An unexamined life

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I just finished a lengthy discussion with an old friend of mine about life and labels and sexuality.  The last time we saw each other we were talking about what it may have been like if she ended up with two daughters and a wife instead of two daughters and a husband.  She has been in the middle of the sexuality spectrum since I have known her, and it was a toss up as to if she would end up with a man or woman.  Her husband is significantly older than her and it is likely that someday she will end up back in the dating pool, and may end up with a woman.  It would be such a pity if people jump to the conclusion that her marriage was a sham, or that she has been dishonest with herself or them all those years.

Because if there is one thing I think humans love to do it is label people, and put them in a box.  It is safe, predictable, comfortable, that is if they stay in that box.  By like me and you, most of us don’t.  Sometimes even the box we agree to be in is defined differently by you than it is me.

For example, I came out as a lesbian just as I was finishing my freshman year of college, I was about to turn 19.  Unlike many people I know, I came out before I ever had a girlfriend.  That isn’t to say I didn’t have a crush.  At the time I was dating men, and I had a lot of first and second dates, but rarely more.  I had met a guy, let’s call him Dan.  He was great, a school nurse, smart, funny, handsome.  I went out with him a dozen times.  But something was missing.  Parallel to dating Dan I was fantasizing about my best female friend, we will call her Sarah.  For all intents and purposes we were having an emotional affair, but nothing physical.  So, like many times before, I just told myself it was a fleeting crush, a phase and that it happened to everyone.  One night Sarah and I had plans to hang out just the two of us.  I was really looking forward to it.  It had been a long week of school and work and I only wanted to hang out with her.  Go to a bar, drink a few beers, talk and laugh all night.  Just as we were getting ready to leave her phone rang.  It was Joe, the dud of a guy she had a crush on that had been stringing her along.  Suddenly he wanted to go out.  “Do you mind?”  Sarah says…”He hasn’t called in weeks and I really want to see him.”  I knew that they would get drunk and have sex.  Gag.  So I slumped off and pouted and decided to call Dan.  He had just gotten back from the city teaching sailing lessons and yes, he would love to go out.  He picked me up and we went to Fridays, I guess that was a big deal when I was 18.  I shudder at the thought now.  I decided that I was going to do the same.  Get drunk and have sex, after all, maybe I would feel better and Dan was a great guy, nurse, sailing instructor, he had a JEEP!  We drank the night away (he was 21 to my 18 and the server didn’t seem to think I needed to be carded) and ended up at his house.  Halfway through the “adventure” I started crying, got up, got dressed and went home.  Immediately upon arriving my friend Sue was sitting in the kitchen.  “what’s up K” she asks.  “I am gay.”  As you can imagine that led to a few hours of talking and more crying and a few more beers.

At that moment I had never been more sure of anything in my life.  I was gay, that was it.  I am now a few days shy of 35 years old, married over to a wonderful woman (together 9 years last week) and we have a two year old son.

So what does this have to do with examining your life and labels and such.  Well, it wasn’t always so cut and dry.  I have struggled as a gay person, as many do.  It is damn hard sometimes.  Other times I forget, because I am really just a married person with a beautiful family.  So I moved from one label, straight, to another, gay.  And people have a whole different set of expectations of you depending on which you are.  Everyone in my life expected I would have children from a very young age, I always adored them and am a natural caretaker.  The minute I came out almost every person’s response was “but I thought you wanted kids?”  Hello, I didn’t give up my uterus!  I am the same person, same values, same everything, except now I want to date women.

My wife is more feminine than I am.  So of course once everyone got over the fact that we still both had our uterus’ they assumed she would give birth.  When in fact she wasn’t sure about being pregnant and I knew it I wanted to with every cell in my body.

You get my point.  As humans we label people and we expect them to behave according to that label.  And when they don’t we may question their authenticity, their honesty.  When in fact we may have no idea who they are or what they set out to think, feel, or do.

As long as you are self aware, and examining your own life and living as authentically as you can, screw what others expect.  It is your life.

As a practice I try to end my thoughts about other people with “maybe”.  Maybe there are this, or maybe there are that…or maybe not.  Nothing is certain.

As Socrates said, “an unexamined life is not worth living.”

Trigger – no not that kind

It happens to all of us, you may not even know it is occurring when it does. Your heart rate increases, your face may flush, maybe your palms get sweaty, if you have a nervous twitch it may show itself, and likely you get defensive, that is if you are like me. It is that moment when someone says something that irritates you, sets off an alarm, or otherwise triggers a reaction in you that likely stems from some set of experiences from growing up.

If there was ever a trigger in my life it is my mother. She has been visiting my wife, son and I for the last two weeks. What that means for me is I have been in my version of hell for two weeks. Culminating in last night’s conversation that started with:

“I feel like you constantly have a wall up with me. I thought we were going to be close again” quickly followed by, “what did you think of your childhood”. Now, of course she waited to have this conversation until my wife was safely out of the country (home for her brothers graduation) and of course not until she had a good two or three glasses of wine topped off by a few tokes of hash. I think I should provide some context here.

