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Pro-Antisocial

Being gay is like being left handed.

Left handed people just are.  It’s how their minds work.  And NO, I’m not saying that left handed has ANYTHING to do with being gay or that left handed people are gay, so don’t write me crazy letters about it.  What I am saying is that being left handed is not a choice.  It is a function of the brains of left handed people.  Maybe it’s structural or genetic but, whatever the case, it is a natural state of being.

Those with primitive religious beliefs have subjected the left handed to suspicion and derision.  The word sinister, which we use to mean evil, untrustworthy and “underhanded,” is actually the Latin word for left.  Left handed children have been forced to use their right hands, often to their mental detriment and never in their best interest.

Such old ideas seem silly and ill informed in this era.  The President is left handed, for heaven’s sake, and clearly no one feels prejudiced against him! Right?

Our primitive beliefs about the left handed have abated, though systemic bias still exists.  The world is literally designed for the right handed majority.

In much the same way, gay people live as a minority in a world designed for the majority.  The primitive religious beliefs of some, have been used to push gay people outside society.  Simple social customs like dating, the prom, going steady and marriage, around which society is designed, have been denied to gay people.  Attempts to participate in these normal social rituals from a same sex perspective have been punished by further exclusions in work, housing and the rights of citizenship like peaceable assembly and the pursuit of happiness.

As a result, our resourceful, creative and gay little band developed a shadow society within the boundaries that second class citizenship forced upon us.  The rituals of pair bonding were replaced by furtive outlaw sex not necessarily because it’s what we wanted but because we had no other choice.  We were not allowed to participate in the personal sexual evolution that leads to the expression of the pair bond through marriage.

If you are forced to live outside society, your behavior becomes anti-social, not by design but by necessity.  In this way, we became antisocial, not by choice but for want of choice.

Enter the 21st Century.

After forty plus years of civil rights struggle, gay people are beginning to attain the rights of full American Citizenship.  We’re not there yet, but with the fall of federally institutionalized discrimination and the rise of marriage rights, gay people are getting closer to getting what we asked for and what we said we wanted.

The news is great and getting better, but the response in some quarters is surprising.

Like the people in Plato’s cave, many gay people have come to believe that the shadow life of second class citizenry IS being gay.  People in and outside the community have confused and conflated the anonymous hook ups and cover-of-darkness-sexuality that has long been our only option with what it means to be gay.  That is no more true than saying that S&M is what it means to be straight even though the Marquis de Sade and the majority of those who follow in his path are straight.

Gay people are ten percent of everyone – every group.  We are not all the same save for the one relatively minor shared trait of our sexual, same-gender preference.   It would be a mistake and an extreme form of discrimination to try to describe all gay people in such limited terms.  We don’t all want to hang out at bath houses.  Some of us don’t like gay bars.  Some of us like to get up in drag and some are happier in a sports stadium.  We are not any one thing, though who we are allowed to be has been severely limited for a very long time.

But as those limits fall away, surprising new oppressors are emerging.

We have an election coming up in my little town with its big gay population.  I’ve been thrown by the way this  issue has arisen.  The same people who fought and marched for the rights of marriage, whose bumpers are stickered with slogans about hate not being a “family value” are now opposed to including gay people into the mainstream.

A local gay politician here is actually campaigning against our being a “family oriented” community.  His Tea-Party tactics are whipping up fear in gay people who have lived as second class citizens so long they seem to have forgotten that the battle against Proposition H8 was a battle FOR gay families.

Now, no one is saying that any rarified sexual tastes should be denied anybody, or at least I’m not.  Hell, gay people can’t hold a candle to what straight people get up to sexually.  There are 8 billion people in the world and gays had nothing to do with it.  Sexual behavior neither defines nor characterizes anyone’s participation in society as a whole.  What’s more everyone has the right to opt out of participation in social norms.  I hope what we’ve fought for is to make that right one of our choices, not our only option as it has been for too long.

Gaining admission to the mainstream means letting go of our second class status.  Equal rights doesn’t mean that I can do whatever I want to.  Equal rights means taking equal responsibility.  Saying “I Do” comes with a whole host of duties, whether it’s taking an oath to defend my country, become a citizen, or show up for my partner no matter what.  It means growing up.  For a very long time we have been forced to live outside society.  We have embraced and come to love the antisocial behavior that was forced upon us.  We have lived like lost boys, excluded from the rights and privileges of becoming men and women.

We can still live the Peter Pan life if we choose to, but that is not equality.  That is a choice.

As we gain our rights after this long, hard fought struggle — a struggle that is far from over — I hope we will not lose sight of what it is so many have sacrificed so much to achieve.

African Americans endured and survived years of discrimination but it would be a mistake to allow slavery to define what is it to be black.

I do not want to lose the cultural identity of our gay community.  Neither do I want an identity forced upon me by those who claim to be on my side.  Victory is taking our place at the table, not demanding a table of our own.

