I gotta be me, but I must blend

I gotta be me, but others must like me

The banquet hall was spacious with high ceilings. Round, white-clad tables were scattered across the dark floor like dappled pools of sunlight. A glittery gaggle of youths gyrated to bhangra beats on the dance floor, their jeweled and embroidered outfits shimmered with the strobe lights. This was an Indo-Canadian wedding as lavish as any in India. I was overcome by feelings of detachment, even isolation. They were first generation from India whereas I am fourth. While they looked like me, they spoke differently, moved differently, and had somewhat different cultural values than I was raised with.

It turned out I was not alone in feeling alone. Others there felt equally disconnected. Some were less wealthy, others felt self-conscious about their age and disability, and a few kept to themselves because either they had married into this ethnicity, or they were of mixed raced.

As I sat in that surreal surrounding it occurred to me that I had lived most of life with this type of conflict. It is a basic human paradox that we need to fit in socially but simultaneously we want to be authentic to our uniqueness. We value our individuality (because that is what makes us human) but we also require that our uniqueness be validated by the others.

Talk about having your cake and eating it too! But we try. One common way we resolve this conflict is by seeking out others who are similarly unique. We form sub-cultures, little brotherhoods of uniform quirkiness. We show allegiance to our brotherhood by adopting a similar style of clothing, gestures and lingo. In my distant youth we youngsters expressed our individuality by streaking our mullets with fuchsia, back then even the boys wore eyeliner. Hey, it was the Eighties. Frankie Says…. Well, we did whatever Frankie told us to But of course our  expressions of individuality were actually submitting to the uniform of fashion.

This kind of seeking out ‘oddballs like me’ never quiet satisfies because our individual differences arise no matter who we team up with. Take any sub-culture, such as gay men, while they find validation for their sexuality within the gay community, there is little room for validation of diversity of race, of religion. I know one very political gay man (now in his sixties) who fought fiercely for gay rights back in the Seventies and Eighties. He now feels invisible within the very community he helped to create. This is because the reasons we feel like outsiders is always in a flux. Our uniqueness changes with our age and the situations we find ourselves in.

At this stage in my life, when I think I am personally at peace with my uniqueness, I still find myself resisting outside pressure to conform. As a visible minority, almost every stranger I meet seems to require some kind of narrative from me about my skin tone. They require a label, some group they can equate me to. If, out of politeness, I tell them my heritage is Indian, I usually get small talk centered around that and nothing else. They tell me about that nice Indian restaurant they ate at last week. Or they chat about some headline from the news about India: Wasn’t it terrible about that flooding? they might ask, as though I must have some personal connection to the event.

People do the same with my disability. They want to understand my confidential medical history, some quick and easy story they can understand. I have now learned how to deflect the attention back to the person making that unwelcome inquiry. I deftly shift the attention back to them. People love talking about themselves and all it takes is a small nudge to get them speaking. They soon forget about you and their intrusive query.

As I sat in that banquet hall with this uncomfortable but familiar conflict it occurred to me that perhaps my approach was all wrong. Embracing our uniqueness, I gotta be me, being true to myself, etc. aren’t all these just assertions of the the ego? When you think about it, isn’t the urge to blend in, to conform to the dress, the language and the lifestyles of the majority also artificial and acquired?

What if I was to give attention to the more authentic commonalities I had with the five hundred or so people in the room? All of them: men, women, youths, babies, shared the same air as me. Each of us was united in time and space, we shared common sounds, sights, tastes and smells. Most wonderfully, each of us was alive with the same light of consciousness. To give attention to that was wholly satisfying, completely unifying. And it did not disrespect my authentic self.


Sexy or Gross?

Sexy or Gross?

Warning: This post contains bad puns. Reader discretion is advised. 

Magazine covers, fifty-foot billboards, widescreen movies: sex sells and marketers know it. Being overwhelmed by magnified body parts, it makes one realize how comical this whole business of sex really is. Some body parts are stars while others are background extras. A woman’s bust-line is in your face, but a plumber’s cleavage is the butt of jokes.

To shake hands with a stranger is a show of friendliness, but to touch his feet is deference. Isn’t this a kind of discrimination against feet? I mean, the average hand carries some fifty viruses on its surface, where as a foot, protected by socks and shoes, has almost none.

