Wednesday, March 31, 2021

26. Drugs, Distractions, and Decisions: The Three Paths To Peace

Andrew Cuomo announced today that recreational use of marijuana would be legal in the state of New York.  Like most people, I was thrilled with this news, as criminalizing recreational drugs disproportionately impacts people of color and perpetuates racial injustices within the legal system.  As a therapist, I am simultaneously grateful yet cautious for the mental health opportunities legalized drug use has to offer.  

One of my goals when I moved to New York City in 2005 was to meet and learn from the legendary Dr. Albert Ellis.  Although he was the first practitioner in American Psychology to challenge and question the efficacy of “insight oriented” therapies, his place in history has been overlooked and erased by conservatives who prioritized a less sex-affirmative and humane approach to mental health and emotional wellness.  I nevertheless gained a much deeper respect for human resilience through his teachings, and came to understand that there are fundamentally three paths to serenity and acceptance.  Part of the joy of turning fifty for me has been to honor and respect how each of these have helped and supported me at various times in my struggles:

  This can be best described as the act of “keeping busy.”  There are times in our lives when we deal effectively with grief or pain by keeping very very engaged and active, hopefully in a way that serves our greater purpose.  I know this has been my go to throughout most of my work life — I have always found an alleviation of trauma and struggle by “escaping” into my work.  This was especially helpful when I was going through difficulties related to death and dying that were so prevalent during AIDS traumas, as well as this past year during the COVID19 crisis.  

Drugs:  This involves the act of intentionally changing your brain chemistry in order to experience a different mood or perception. This can be accomplished in several healthy ways, such as through a guided group experience, an intentional use of a psychedelic, a prescribed psychiatric medication, or simply a night out drinking with trusted friends.  Chemically altered states can offer an “as-if” experience, an experimental role play into another way of living and thinking, that can support therapeutic goals.  In my 20s, MMDA (Ecstasy) and various amphetamines allowed me to try on a confidence I aspired to feel in sober life, like wearing a costume or doing drag for a limited amount of time.  

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

27. The Dinner Table Approach To Dating Will Leave You Starving

"I hear so many cry for help
Searching outside of themselves
Now I know that His strength is within me"- Lauryn Hill


Imagine you and I go into a restaurant and I say, “I want a table.”  Perhaps I’m hungry and complaining, “I really want a table!” Eventually we get seated at a table and I start to feel some relief.  If everything goes well then the food is good, drinks are satisfying, maybe some dessert will be enjoyed. Then we prepare to leave.  Do I stand up and take the table with me?  Of course not!  But when I walked in I said, “I want a table.”  Turns out I didn’t want the actual table, I wanted the delights and privileges a table afforded me so I could feel filled up.  The table itself was not of value, it was just the means to a temporary ends.  I disregarded and dismissed the table once it no longer provided its stated function. 

Most people approach dating like they’re asking for a table in a restaurant.  They’re not looking to authentically connect with someone for the sole purpose of being together -- they are looking to obtain the perceived advantages and privileges of connecting with that person as a means to an emotional end.  They think that their experience of feeling loved, valued, stable, and secure come from someone outside themselves. This is the very belief system that is often fraught with conflict, disappointment, and loneliness, as it shapes human connections as a transactional means to an ends instead of an ends to themselves.  It positions people to see relationships as way to get something they don't have as opposed to increasing something they already are.

It makes perfect sense that people would believe that their sense of self and identity comes from another person.  That is pretty much what every fictional story and cultural norm teaches about dating.  In this distorted view of romance you are lost and empty until that other person makes you feel “special” or “complete.”  You are afforded the opportunity to feel worthwhile after another person recognizes you as such.  This mythology is at the center of ubiquitous fairy tales like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo & Juliet, and plays out in nearly every Hollywood romcom I’ve ever seen. 

Throughout my twenties I was attracted to men with a specific set of characteristics that I describe as “charismatic narcissism.”  These are the people who would “light up the room” when they would walk in, commanding attention and regard by all others around them.  They appeared to exude a certainty I lacked, a confidence I desired, a magnetism I envied.  