 

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WeHome

Twenty years ago this August,  I moved to West Hollywood.

I came for a lot of reasons, mostly because I’d lost the life I’d spent years making for myself.  What I found here was life as I’d never imagined living it.  Life here is still hard sometimes.  They still charge rent – too much, if you ask me.  There are lines at the grocery store.   The traffic gets snarled and parking is a pain here, same as everywhere else.  But West Hollywood offers me something I didn’t come looking for because I didn’t know it was on offer.

In West Hollywood, I’m nothing special.

Oh, I’m still my special unique self.  As you might expect from our storied geography, special is the norm here.  There’s tons of movie and TV stars, singers, musicians, directors, writers, poets, rappers.  You name it, we’re all right here.  I love living in the midst of dreams and creativity.  Hollywood’s on one side, Beverly Hills is to the west.  My next door neighbor is Johnny Depp.  The Vanity Fair Oscar party takes place across the street.  When the helicopters were over Paris Hilton’s house, they were over mine.

But more than any of that, you can’t sling a dead cat in this town without hitting gay.  I don’t know if gay people are even the majority in West Hollywood, but there are so many of us here, it’s impossible to stand out just for being gay.  I didn’t get to grow up in a gay home.  I didn’t go to a gay school.  God knows, there’s no gay church.  There was no place where I ever felt like I really belonged.  And, as you may have noticed, there’s been considerable effort over the years to make gay people feel even less welcome pretty much everywhere.

Here, not so.

Here I get to shine for being who I am.  Being gay isn’t really an important or interesting fact about me in West Hollywood.  It’s like being a southerner in Atlanta – still charming but just not that remarkable.  I love it.

West Hollywood has changed my life.  Here, I get to forget about this one relatively minor aspect of who I am that gets made such a big deal of in so many other places.  In West Hollywood, I get to be me.  If people take note or ignore me here, it’s for who I am or am not, for what I do or don’t do, for the choices I make.  Not because of something I had no control over.

With the changes that are happening in the world today, I hope that West Hollywood will spread and that gay people will get to be not special where ever we go and live.

In tribute to this place that has come to feel like home for me in a way that I didn’t even know was possible, I’m starting a series of interrelated short stories based the city, its residents and my time here.  As with the rest of this blog thing, we’ll see how it goes.

I’d thought of calling it 90069, our unintentionally obvious zip code.  But I’ve settled on a different name.  It’s based on my first address here.  Let me know what you think of the name and the stories.  It’s fiction.  But, I hope, it will be an accurate portrait of this city that beckoned me home to a place I’d never been a minute before I arrived.

Welcome to:                        Sweetzer Court

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I feel as though I have been liberated.

I’ve been in with a cold pretty much since the year began.  Sorry to have gone quiet on you, but I can’t seem to write when I’m all hopped up on cold medicine.  Snuffling and under the influence, I find it impossible to remember how I started a sentence by the time I get to the end.  Either my sentences are too long or the Tylenol Severe Cold Formula has kicked in.  Whichever the case, I didn’t want to put you at risk.

But, all better now.

I’ve spent the past week nursing my shattered feelings as well my cruddy health.  The events in Tucson have left me stunned and speechless – a rare occurrence.

Of course my first reaction is, as always, thank heaven the lunatic was able to buy a gun.  Congrats to all those in congress who voted to end the ban on assault weapon sales in 2004.  Way to go.   Great idea.  Really worked out.  What’s next? Grenade launchers at Sears?

Those who are supposed to lead spend more time pandering to the lowest common denominator than governing or inspiring us to higher ideals.  It is sad that in the face of this gun related tragedy there is not enough courage among our alleged leaders to do anything about the problem.  If the guy had showed up with a knife instead of an assault weapon, how differently this might all have ended.

But even more than our refusal to address the corrupting influence of the gun lobby and all well funded special interest groups, I am more concerned with our interpretation of the first amendment than the second.  The sad events in Arizona have raised troubling questions about the tone of our national conversation.

The President has called for a more civil discourse.  There even seems to be some movement, a real effort on the part of many, to agree to disagree more agreeably.

Of course, the big quitter from Alaska is still determined not to lead — though hardly anyone’s asking her to since her formal refusal to do so at the state gubernatorial level.  I guess Grizzly-Pit-Bull-Moms do believe that their day has come, but they don’t believe in having the good manners to say “I’m sorry for rhetorically targeting you for assassination.”  It is a shame she doesn’t even possess the good taste to shut up about herself at someone else’s funeral.

I’m sure Quitter Palin will support my first amendment rights to call for someone to please blow her head off — with votes and the remote, of course, since declining television ratings would be worse for her than losing another election.  I know that she’d endorse my right to call for her desperately media hungry family to be chopped up into little pieces — by the critics, of course — and fed to the dogs of public opinion, all poetically speaking.  Isn’t that my right? And she doesn’t seem to mind what people say about her.  She’s been such a good sport so far – right, Mr. Letterman? Tina? Katie?