Oh I know we love of all our body parts as though they were our children, but don’t we have our clear favorites?  We are so proud of our eyes we show them off to everyone and his grandmother. But the anus, well that is hidden away like a shameful mistake. Yet we could live without our eyes (plenty of blind people live perfectly fulfilled lives), but not a one can survive without his anus. (So now whenever someone calls me an A-hole, I say, “Why, thank you. Yes indeed I am indispensable.”)

Yes, the obvious answer to why some body parts are sexier is that they have a denser concentration of tactile nerves than other parts do. But that does not explain why the mouth and anus are treated so unequally. Anatomically similar, both orifices have a border of soft, sensitive tissue packed with nerve endings, and it is arguable which of them is the cleaner (though I suspect each has its own set of resident bacteria). Yet kissing on the mouth is an act of love, but kissing ass is a humiliation.

It may be cultural bias that compels us to regard some body parts as sexy and others as  unworthy, but I do think it is beneficial to personally re-evaluate our relationships with our body parts.

Earlier this week I found myself in the waiting room of my local hospital. The clinic was backed-up, we all prepared ourselves for a long wait. Then in walked two very different kinds of women: a mother with a toddler, and Mandy, one of Toronto’s most notorious transexuals. Mandy changed genders later in life, she had the means to undergo every procedure in the Cosmetic Surgeon’s catalogue. Her high-heels were open-toed, exposing ruby toenails. In fact every part of her was calculatedly feminine. Unlike the mother with the toddler, who took her womanhood for granted. Mandy is outspoken about her flip-flop and she often repeats that standard line of having been “a woman trapped inside a man’s body.”

I could not determine if the talkative but cute toddler was a boy or girl until the mother enlightened us. Nothing in his speech, his manners or his appearance was male or female. He was what we all are basically: a person. This reminded me that a hundred years ago parents dressed little boys and girls alike, in frocks and curls. I wish there had been a way I could advice him to hold on to that wisdom he now owns naturally: that inside he is neither a boy nor a girl. That despite his skin tone, inside he is not black, or brown, or white. But soon he will learn to play with his ‘outie’ and then he will behave differently to those with an ‘innie’. I want to warn him that even though the two organs are not dissimilar (Mandy had her outie  made into an innie), he will give too much importance to them. The world will persuade him that they are as far apart as Mars and Venus. I would like him to always remember that each is a person trapped inside a body, no matter what shape of the externalities. But I know it is too early for that.

Soon after my cardiac event, I was lucky enough to speak to a very wise man about my fears and anxieties for a future with a partially dead heart. He advised me to re-examined my relationships with my body parts. He told me to question the values assigned to each of them. He said were I to do this, I will reach a stage when I am able to witness the deterioration of my body with utter acceptance. He was right.

I sometimes meet patients who are grieving over the amputation of a leg or a foot. Or people who are distressed about losing their hearing, their sight, their mobility, due to old age. I wish I could somehow share that advice with them. But I know it is too late for that.

social hygiene

I just saw a young man walking towards the exit of our building while having his index finger up his nose. He then used the same index finger to press the “open” button. I shudder to think of the next unsuspecting resident who touches that button.

This comes on the heels of last evening, the first of this season’s Christmas functions or as I call them–the Holiday Flu functions.

Lots of strangers crowded into a small room, much kissing cheeks and the obligatory handshaking. Here is a little secret about men: we rarely wash our hands properly after peeing, if at all. Then there is the uncooked finger food, spread out for the attendees to inspect, some coughing while examining. Then we come along and pick up the food with our fingers, the same ones with which we have shaken hands (with the guy who did not wash his hands after peeing).

I know at least one harried hostess (who shall remain nameless) who, when she ran out of plastic wine glasses, decided to reuse the discarded ones without even washing them.

Then there are the people I have observed returning food from their plates back to the buffet trays (they changed their minds after one bite).

Also the ones who use their personal cutlery to scoop out dips such as salsa and humus from the serving bowl.

Of course all of the above is exasperated by alcohol, which not only weakens the immune system but makes one distracted, less aware.  It is no co-incidence that flu season and Christmas party season are one and the same.

There was a time when ladies wore gloves to soirees, children were taught to cover their coughs, men carried handkerchiefs in their breast pockets. Those hygienic niceties are now relics of the  formal past.  As people live in ever more dense cities, one would expect them to be more aware of social hygiene, but we find the opposite–people care less and less. Of course we have a built in immune system, but it was never designed to handle high density living or instant global travel. We saw with the SARS epidemic how quickly a virus spread from Hong Kong to the entire world.