Monday, March 29, 2021

28. You Can Start Again

I was 38 years old when a NYC yellow cab came this close to bumping me.  I was crossing 2nd Avenue on the way to work in Metropolitan Hospital anticipating having to face another day of being seen as difficult and "not a team player.”  Unless you’ve been on the receiving end of tacit disapproval and consistent microaggressions, it’s hard to know how much effort is involved in showing up to work prepared and cheerful under these circumstances.  I was likely dreading another day of this when a cab screeched to a stop, coming within four feet of hitting my leg.  My first response was to think, “I wonder how much time off I could get if it just tapped me?”

Needless to say, this was a wake-up call.  When you fantasize about getting hit by a cab on your way to work, you know you’re not living your Best Life. 

I knew I wanted and deserved a better career that this.  So, I mustered the courage to quit and start my own independent psychotherapy practice where I could work with clients the way I had always dreamed of working.  Starting my own business in 2010, in the middle of an economic recession, may not have been the wisest strategy.  But it was imperative for my mental and physical wellness to find healthier ways of generating income.  Eventually it led to writing another book, learning about PrEP, and getting to teach about PrEP and U=U around the world.  The uncertainty was scary in the beginning, it was unpredictable at many times, but ten years later I can say this was one of the wisest and most loving decisions I have ever made for myself. 

In 2015 I met a gorgeous man named Adam Singer.  I could tell he was bright, innovative, passionate about helping the world, and had great insights about the fashion industry he had worked in for three decades.   But I could also see a general restlessness and frustration that his creative talents, leadership skills, and business acumen weren’t being utilized to their potential.  He experienced daily malaise and dread having to go into an office where his true expertise and talents weren’t being appreciated. 

Adam in Adam’s Nest , 2018
On the eve of his 49th birthday I sat him down and asked him, “What would you really like to do?”  Adam described his dream of owning a T-shirt shop in Provincetown that would sell fun clothes, books, artwork, as well as teach about social issues and donate to agencies like Planned Parenthood, Ali-Forney Center, ACLU, and many more.  From that point on, Adam began to create “Adam’s Nest.” He has now spent five years actively running a business which fully expresses his heart, his humor, his convictions, and his creative vision.  Subsequently, people from around the world have visited his shop on Commercial Street and continue to stay in contact with him throughout the year.  They continuously remark on the joy they feel when they walk into Adam’s store, and respect his business model of using commerce to help others.  It took incredible courage and conviction to change his life and follow his dream in his late 40s, but the reward and satisfaction he experiences today demonstrates it was well worth the risk.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

29. The Simple Joys

The longer I live, the more pandemics I survive, the more grief and loss I witness, the more I appreciate the simple joys in life.  The last five years have been some of the most challenging in my life given the increase of hate crimes, violence, Trumpism, and COVD19 tragedies.  At the same time these strains enabled deeper level of gratitude for persons, places, and things that help me to feel abundance and peace, even if only for short periods of time.  My simple joys through the past 50 years include (but are not limited to) the following:

— My mother’s hugs
— 36-year catalogue of Pet Shop Boys music
— The cheese slipping off the first bite of pizza
— Listening to Dolly Parton reading, “My Life And Other Unfinished Business
— Seeing Adam Singer smile
— The opening theme of Days Of Our Lives
— The moment the New York subway goes WHOOSH while entering the station
— Waking up without chronic pain
— Reading a non-fiction book that enriches my soul and awareness
— Seeing clients in my therapy office
— Teaching a reluctant group of healthcare providers about PrEP
— Watching Bruce Richman teach a reluctant group of providers about U=U
— Listening to Michelle Obama reading, “Becoming"
— Treat Williams dancing to I’ve Got Life on a tabletop in Hair 
— Jolking (jogging + walking) at least 3 miles every day
— The final 10 minutes and 38 seconds of “Xanadu
— Receiving affirmation from Goldie I’m doing the work today that I set out to do in 10th grade
— Opening a new bottle of PrEP
— Listening to Tina Turner Chant 
— Seeing snow pile up on the streets before the dogs get at it 
— The first 15 minutes of Don Lemon’s show
— Listening to Labrinth’s Miracle [daily during COVID19 lockdown]
— The moment when an airplane lifts up from the ground into the air
— “Oy With The Poodles Already"
— Opening a new jar of peanut butter
— Hairy chests 
— Owning my apartment in New York 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

30. Consequences Over Cancellations

Ntombi Howell (1951-2003)
It has recently become commonplace for people to complain of culture that espouses “PC” values and “cancellations” as a means of censorship.  To me the real issue is not one of politics or free-speech, but of values and compassion.  What is the intent behind one’s speech?  What are the values being enabled?  And where is the integrity in both the actions and reactions to the problematic words or actions?  Can one be redeemed when they have erred?  How can a society learn and grow from egregious behaviors?  