In fact, it’s not at all clear that the deranged young man in Tucson was inspired by the irresponsible words and oaths of those politician and pundits who are abusing their considerable power in office and the media.  It is interesting to me though, how quickly the topic came up and how much longer it has persisted than the story of the tragedy itself.

I continue to believe that we confuse the right to free speech with freedom from taking responsibility.  Shouting fire in a crowded theatre is NOT different than calling for an angry and heavily armed electorate to “reload” or saying that if ballots don’t work, bullets will.  Attaining the age of consent comes with rights AND responsibilities.  Calling for the assassination of anyone, metaphorically or otherwise, is calling for their assassination.  Calling Dr. Tiller “Tiller the Killer”, as one irresponsible television hack repeatedly did, was a key and undeniable element in the man’s recent assassination by domestic terrorists.

These don’t seem to be free speech issues to me.  Still, I’m not sure how I would want them enforced.  I suppose civil penalties seem the most likely, but that puts the burden on the victims.  Perhaps fines? But then who to enforce? I am more afraid of the return of McCarthyism than all the bombast on all the cable news channels.  I miss the old days of personal responsibility and editorial discretion that preceded the 24 hour news cycle.

I do still firmly believe that we need to reclassify prejudice and the irrational hatred of others as mental illness.  In fact, I think we could also broaden the definition to include ignorance.  I don’t think people suffering these maladies should be locked up or drugged or given shock treatment.  I’m not sure anyone but the most violently disturbed should be — the shooter in Tucson, for instance.  Ignorance and prejudice are undeniably mental conditions though and happily the cure for both is the same – education.

Meanwhile, I begin this New Year with hope.

I hope we will move toward a more civil discourse.  I hope that our leaders will do more leading and less pandering, baiting and posturing.  Most of all, I hope that as we demand our rights to free speech, or to keep and bear arms, or to petition the government for the redress of our grievances that we take up our responsibilities with equal fervor.

We can’t all just quit and get a gig on Fox.

 

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The road to hell is paved with good intentions and New Year’s resolutions.  Often in life, despite one’s best intentions and hard work, success or failure are determined more by fate or destiny than hope and tenacity.

A few years ago I went on a spiritual retreat.  It took place at a monastery in the hills above mission-rich Santa Barbara.  The mission has since burned down.  I think there’s a warning in there somewhere or at least excessive symbolism.

Anyways, as part of the guided experience, I was directed to write a letter to myself.  The letter was to be waiting for me at the retreat the following year.  Whether or not it was just a sales ploy to get me to re-up for another dose of zen, it struck me as an interesting and positive assignment.  I have always wished that I could speak to my younger self and tell him to be less afraid.  So, filled with the self-help élan born of the previous days of small group work, sharing, guided meditation and monk cooking, I wrote to myself in glowing terms about the year both ahead of and behind me in the meta moment.

I returned the following year.  My letter awaited me.  I tore it open — the assignment long forgotten — and read.  It was devastating.  The year had been a brutal series of defeats and disappointments on every front in my life.  The hope and optimism of my words were salt in the wounds reality had inflicted in the months since I had written them.

At the end of the retreat I was faced with the prospect of writing my future self another such letter.  My first impulse was to run screaming from the building.  Sadly, I’d ridden up with someone else, so dramatic exits were a bit impractical.

Instead, I gave it some thought and wrote myself a very different letter.  I didn’t attend another retreat.  The monastery burned down but the hosts saved my letter from the flames and mailed it to me the following year.

I ran across it recently.  It comes to mind as I consider formulating my resolutions for the coming year.  I commend it to you here as you consider the year ahead:

Dear Eric,

Remember to be thankful for who you already are and not sorrowful for who you are not yet.

There was much progress between this letter and the one which came before it, yet the last letter left you sad and disappointed over your fate..

It seems wiser to celebrate the unfolding of your life than to anticipate the happiness winking at you from the horizon.  One never knows the distance to the goals of life and it is the journey that takes all the time.

Enjoy the ride –

I love you and you are doing a great job,

Eric

All best wishes for a Happy and Prosperous New Year, unless you have other plans!

 

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The gumbo is simmering so I have a few minutes to check in on this most inauspicious of holidays – New Year’s.

I’m not a big fan.

Most of its alleged celebrations smack of desperation and amateur inebriation. In the end, there’s really nothing to celebrate. If we didn’t drop a crystal sphere and jump up and down, screaming when the clock strikes twelve, frankly, nothing would happen at all.

A new year begins every night – or morning, if you want to be technical – at 12:01.
The fact that the tax year ends on December 31st hardly seems to warrant the Rose Parade.