I rarely shake hands with anyone anymore. While this may seem socially awkward, there are many polite alternatives. The Michelle Obama Fist Bump is a current and cool alternative. As are many Asian alternatives. The Japanese head bow might feel too formal, but the Namaste greeting of folded hands leaves no doubt about your friendliness. But if a handshake is socially unavoidable, I carry a pocket hand sanitizer wherever I go. (It is also great for the supermarket after having touched so many public surfaces.) But at functions you need to be discrete, as people sometimes take offense. i usually make frequent trips to the bathroom for hand washing.

And that is the trick with practicing social hygiene, juggling politeness with awareness of high-risk situations.

One can’t exist in a bubble. One has to interact with the world. I drink alcohol slowly and in small quantities because I enjoy keeping aware. I also think it is important to boost my immune capabilities with foods rich in vitamin C and anti-toxicants. Kiwis and critic fruits, for example, boost immune functions. As does ensuring a good night’s sleep and regular exercise. Although the latter can expose one to more hazards. I routinely observe people not sanitizing before or after using a machine at the gym. I carry my own towel at the gym. People assume I use it for wiping off sweat from by face, but I really use it wipe off theirs. I use it to cover machine bars and surfaces.

Part of being self-aware means you notice your hand gestures, even when not in public. I rarely rub my eyes or bite my fingers because this is one of the ways we invite bacteria and viruses into our bodies.

Which brings me under the mistletoe. This kissing under the mistletoe tradition sometimes leads to the inebriated office grope–or so I am told. There is no such thing as sanitary sex. It’s all about exchanging saliva and touching, well, everything. While sex with a co-worker may be ethically questionable, there is no question it is physically messy. Only an overdose of eggnog will convince a person otherwise–and it sometimes does. I consider myself fortunate to have reached an age where sex is a very low priority in life.

Though ironically, I am also at an age where reaching out to others leaves me vulnerable to more infections than casual sex ever could. I cut hair at the homeless shelter and some of those guys don’t bathe. I wear latex gloves but there is nothing I can do about the odors. I have to remind myself that that is natural scent of the human body. And that these people are more than the sum of their body parts. Their essence is consciousness, which has no scent. This helps me stay cheerful and calm, and that aids my immune system.

Therefore, I try to remember the same about those Holiday party guests, no matter how unsanitary their habits.

Is This Man Saying F-You?

Once a year the streets of downtown Toronto are taken over by the Gay Pride parade. Over a million spectators line the streets to see the flamboyant floats and the outrageous costumes (or lack of). It is meant to be a political statement: a very public rejection of the shame and guilt thrust upon gay men and women. Some participants make a spectacle of their ‘queerness’, a grand F-You to those who beat them up in the school yard, those who shunned them within the family, those who bullied them in the workplace. But does this act of retaliation cancel out the  the original insults? Beneath the bravado, is pride really all that different from shame?

Shame begins as guilt. People condemn or criticize you for a defect, something you did or said (or didn’t do). Guilt is a nagging sense of yearning to rewrite the past. It is so persistent that with enough repetition you start to own that guilt. When that guilt is complete owned, when it invades your identity it is called shame. Shame is a sense of worthlessness, of being defective, less than everyone else.  You feel self-conscious of your difference and cut-off from others. This non-belonging is deeply uncomfortable because it is unnatural. The truth is all of us are part of the one indivisible whole, therefore banishment from the whole is painful. Not so bad if you genuinely erred, if it is behavior you can correct, but devastating if it is “shame” about something you cannot change — perhaps you look different from others, your nose is too big, you are too short, or your skin too dark. You may have many other talents, but this one trait defines your identity, and along with it the pain of being excluded.When I was young I was made to feel guilty, then ashamed of being brown (colonial attitudes  still prevailed in my English school).

Then there is being proud, which at first glance seems harmless, beneficial even. People are routinely proud of being American, of being tall, of being white/black/Asian. But hang on, doesn’t  pride require that you identify so completely with one particular trait over all others? A trait over which you might have no control. Perhaps you were born with a certain, popular look, you cannot change it? Pride is membership into an exclusive club, and it necessarily involves exclusion of others. Pride may feel energetic, rousing when you are with others of the same club, but it too isolates one from our natural oneness with all humanity. In fact pride always requires an audience: it is impossible to be proud all alone. Sometimes pride makes a man feel so special he gives himself license to hate, to oppress, to kill ‘the non-members’. The neo-nazi’s are an example of this. Just read the latest headlines, if there is one thing we learn from the bombings and murders going on in retaliation for an anti-Muslim video, it is that pride is a fragile, highly volatile emotion, it easily gets contaminated with other strong emotions. How pathetic that sometimes we hear of families killing their daughters who “brought shame upon the family”. The irony here is that the killers feel they are restoring family honor, but to the rest of us the murder is the family’s real shame.