I had the privilege of attending graduate school with the great Ntombi Howell from 1995-1997 at New College of California.  As a self-identified "black woman lesbian ex-drug addict" Ntombi demonstrated a strong presence, a deep connection with Spirit, and commanded tremendous reverence from all around her.  Her entire energy was founded in inclusion and intention.  At the same time, she didn't take crap from anyone, including the faculty.  If I or anyone in the classroom said something ignorant or off-point she would calmly yet firmly "invite" us back into our humanity and help us to understand how something we were saying, or something in the education we were receiving, was reflective of white supremacist patriarchal conditioning.  It wasn't a condemnation or cancellation, it was simply an illumination and invitation to expand awareness and consciousness.   By doing so she made space to allow dozens of students and faculty identify how our words may contradict our intentions in the classroom, as well as the therapy room.  It certainly wasn't her job to do this, but it was definitely in alignment with her Work as a healer and teacher through the course of all-too-brief life.  

I learned even more about exemplifying therapeutic consequences and compassionate discipline while working with Joe McHugh in 2002 in the Indio clinic of the Riverside County Department of Mental Health.  From 9am-3pm, the clients would attend this outpatient setting as a way to get additional support, clinical evaluation, group therapy, and constructive life skills.  These were individuals who often were just released from an inpatient psychiatric unit, adjusting to their medications, coming down from their drug of choice (usually crystal meth), and/or we didn’t know what the hell to do with them so we had them come in for assessment.  Needless to say, on any given day there was potential for conflict, tension, outbursts, and someone saying something offensive or hurtful to another person.

Joe ran these groups with both an iron fist and a loving hand.  He walked the fine line between stern disciplinarian and kind healing presence.  He allowed people to express their thoughts and feelings up to the point of causing harm to others.  And when someone’s acting out merited removal, Joe was not above removing them.  

However,  Joe never “cancelled” anyone.  He demonstrated that there are consequences for one’s actions.  He let the participants know that their safety was paramount, and has willing and able to remove any threats when necessary.  He clearly communicated that if you were the source of aggression, hate speech, violence, or threats, that privileges and services would be lost.  BUT, as Joe told me,  “Make sure there is always a clear path for them to return.”  By holding this stance Joe created an opportunity for groups to process conflict, injury, and subsequent insight and growth.  

Friday, March 26, 2021

31. The World Is Not Ending Tomorrow...

...But If It Is I’m Going Down Laughing.

Some of my earliest memories was local NBC news and watching anchorwoman Kelly Lange tell us that Southern California was going to suffer a massive earthquake at some point during the 1970s that would cause massive death and destruction.  I lost a lot of sleep worrying about it.  The earthquake never happened.  

As mentioned in Lesson 38, I also heard a lot about the Manson Family running around Los Angeles planning to come into my room and kill me at night.  I lost a lot of sleep worrying about it.  The Family never came.  

In the 1980s, an overzealous and excitable relative of mine sat me down and told me how President Reagan and the Russians were building nuclear arms that would be sure to result in massive death and destruction. I lost a lot of sleep worrying about it.  The war never happened. 

Throughout the late 1990s the media focused on the Y2K frenzy. It prophesied that the changing of numbers in the the Christian calendar would result in financial and nuclear calamities all across the globe resulting in, you guessed it, massive death and destruction. I lost some sleep worrying about it.  The meltdown never happened.      

After September 11, 2001, the U.S. government had us believing that terrorists in Iraq were actively building nuclear arms with the intention of destroying more American lives. They used charts and graphs and red alerts to create confusion and widespread panic that massive death and destruction would be a regular way of American life. I doubted the validity of this, and didn't lose much sleep about it.  The ensuing violence (100+ murders per day for the past 20 years) came primarily from U.S. citizens, not “foreigners.”

After November 8, 2016, many of my close friends feared that the Election of Donald Trump spelled death for us all.  They paniced.  I slept.   