We all have a story, mine may or may not be like yours, to some degree. I grew up the oldest of three, (sister than brother) in a small house in a wealthy suburb in Illinois. We, however, were poor. My dad was a train conductor (ticket taker) and my mom stayed home. Not because we could afford for her not to, but because my dad did not allow her to work. My dad looked like a guy who worked on the railroad. A little over 6 feet tall, balding black hair, mustache, about 50 pounds overweight, all in the belly with a loud voice you could hear booming even down the street. The funny thing about his job is that he would take the commuters in and back on the morning ride, and then hung out at the station until rush hour that evening. During that time he drank beer, smoked and played poker with his buddies. For 5 hours! And somehow was paid to do this. What that meant for me is he always came home drunk, before the night even began. My mom had her own addiction issues, pills, coke (though not ever day), a smoker and light drinker, at least at the time.

We lived in a tiny bungalow on Brandon Avenue. I shared a bedroom with both my brother and my sister. There was puke dried on the carpeting in the hallway to our upstairs bedroom from the previous owners dog, I think it was permanent. Most of my friends came over one time to play and then weren’t allowed over again due to the daily screaming matches in my house and the never-ending flow of drugs, booze and cigarettes.

And that is just the beginning, really just a light-hearted set up to what was to follow. So you can imagine the trigger reaction I had when my mom challenged me as to why we weren’t close, and what I thought of my childhood. I mean, I have been in therapy for 12 years and have had my own executive coach for five, I coach people for a living to further help me get away from the childhood that I never stopped running from. So much so that I am 34 on the very cusp of 35, a Global Manager of Organization Development for a multi-billion dollar global company, have moved 4 times in 9 years, all for promotions and each time happier that I wasn’t living near my mother. In case I haven’t mentioned it, my dad has been missing for 18 years, so I didn’t have to work to get away from him.

She really didn’t know what that question was going to get her. And I am certain now she wishes she never asked.

One of the quotes that I use to remind myself that life is just life, and with it comes both suffering and joy is below:

“Pain is not punishment, and pleasure is not reward.” Pema Chodron

I don’t think my mom found it helpful when I ended our conversation with that. But it helps me realize life isn’t out to get me, or reward me. It just is.

Queensday – or weeks for some

Today is Queensday, the day in the Netherlands that the Queen is celebrated – the ultimate matriarch. Unlike in other countries where there is much pomp and circumstance, the Netherlands celebrates with a giant party, drinking, music, and…wait for it…a giant tag sale. The entire city of Amsterdam empties out their closets and cellars and throws down blankets to sell the crap they no longer need. Walking through Vondelpark where the “children’s market” is reminiscent to walking through grant park on the 4th of July during the taste of chicago, but with used clothes and toys for sale.

On this particular day my mother is in town visiting, and has been for two weeks. While she is technically the matriarch of my family, since my father has been missing for 18 years, she doesn’t embody any of the traits. Pill addicted, on disability for “pain”, she has spent the trip like a raver from london, taking her pain pills, drinking, hash, weed, cigarettes, sleeping until 10, and more drinking (did I mention it was my good scotch and cognac???). My mother has been here for two weeks and has acted as if it has been her queensday every minute of it. While I mistakenly thought she was coming to visit her grandson and help out around the house a bit, she was here to party. If you are like me in any way, spending more than 4 hours with your mother triggers you into some moment in the distant past when you were 16 years old – my skin prickles at the sound of her voice, everything she does sets me off, crunching potato chips and talking so loud it indicates she is in desparate need of a hearing aid.

Now you may think I am a bitch, talking about my mother this way. I have always had a hard time with the idea that “blood is thicker than water” or the “come on, she’s your mom” – we all have heard it. However, in my humble opinion, getting knocked up and giving birth does not entitle you to a lifelong loving, close relationship with your children in which they in turn take care of you (yes, there is some resentment there). You have to earn that. We do not owe our parents for giving birth, putting a roof over our heads and feeding us. That was a decision they made when they decided to get pregnant and go through with it. My mother is still making my sister pay her back for when she was in rehab at 13. Not kidding. I digress.

It is this feeling of entitlement that gets people, including me, into trouble. As adults no one owes us anything and vice versa. We can make the conscious choice to particpate in this world and give of ourselves. Give by listening, being compassionate, loving, taking care of ourselves first (yes, i said first), at the very least, treating people as you would a campsite in a national park – in better condition than it was before you arrived.

So how does one survive a two week visit by someone who triggers the worst of you? Well, a good friend of mine reminds me ofter of the Prayer of St. Francis, particularly three lines:

Grant me the ability to comfort rather than be comforted;

to understand, rather than be understood;

to love rather than be loved.

I use these three lines to deal with difficult people, including my own mother. I try to have compassion for her, she is unhappy, so I manage my expectations and don’t expect of her. The trick is not to lose yourself in this. For another time.

Happy Koninginnedag!

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