This is because both pride and shame depend on your perspective–whether you are in the club or a non-member. Pride and shame operate out of the same isolation mechanism, both involve allowing one trait to dominate over all other abilities and characteristics. In both pride and shame one trait defines who you are. But if you are among a sympathetic audience, you experience the euphoria of pride, if however you are deprived of that sympathetic audience, you feel isolated and vulnerable (shame). I wonder whether the fathers responsible for those ‘honor killings’ still feel proud of themselves when they are alone in prison? Do they feel shame?

So if pride is not the antidote to shame, then what is? Perhaps it is self-acceptance. A sedate, respectful acceptance of yourself in all your totality — your flaws, your quirks, your talents; all that makes you unique but also all that intrinsically links you to all of humanity. Along with that is the recognition of the flaws and contradictions which make up humanity itself. None of which is something that causes anyone to march in the streets. In fact self-acceptance is a deeply private emotion.

How do I feel about being brown today? I recognize now that my ancestors came of a region of the world which was among the first to be civilized. Those ancient cultures not only traded their wares and ideas with each other, but also their DNA. The reality is that our bodies are a melting pot of many cultures and races, and hence all of human history is our history also. When you view your race in the context of history, society, and the wholeness of your being, it becomes absurd to feel either pride or shame about your ethnic origins. Sure, others may still have a problem with my skin tone, but now I am able to dismiss it as their stupidity, their ignorance. Their derision no longer has the power to topple my self-worth. I have reached self-acceptance, a Gestalt context for my skin color and my self-identity. Do I feel the need for ‘brown pride’? Absolutely not. A parade in celebration of brownness? I think not. A murderous hatred for non-browns? Now that would be shameful.

Is Beauty An Illusion?

June 25, 2012

Aishwarya Rai

“At seventeen I learned the truth,” sang Janis Ian, “that love was meant for beauty queens.” And so those of with ravaged faces, presumably, hung out at the library, consoling ourselves we were beautiful on the inside. Beautiful people get all the breaks: better service, more respect, even better jobs. They mesmerize us. Our minds stop, we lose ourselves for a moment in their presence. But we also feel inadequate, imperfect as human beings.  Heck, even unattractive people discriminate against plain people. What can be done? Short of running to a cosmetic surgeon? Is being beautiful what we imagine or is it just another myth?

Think of the most beautiful woman ever. Elizabeth Taylor, GretaGarbo, Ashwarya Rai? Whomever you pick, the chances are she is an actress. This is no co-incidence. For beauty is a kind of acting. It is a make believe. I was greatly impressed when MAC Cosmetics employed Ru Paul to its spokesmodel. Ru Paul appears to be a typical,  blond bombshell. In fact he is a rather nerdy looking, skinny black man. But he, like many drag queens, knows how to work the beauty trick. We are lied to using lighting, make up, hair design, clothing, accessories, posture, walk, voice, facial expression, digital enhancements, cosmetic surgery. Famous beauties may need less work, nevertheless they employ the same bag of tricks as drag queens. At best this is cheating, at worst we are being deluded.

I mean, don’t we all look good some of time?  Each of us, even the plainest among us, has a few good photographs: when the light is right, at the right angle, and when our outfit is flattering. Greta Garbo was (and is still) considered the epitome of perfection. Make up students are told her face proportions are the most ideal. The Swedes didn’t think so. Greta was an average starlet in her native Sweden. Then she came to Hollywood and met Louis B Mayer. His team of make up artists created a special make up for her. Couturiers designed a look.Photographers created magic. Her flawlessness was manufactured. It was as big a lie as Ru Paul.

