Photo by Wes Dickinson

A friend from my junior high years – my BFF in those days – posted a new profile of her and her daughter Sophia. It’s blissful seeing their huddled selfie faces, a mother and daughter team. They sported colored hair, pink for mom, and poison ivy green for Sophie. Julie donned glasses something I didn’t expect to see. Not for any reason other than it spoke of growing older for both of us.

Then, I felt a bit melancholy. And, It’s continued to stay with me. I realized I never met Sophie (or Julie’s son, Uly) or Tanya’s beautiful Chloe or Myra and Evan’s gorgeous girls. I briefly met Rita’s adorable mini-me, Ilyana, before we went out and left her with David, her husband of some 20-plus years. That’s an exception.  It’s also just a mini-list of some of the influential people over the years.

I consider these some of my most profound friendships. A few best friends a gay man has ever had – my family — and all women.  (Although, I know Sean would feel differently. He was my first in many ways.) They’ve witnessed me at my worst…and best, I hope.  When I I look at their Instagram pics or Facebook photos of them with their grown-up kids, I feel I missed a vital aspect part of their lives. I missed lavishing their kid with birthday toys,  turning them into princesses and cowboys on holidays. Or babysitting, while the parents went out on date night. I didn’t get to see my friends turning into adults. To be sure, as mothers they reached it faster than I did.

While my friends were creating families, I was traveling and in a long-term relationship that turned into a regrettable decision. Now, I’m gray, older and more substantial in weight with a partner who has siblings. They have kids, but I haven’t met them yet. And, I’m sure as they grow-up, we will become more significant in their lives.

But as I’ve seen the images come through on social media feeds, I’ve come to realize that the trips amounted to nothing more than party conversation-memories. (“Yes, I’ve ridden the gondolas in Venice.” “The Eiffel Tower is so beautiful when it gets twinkles at night.” “I love going to that resort in Bali.”)  The red-carpets I once worked are nothing more IMDB credits for forgotten actors no one knows or remembers. They weren’t Bette Davis or Cary Grant. And superficially, none of it matters.

I always wanted to be a male Auntie Mame truthfully. It didn’t make a difference whether it was Rosalind Russell’s or Lucille Ball’s semi-farcical version.  I wanted to become close to their brood – like their mothers were to me. Teach my friends children about the movies, take them to Disneyland and do things with them their parents didn’t want to do. And to sing to them, “Yes, we need a little Christmas, right this very minute.” I’m sure this has something to do with being an only child of a single parent and not feeling a part of something bigger.

Now, my friends are all going to be becoming grandparents. Their grandkids will remember them as gentle souls who gave them candy, telling stories of buying bread for $1 or listening to 45s. I have dusty remembrances of seeing elephants, temples and an occasional twinkle somewhere.

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My Mom Was Fired

MHLradio_Downtown Ballarat

After my parents divorced, my mom had brought us to the East Coast, specifically Baltimore to find work and be closer to her family. I couldn’t have been more than eight at the time.

As a divorced woman in the seventies, it was difficult to find a job. Even with Gloria Steinham’s bra-burning, Playgirl Magazine and cigarette ads declaring,“You’ve come along way, baby!” It was a steep hill to find employment with a decent wage for a woman. And my mom was not as industrious as Mildred Pierce, but she also wasn’t an Edith Bunker or a Mrs. Brady. She was somewhere between, and never wanted to do much more than raise her mixed-race kid putting money aside for that rainy day. (She defended me from others when they asked if I was adopted. I was still a novelty at the time. Halle Berry and Keanu Reaves were also feeling some of the same effects – wherever they were.)

She was always a handsome woman. At the time, she was in her late thirties to early forties, and she wore a size 10 – 12, never a size two. She had her share of admirers and dated occasionally but preferred to stay home. She was willing to giggle at anyone’s joke with infectious laughter.  Once she started in with guffaws, it was hard not to join in. Plus, she loved a cold beer or a mai tai with a maraschino cherry, citrus wedge and the tiny umbrella I saved so my Ken doll could shade Barbie from the sun.