The last time I attempted to do anything on New Year’s, I went to Las Vegas for Y2K. The crowds were so oppressive and the wait for everything so long, that I left before midnight and was back on my little perch, listening to the shrieking on the Sunset Strip below me, at the big minute.

I prefer to have a few guests in on the Eve to eat the superstitious foods you’re supposed to consume for good luck, good health and good fortune. We eat gumbo and dirty rice, Hoppin’ Johns, collard greens and corn bread. We argue about which game to play. Some years we never play, we just argue. At midnight we watch Ryan Seacrest — and the increasingly inanimate Dick Clark — countdown their rerun from New York, pull the strings on our confetti poppers at the appointed moment and call it quits.

Don’t get me wrong. We have a nice time. I enjoy the company and I make the BEST gumbo in the world. But the same crowd could repeat the same ceremony sans Ryan and Dick, and have every bit as much fun on February 3rd. Maybe we should.

The desperation-inspiring part of New Year’s is that our taxes aren’t the only thing called to account at 12:01. The year’s eve, like birthdays, is a time for reflection. It is a moment to pause and compare myself to my expectations or just to where I was last year. That, for me at least, is one perilous chasm. Peering over the edge of one year into the unknown, from the ridge of disappointment that stretches back as far as I remember, can give New Year’s a fearsome edge if I’m not careful of my footing.

As with all views, where you’re standing makes all the difference.

I’m in particularly a good spot for this year’s soul searching minute. I’m looking to the New Year from atop a heap of years that have been anything but new. I’ve had pretty much the same year for the past five and I’m really ready for a NEW, New Year.

I think that’s hope. I can’t think of a better viewpoint from which to take in the broad expanse of the future that stretches before me. Maybe it’s just desperation in fancy dress, but I feel like, come what may, up is the only direction available to my fortunes. So, I guess that’s my New Year’s message as we bid farewell to 2010: Cheer up, next year has GOT to be better than this.

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Thankful

Thanksgiving challenges my better self.

It’s been a tough year.  My life has not been what I’d hoped for a lot longer than just since the banks robbed us to pay off their gambling debts.

When times are hard it’s hard to find things that I’m thankful for in my life.  I’ve kind of given up on dating.  I haven’t sold a book in a long time.   I’m faced with the prospect of looking for work in ten percent plus unemployment as a partially blind, fifty one year old man whose skills include clever, some philosophy and acting.  I’ve written a series of books that I can’t get agents excited about and the publishers for whom I’ve written successes and best sellers in the past are MIA and likely looking for work themselves.  My prayers have not been answered this year or in any in recent memory.

My mood would not best be characterized as thankful.  I get the sense that I’m not alone these days.  I manage to stay in good spirits for the most part.  If you came by the house and searched, you’d be hard pressed to find the tough year I had.

And then Thanksgiving comes along and calls the question.

My first reaction is to place the back of my hand dramatically on my forehead and demand of the ceiling – cause that’s where god is, don’t you know – “What do I have to be thankful for?”

God doesn’t answer those kinds of prayer from me either.  Let me know if you get different results.  I’ve got a few questions I’m dying to get answers for.

Meanwhile, I’m faced with this holiday that puts my screwed up life right in my face.  Inevitably, as I lamented my pitiful state, I started to think of the pilgrims and those hats with the buckles on them and their dinner with the native people they probably ended up screwing over until the casino opened to even the score.

Those first at the table a couple hundred years ago were celebrating because they hadn’t starved to death or died from exposure.  Woo-hoo! That’s really what they were celebrating.  They were still alive.

When was the last time I celebrated that?

I think that maybe I start my thank you list too far along to get any real traction.  I tend to be thankful when I get what I want, but “Woo-hoo, I’m still alive and anything’s possible” is not where my mind goes when I think about gratitude.

I’m not only alive, I’m in great health and great shape.  I’m still a little too well fed, in fact, but I’ve managed to move down two sizes since this past Memorial Day weekend, thank you very much.  I’m kind of looking forward to eating what I want.  I’m taking the big day off the diet – something else to be thankful for.   And I’m crazy about the friends I’m having Turkey with, so there’s that.

Times are tough but I’ve managed, even just barely, to keep body and soul together, so far.  Not everyone can say that.  I didn’t do it the way I’d have picked, but it still happened.  Maybe my prayers were kinda sorta answered.

But most of all I’m alive.  That’s the big gift from which all others flow.  There was less around to distract those at the first Thanksgiving from that big blessing and maybe with less around, I can see it better, too.

It’s been a bad year in paradise.  We’re a little bruised following our greed orgy but we still have the two ingredients that make everything else possible:  Hope and Life.

That’s something even an ingrate like me can be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving!  Thank you for reading my blog.  It means a lot to me.  I’m truly thankful for you.

 

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