A young pretty face is so powerful that it implies the body must taste like ice cream, it must smell of fresh fruit. Where as an old, ugly face is assumed to be attached to a body that smells like a sewer. So powerful is this illusion that people sometimes pay good money for an intimate taste of young pretty flesh. But here is a reality check: The secretions of the beautiful are no less rancid than those of unattractive people.  No matter how firm the flesh or smooth the skin, when he or she wakes up his mouth reeks, her skin is oily and the hair is a mess. You just never believe it when you see these demigods in print. These thoughts may sound strange at first, but they are a reality-check to the beauty myth constantly sold to us.  The truth is everyone of us needs a plethora of soaps, shampoos, deodorants, colognes, mouthwash, toothpaste, talcum powder to keep from stinking. I mean, would any of us want to travel inside a sewer pipe? Probably not. What is inside a sewer pipe comes from human bodies (the old and the young, the pretty and the plain). If you think about what the human body is made of, it is food. And food is a perishable commodity. Leave out food for any period of time and it will stink. Leave the body unwashed and it too will stink. Beauty is not even skin deep. That watercolor complexion you see in magazines is, literally, made up.

I am not proposing that we constantly remind ourselves how odious the human body really is, rather I am suggesting we give ourselves a reality check whenever we feel captivated by the body beautiful. Or perhaps repelled by a hideous one. Haven’t we all dismissed off a grubby old homeless man on the street? Ordinary people make assumptions about the worth of a person based on the absence of beauty as much as the presence of it. I am saying that if we remind ourselves that beauty is an illusion it cannot overwhelm us. The spell is broken. Thereafter we can behave as rational, compassionate human beings towards all. I believe part of the reason the aged and the homeless are invisible for city dwellers is because of the value placed on appearance. If however, you were to look into their eyes, you will see beauty. It is the only part of the human body that is beautiful. Specifically, it is the light in the eyes. When a body dies, that beauty disappears. When we speak to a person, the light of eyes are the only part of them worthy of looking into. The rest is all window dressing.

Getting What You Deserve

February 25, 2012

A Self-styled Dame, Housewife, Superstar

My friend Chris refuses to have an internet in his home. I used to just think it eccentric, but now I believe his avoidance of the internet is a symptom of something more serious. He has applied for many better paying jobs over the years. In his contact information he includes his cellphone, street address and an e mail which he rarely ever checks. He has been invited for job interviews by e mail and because he does not check it he has missed more than a few chances for advancement. It is my belief that what he is doing, unbeknown to himself, is sabotaging himself because a part of him does not believe he deserves to do better.

He is hardly alone in this. Tabloids are full of celebrities who, after years of public adoration, press the self-destruct button. It is almost as though they reach a point where they feel they do not deserve the praise, the fame, the riches. Closer to home, we all can think of teenage girls who have dated rebel boys that are so blatantly not good for them. “I can change him,” they say. Or, “He is misunderstood.” There are the obese women who, after months of punishing dieting, reach their ideal weight, only to put it all back on again. It used to amuse me to see all the smokers outside of the cancer hospital, sitting in their wheelchairs and hospital dressing gowns, tethered to an IV tube, still unable to give up the habit that got them into that state in the first place. And what can the reason be for gay men to still engage in risky behavior despite thirty years of HIV in their midst? It is almost as though we have a little voice inside us telling us “this is what you deserve”.

Less dramatically, but no less damagingly, we limit our selves by the choices we make. My niece settled for a career as a Physician’s Assistant while her brother headed off to medical school. She gets peeved when people ask her why she didn’t pursue an M.D. as well. When I was furnishing my apartment I decided upon Barcelona chairs. The authentic ones were sumptuous, but I was happier with their Chinese knock-offs.  I often buy second-hand furniture, or purchase clothing from the discount bins or during January Sales. I call it thrifty but I have to wonder,  does a part of me feel that I do not deserve top quality goods?

The opposite of this are the people  who brim with self-confidence. They are not shy about aiming high, driving the best cars, living in the fanciest homes, moving socially upwards. Their very body language says:  “I deserve only the best”. Sometimes this internal dialogue is conscious, but often it is subliminal. We all begin life with undefined potential, but soon our families, our peers, our culture define us by setting limits. Of course, if we over-step our ambitions others do not hesitate to push us back. Sometimes I think the whole function of the high school guidance counsellor is to mock people’s dreams. Teachers have subtle ways of  evaluating us beyond the grades they assign. Bullies make it their life’s work to keep people in their place. Anyone who is not male, not white, not beautiful, is reminded by every magazine cover, every TV show that he is a bit-player in life.