I came home from school having walked with a friend and his mother. It was a daily arrangement made between the two women to make sure I arrived safely. We had no furniture except two twin beds and a big TV encased in a wooden cabinet in the spartan one-bedroom apartment. I would watch reruns of “The Partridge Family,” “Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” or “Match Game” by myself while laying on a big comforter my grandmother had made. Or I would read some book my mom had laying about. After I completed my homework, I’d make dinner for us; mostly canned beans and franks, possible peanut butter and jelly.  We would eat every meal like it was an indoor picnic. On this particular day, my mom was lying on the floor, wrapped up in it. Sobbing. She should have been at work, but it was clear that something was wrong. She lifted her head and beckoned me to her. She was close to hysteria, with heaving breaths and eyes puffy from crying. “What’s wrong?” I asked thinking someone died. “I was fired,” she said with gulps of air between each word. “I wouldn’t allow Mr. ____ to touch me anymore.”

I had never met Mr. _____. Matter of fact, thinking back I’m not sure even what my mom was doing for work, probably secretarial or administrative. Having watched “Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway” with her, a TV-movie starring Jan Brady’s Eve Plumb as a runaway girl turned prostitute, I was aware of what she was talking about but didn’t understand the context of being “touched” just knew that it wasn’t a good thing.  All I could do was calm her down to make sure she would be okay. I might have even offered to beat up Mr. _____.

She calmed down eventually, after soothing my hair and asked me how my day was, reassuring me that everything was going to be fine. I tried to comfort her as best I could and went on doing the things kids do, thinking that I was happy to have her home early.

Watching the news triggers unsettling memories.

About Fear

Don Barrett_Wonder Valley

A woman whom I dated when we were teens, said to me on social media, “You’re never afraid of anything. If you are, it didn’t stop you.”

I wanted to respond in a knee-jerk fashion and  say, “Yes, I am!” But when I think about it and look over some of my past actions, humbly, I agree I’m not. (Except for snakes. Hate them, but I think that’s more of a phobia.) That does not mean, I do not experience the emotion. Matter of fact, I plow through them like a bull.

But, if I had allowed my fear to overtake me, I would never have boarded a plane to Paris after September 11. I’ve been there six times since then, along with other European, Asian and South American countries. I would never have seen the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower or Versailles. I would never have been to Champagne, Burgundy or Chablis.

I would not be driving a car after the 13 car pile-up from which I miraculously walked away. (I swear there was an angel.) I would have been forever been dependent on mass transit and stayed living in an urban area. I careen at 80 miles per hour some days commuting between homes in California’s low desert and the coastline.

If I stayed in a bad relationship because I was fearful that no one else would come along, I would not be with Nick, a good man with a big heart.

One of my heroes, Viktor Frankl, wrote in “Man’s Search for Meaning,” “Fear makes come true that which one is afraid of.” For me, it means stepping out of being afraid, whether that’s into the known which went awry, starting again or into something I’ve never done.

I’m conscious that we live in a world were fear abounds towards people, places, and things. Watching the news, I should be afraid to take out the garbage. However, I would rather be holding someone’s hand, going somewhere I’ve never been and talking about something I’ve never done instead of sitting there watching the news, complaining how frightened I am.

On Being Consistent

I lost my focus. Like every athlete, musician, bodybuilder or businessperson in branding, I wasn’t consistent. I faltered. I lost something when I put Holly down. By the time I put this on my website, it will be two full weeks since I – we — made that decision.

I had only begun the process of publishing narrative essays of reaching the mid-century mark, it’s problems and joys while living in the California low desert. Instead, I let “my girl” go. I knew it was time. We knew. She was limping. If she fell, she didn’t have the strength to be vertical again. The tree trunk, stocky legs that Staffordshire Terriers are known were wasting to pretzel sticks. Once assisted and propped up into a standing position, she looked afraid to move as if one step would lead her back to the floor. But she cuddled always. She was unwavering in that act.

