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.

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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.

Restart or refresh?

“New York is cold, but I like where I’m living
There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening.
I hear that you’re building your little house deep in the desert
You’re living for nothing now, I hope you’re keeping some kind of record”
Famous Blue Raincoat, Leonard Cohen.
Released in 1987, Jennifer Warnes “Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen” made an indelible impression on my 25-year-old self, specifically the title song. I had always dreamed about possibly residing in a desert. At that time, pop culture had a lot of references to a barren bleakness including “Baghdad Cafe”, U2’s “The Joshua Tree” and from a couple of years before, the lesbian film “Desert Hearts” to name but a few deep cultural examples.  In each piece of entertainment, there was always something profound to be discovered, a new relationship to oneself or to another. Like Bono sang in the defining “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” — the message was clear from the album’s title and the video to the song which featured Las Vegas that in the desert’s burning heat and atmosphere, one could become a phoenix, rising up from self-created ashes.
Then, I zigzagged my way below Manhattan’s 14th Street that dividing line between the art world and the 9-to-5 achievers.  After a series of broken hearts and breaking a few — in tragic ways on my part — I found myself living on Lower East Side’s Clinton Street, a few steps from the corner of Canal Street. It was a 2500 square foot loft apartment above a Chinese refrigeration unit that kept food cold. Keeping a home above a business that was chilling things down was great during NYC’s muggy summers, not so hot during the winters.
Twenty-five years later, after traveling the globe, having a semi-satisfying career, I found myself wanting. Looking at the end of the road for, hopefully, another 50 years, what is it that I feel I should accomplish or try?  What would make me feel that I hadn’t left a proverbial stone unturned? I hope to unravel these personal mysteries and hopefully, while I do, let go of fear, letting others do the same. In all seriousness, I’m scared shitless more than half the time. How do I step out and become what I always wanted to be?
So, at the age of 50, I find myself, as Leonard Cohen wrote in Famous Blue Raincoat “building a little house deep in the desert” more than prescient. Although, I’m not technically building a house — it’s built — we are refurbishing a townhome in the Palm Springs area and I do go back to Los Angeles several times a month for work and social activities. Also, I’m not living for nothing, I’m changing my life path and I’m keeping a record, like so many before me.
It’s funny how it all works out.