However the fault it not wholly with others, we define ourselves with our choices. As a fiction writer I understand very well that to breathe life into a character I need to describe in detail his choice of hairstyle, his career, his diet, even what he wears to bed. All of this minutiae reflects for the readers the character’s inner personality. It seems to me that we humans are compelled to continually keep defining ourselves to the world , albeit  sub-consciously. “That dress is me,” says the fashionista.  “Those are my people I am defending,” says the soldier. “My god is the only true one,” screams the fanatic. Artistic/ intellectual/ Conservative/ Buddhist/ bi/lesbian/ young/ old/black/Asian and the rest, are all more than labels, they are the bricks of our very identity. It is as though without these definitions we might cease to exist. We feel vulnerable, unsafe without borders to define us. Are we using fear to feel safe?

But what exactly would happen if we stripped our identity of all its definitions, what would be left? Maybe, just maybe our real selves. And what could that possibly feel like, beyond the initial fear? How would it be to have no gender or age, no race, no sexuality? To be part-less, unassailable, unchanging throughout time and ever the same in every place, to be complete, needing nothing, nothing to prove, nothing to achieve?

It feels like home.

Why Do Relationships Fail?

February 1, 2012

Hand-holding to Finger-pointing. 

Recently an acquaintance of mine died. She was eighty-three and in poor health so that was no surprise, however the legacy she left behind was. There were family she was not on speaking terms with, friends whom she had had bitter feuds. Although she had travelled much, and had belonged to many social and recreational groups, she died all alone, having collapsed in her bathroom and there was no one there to pick her up or call for an ambulance. She had not been without empathy; she gave much to charity both in time and money, and yet she was often impatient with siblings, she could be irritable with her friends, and co-workers had suffered her insistence on other people’s efficiency.  I do not hold her up as an object of ridicule, but rather as a mirror for myself. Who among us, if we are being honest, has not racked up enough dead relationships to fill up a cemetery?

When I pondered over this question with a young, rather handsome friend of mine, he remarked in utter frustration, “It’s easy to start a relationship, but keeping it, that’s a whole other ball-game.” I had to agree with him. But what could the reason be for that? It’s not as if we don’t get enough practice with relationships. It got me thinking about my own relationships over the years, both the successful ones as well the disasters. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could isolate the single underlying culprit responsible for failure in all relationships.

I began my inquiry with my most successful relationships, which have been with animals ( surprise! surprise!). Personal pets and other people’s cats and dogs instantly bond with me and I to them. Even when a dog has bit me or a cat has scratched me, I did not feel the urge to punish it. Then why not with family and friends? How come I seem to resent their biting remarks, and I don’t always forgive their aggressive behavior. Could the difference lie in the fact that with animals I have no expectations? I seem to expect the people in my life to follow some unspoken script, say the ‘right’ things, act  ‘properly’. Whereas I accept animals just as they are.

I began to think more  about the role of expectation within my other relationships. I do volunteer work at a homeless shelter where I serve food to the needy, and I also visit with geriatric patients at a hospital. At both these places they seem to return my care with love and appreciation. Mind you, neither the homeless nor the elderly are always on their best behavior. The elderly are known to make casually racist remarks. The homeless are ever ready to combat if feeling threatened. But with time I have learned to listen beyond their spoken words and even their tone of voice. I find that I am able to  respect their right to say and act according to their present predicament, I cannot reasonably expect them to conform to my idea of ‘normal’. Yet with family, friends, and co-workers I am less patient of their moods and less accepting of their right to be wrapped up with their own problems. Of course, only a fool would not appreciate that the problems of the elderly, who are sick and nearing death, and the desperate plight of the homeless are so much more obviously urgent than my needs. Perhaps that is why I am so readily able to drop all expectations.

Furthermore,because of the dire their predicament, I fully understand in advance that the elderly and the homeless will never repay me for my kindness.  Thus I am freely able to give selfless service to them. Yet I have fallen out with various family members because there were absent when I most needed them. I have had friendships fizzle out because, in my opinion, I was giving far  more than getting back. What if I had been able to free my personal relationships of this burden of expectations as casually I do in my volunteer work?

I suspect I would have more compassion and forgiveness for my family, friends, acquaintances, and co-workers. Perhaps I might recognize their right to be moody, to be selfish when they are too burdened with their  own problems to be there for mine. Maybe if I had demonstrated more compassion towards them in the past, they too might have responded with more forgiveness towards me whenever I too was preoccupied with myself, was ignorant of their needs, or thoughtless in my words.

While it is impossible to rewrite the past, what is possible is to move forward with lesser expectations. Who knows, perhaps when my end comes, it won’t be while lying prone upon a cold bathroom floor, with no one around me to hold my hand. Though I now know better than to expect it.