It’s hard to be left behind. It’s as if a part of me was removed. Having been privileged to work for myself, she was by my side except when I was at the gym, at a meeting or out to dinner and a movie. My “big girl’ was always there. When Nick came along, he grew to accept her as always being there as well. She was reliable in love and devotion. We could do no wrong except tell her, “Down!” when someone dropped in to say hello. She was dependable in that she practically knocked anyone to the floor to dole out welcoming canine kisses.

Getting older is not about an ending, but more of a beginning. The things I coveted as a younger man isn’t bringing what I want or need anymore. I’m not sure they ever did but they weren’t about love. It’s important that Holly taught me that the love I give should always be available and without reservation. She gave so much, always unwavering and consistent.

RIP, my Holly.

 

Simply Grateful

“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.”  Edward Abbey, author, essayist. 

Mitch Barrie_The Pink Adobe

As this summer begins to sit low in Palm Springs, with cooler temperatures knocking on this hemisphere, I am grateful. I grew up on the East Coast, three thousand miles from my San Gabriel Valley birthplace. My mom gathered us up in a cranberry-colored Camaro with a pristine white vinyl roof and hightailed it back to Baltimore after her divorce. It was her hometown where she spent much of her teen years. Shirley, her high-school best friend still lived there as did her only sister. Much like Barry Levinson’s “Diner”, she romanticized the harbor town.

The thing I remember most about living in “Charm City” is trudging through some of the winters. When the snowstorms came, it covered everything — as it still does along the Eastern seaboard —  followed by freezing rain which then froze again. If you had snowshoes, you were able to walk across my elementary school’s football field like Jesus walking on water. I didn’t have waffle-like foot accessories. I only had the inexpensive tennis shoes bought at a downtown department store. My feet were always wet and cold.

I feel as if I’ve spent most of my life trying to keep warm.

Forty years later, I’m in the California’s low desert country. I think of it as my Walden pond, far from the distractions of urban life. It’s warm. Always.  (We have a pond with a nesting heron. I’ve named it Hope after one of the neighbors.). If someone said that this is where I would be, I would have snickered because I loved the sophistication of cities. I felt safe congregating with multitudes of people going to and from – it didn’t matter where they were going just as long as I was with them. Then it became exhausting. The work I had was great but I didn’t get to expand it. I didn’t get to grow with it. I was feeling stuck. I know it happens to other people. I’ve talked about it enough to know I’m not the only one. Out here in the desert, I’m writing more. Discovering. Learning. I was always working for something – but never quite knowing what it was I was working to achieve —  as if whatever I achieved would satisfy me. I wanted things. I bought things. They disappeared into a box, stuffed deep into a closet to be pulled out only when we moved.

On social media, I see people doing fabulous things but I know underneath it all, we all just want to be warm and safe. It seems perilous lately.

Here, in Palm Springs, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we can make this work. That I can finally be comfortable and warm with my two dogs and Nick, contemplating my purpose and exhaling, “Oms.” Yes, I’m simply grateful.

Second Chances

Doug Kerr_Spruce Tree HouseMore than six months past my 50th birthday,,  I’m asking, “Am I satisfied?” If I’m outside, looking at what I’ve done, I would say to myself, “Who wouldn’t be?” It’s been a stellar life, full of things and mini-accomplishments. To say I would do it over again, I would be sacking incredible and lasting friendships. However, did I do something that I’m really happy about or did I just take, never giving back? I think that’s why art transcends boundaries. It’s like giving birth and nurturing something personal with in the artist. Besides, I missed the gene to create little versions of me for whatever reason.