The Secret Life of Desire

January 23, 2012

The chatrooms are full of men looking for NSA, no-strings-attached, sex. But is there such a beast? Once upon a time, in the boyish days of puberty, sex was a solo act and purely a physical sensation. Then over the years other, more complicated needs crept silently into sex, bloating it into something big and important. This change occurred so secretly that we did not even notice, not until it was too late anyways.

At some point in our journey through adolescence we began to contemplate sex more and more often. We imagined creative new scenarios, began to anticipate them, plan for them. It is said young men think about sex every four minutes. What started as entertainment grew into a hobby that perhaps came close to an obsession. Have you noticed that with sexual desire, more than any other, it feels pleasurable merely anticipating it? This may sound harmless enough, but there’s a serious catch. We each experience the world through the colors of our thinking and not objectively. For example, a musician hears rhythms in city sounds, a politician sees voters. Spend too much time thinking about sex and soon people are either ‘attractive’ or ‘not attractive’. You may have observed with your friends that when they are with those whom they find attractive, they are at their charming best. Conversely, when with those whom they find unattractive they make no effort to behave well, as though the undesirable are invisible to them. May I suggest that if sex becomes a thing of importance in our lives we may begin to confuse admiration, respect, even friendship with sexual desire. It is easy to forget that love for another human need not involve sexual attraction at all. Of course, when people are viewed through the prism of sex, they can easily turn into labels: tops, bottoms, femm, butch, chubs, twinks, Rice queens, curry queens and on and on. Then where is their humanity?

Then there are the complication that come with the secondary pleasures of sex: approval and acceptance. One reason cruising for sex is so addictive is because of the buzz of being ‘selected’. The chase is more thrilling sometimes than the win. Although this thrill too comes with a hefty price: any man who subjects himself to the gaze of others soon hits the gym, dresses a certain way, preens endlessly. It is as though more efforts are put forth toward getting sex than enjoying sex.

Perhaps because being considered attractive by strangers is so pleasurable, we forget its shadow – rejection. In bar rooms, chat rooms, clubs, baths, men size each other up in a matter of seconds. Judgements are quick and harsh. We reject others at a glance but don’t forget others also reject us in an instant. Handling rejection is never easy at any age. Add to this the narrow societal ideals of desirability with regards to masculinity, race, height, weight, facial features and its no wonder many men find themselves feeling inadequate in ways they cannot change. Naturally their self worth and confidence pay the price. As if the fear of rejection was not enough,along come other fears. We could catch something, something possibly incurable that may kill us. We have to be ‘careful’, be ‘safe’. Sex, once a pleasant distraction, has now become dangerous. We could meet the wrong person and we could be robbed, beaten perhaps, even killed.

As a man matures he may come to believe that being in a committed relationship is the way to enjoy fearless sex. After all, cultural norms, religious upbringing, peer expectations all point to this ideal. But now the committed man finds that sex takes on yet another layer of significance: as a communication of love. And in the bargain he enjoys a sense of security for companionship in his old age and illness, perhaps even financial security. Sounds like a good deal, but hang on there: what about the jealousy if other men flirt with his partner? Then there is the partner’s jealousy about other men also. If a man strays he fears losing the companionship and the security of his relationship. There are even men who are lonely within a relationship, they feel unloved and unappreciated. Suddenly not having sex now has as many consequences attached to it  as having sex used to.

Is there some way to strip away all these add-ons and restore sex to the innocent pleasure it once was? There are men, either because of illness or because of age, who no longer crave sex, their minds no longer lust. If such men are at all self-aware, if they are sensitive to their desires and interested in their own well being, they will discover this fact about sexual desire. It coagulates, it co-mingles with other unrelated urges till it becomes big enough to dictate whether we are happy or miserable. By skillful observation, we can segregate and hence discover new ways to satisfy all those other needs ( security, companionship, approval, acceptance, love) without ever using sex. By cultivating the habit of honest observation, awareness without judgement or condemnation, we can free sex of with its cultural, religious, political and social trappings. It requires one to be highly sensitive, to be keenly aware of what is going in the mind, in the body, in life itself.  We might then discover a new kind of freedom. We might then be free to observe other desires also gang up against us and similarly dictate to us joy and sorrow. This alertness then opens the gateway to freedom. The freedom to choose which desire to indulge and which to ignore.
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