Since the car accident that almost took my life eight years ago this October –  11 car-pile in a dust storm along California’s Interstate 5 – I feel I’ve had a second chance. I joke, at times, it’s more like my fifth chance, kind of like a cat with nine. It’s amazing that I’m still here after some of the stupid ass things I’ve done, but I think we can all say that. For more than a decade, though, I’ve been working on a series of memoir essays that detail my relationships with women. As a gay man, I’ve had fairly significant friendships with the gender and not sexually, although there was that too. For me, they have been my saviors. My rocks. My friends. My mothers. My confidantes. Matter of fact, being an only child raised by a divorced woman, gives me a different take considering that my father was of a different ethnic background.  Before Halle Berry, Dean Cain, Chrissy Teigen, and Keanu Reeves, I thought I was the only one from two backgrounds. Now, we are as common as a tortilla chip with salsa.

I’ve also been a fan of the genre since I’ve read Paul Monette, Bernard Cooper and my latest fixation, Abigail Thomas. The words of each writer leave indelible impressions on me because, in my opinion, they are masters of the craft and the art form. There is something that resonants in their respective stories. Bernard Cooper’s “Maps to Anywhere” is a masterful telling of growing up in Southern California. Monette chronicled the devasting effects of AIDS burying two partners before succumbing to the complications of the disease at the age of 49 — a year younger than I am now. His “Becoming a Man: Half a Life” deserves a revival as a  feature length movie and a one-person show for the right person. Lastly Abigail Thomas’ collection of work, especially her “ A Three Dog Life,” which tells a remarkable love story. She details her life with her husband after he suffers a severe brain injury resulting from being hit by a rampaging car on Manhattan’s Upper Westside.

Of course, there are many other writers who have used the essay as an artistic expression, Augusten Burroughs, Ruth Reichl, and of course, Henry David Thoreau.

I’ve workshopped them a couple of times. The one thing that always comes out is why don’t I talk about myself more in the stories and about my feelings towards them. I’m still working at that. It’s very difficult to bring some of the memories back. I talk to Julie and Rita whom I’ve known since the 7th grade about how we made it out alive. And, we shake our heads together and marvel.

Also, I’m starting school, planning for a masters degree. As much as I would like it to be in creative writing, I need to be practical and help pay for the house in the desert that my man in life, Nick, wanted us to have. As I sally forth with my multitude of second chances, I’m going to be one busy bee.

When Enough is Enough

As I started down the road of my recovery seven years ago, I realized I had more than enough. Enough sex with strangers, wine in the cabinet,  things lining the walls, clothes on hangers and enough of enough. Ultimately, the one thing I had never had was enough of me. I had looked outside of myself for the things that everyone wanted to have up until that point. As Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand sang, “Enough is enough is enough is enough.”

I decided to embark on an adventure. Journeys into the self are not easy roads. They are painful and bumpy. But I wanted to understand the point where my life became so painful that I desperately needed to alter who I was?  I lost a lot when lusting after the newest restaurant, the hotel that opened in a far-flung place or the eco-friendly winery up in American wine country. Fun, yes. Useful, not really.

Like everyone, I get caught up in things. I broke down and decided I needed a smartphone, not a flip. I needed another sports jacket as if one for each day of the month wasn’t adequate. Once, in a movie line on a date, a very well-dressed man over the age of 70 was wearing a turtleneck, fedora and a trench, looking a little out of place in 65 degrees Los Angeles winter weather. He looked more Quentin Crisp than Robert Mitchum. My companion turned to me and said, “That’s you in 30 years.” Ouch. He judged by what I owned. I had become the myriad of sports coats I wore. That hurt. I wanted to be more than that — to him at the time —  and to myself.

Viktor Frankl, the author of “Man’s Search for Meaning” which detailed his WW2 imprisonment in three Nazi concentration camps and lived to tell about it, said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

That’s what I’ve done. I had to change because the life I was in wasn’t moving. I can’t continue to blame the situation.

Once I entered the 12-step rooms, I realized that the best thing to find is a devotion in allowing yourself to change. It’s okay when it stops working. Sometimes that’s better than if it continued.

I’m at the beginning of my second half of a century; I want to give away that which I have had the opportunity of achieving. It’s no small feat to have seven years of anything notched into your belt. It’s commitment to myself to admit when enough is enough.