When COVID19 hit New York City in 2020 I took a break, I believed from watching the news that I might die.  So I slept a lot.  I made a will.  I did a lot of walking.  I ate a lot of pizza.  I watched the entire series of “Mom” at least four times.  I laughed out loud.  And I’m still here. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

32. We Are All Harm-Reductionists Now

I learned on January 7, 2021, that I received two full doses of the AstraZeneca COVID19 vaccine in November and December of 2020.  I was officially unblinded in the clinical trial after essential workers in New York State had become eligible to receive the shots and I did not want to get two.  During this discussion I was basically told, “With two full doses you are about 74% less likely to get COVID19.  But if you do get COVID19 it is extremely unlikely that you would get sick from it, and the antibodies would make the viral load so low that it is nearly 100% untransmittable to others.  However, there are still a lot of strains mutating out there and we don’t know how much protection you will have from the newer versions.  It is likely you will have protection from most, but maybe not as much protection from others.  It is important to still wear masks because they further reduce the potential for spread.”  In other words, “Live your life but take reasonable precautions not to harm yourself or others.”  

Suddenly, this conversation felt very familiar.

When I started having sex with men in 1989, AIDS was still rampant throughout the gay male community.  Efficacy of the medical tests was poor given they only gave you an estimate of whether you had AIDS six months prior to when the test was given.  It was estimated a very high percentage of the community had AIDS and didn’t know it [note I’m using the terminology “AIDS” instead of “HIV” because that was the commonly used term at the time].  

I knew having sex with other men could lead to death.  But I was also told that condoms offered about 90% protection, give or take.  In my horny teenage mind, I remember negotiating, “Okay, 90% is not 100% but it certainly makes it less likely I can have sex without traumatic outcomes so I’m willing to go with that.”  I used the calculations to decide for myself what level of risk was acceptable, and set out to enjoy myself while actively reducing potential harm.     

When I started volunteering at Larkin Street Youth Center in 1994, part of my training was to learn about needle exchange and street outreach.  The message was, “We’re here to save lives not to judge” and how needle exchange was one of the most effective and essential forms of preventing AIDS in San Francisco.  They shared with us a framework called “Harm Reduction” that asserted people had the right to clean needles so when they used IV drugs they would be less likely to pay for it with their lives.  It seemed to me that needle exchange and condoms had a lot in common -- they both respected the right to enjoy pleasure, and/or to do sex work for survival, without having to die for it.   Over the years as I worked in outpatient substance abuse agencies and methadone, this compassionate tenant would inform interventions again and again.  

When I first learned in detail about the science that supported PrEP use in 2011, the estimate was that daily use of PrEP would reduce risk of acquiring HIV by about 92%.  In my horny 40s mind I remember negotiating, “Okay, 92% is not 100% but it certainly makes it less likely than I can get HIV by having sex without condoms so I’m willing to go with that”  Once again, I used the calculation to decide for myself what level of risk was acceptable, and set out to enjoy myself while actively reducing potential harm.  [Later it was determined that daily use of PrEP actually reduced risk of HIV by nearly 100%.]  

Harm reduction means getting as many facts as you can, gathering the available data, and then making a calculated risk accordingly.   It means asserting that the quality of your life is meaningful, that fun is valuable, and if given enough knowledge and tools you can take relevant steps to mitigate and reduce negative consequences from your choices.  It is rarely a sum-zero game, it is usually an active weighing of options that help to ultimately arrive at the point,  “This decision will allow me to have the maximal experience with the minimal consequences.”  

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

33. Cause & Effect: The Key To Reduce Suffering

"I don't think a lot of people understand how important food for the mind is.  What the Practice does is help you to feel better, helps you to think different.  If you think different, you think correctly, so that means you can help yourself get the things you want.   It's really very important what you say, what you think, how often you say it." -- Tina Turner

Most of us have learned that if we are feeling bad, sad, or generally annoyed that it has to be someone else’s fault.  Our culture conditions us to blame a partner, a spouse, a family, a boss, a friend on Facebook, a stranger in traffic, or even a celebrity for how we feel.  This belief has been reinforced in politics, entertainment, and psychotherapists who ask, “How did that make you feel?”

The truth is no one has the power to make you suffer.  Ask yourself if you have at anytime said the following:

___________ makes me upset
___________ got me angry
___________ is really stressing me out right now

Now let’s take a look at what is inherent in these words: Power is being assigned to someone or something outside yourself.  This is a common practice in the United States -- for people to believe it is their duty to find ways to control the people around them so they can minimize and avoid negative emotions.  Relationships are subsequently used as a means to an end (to feel “good” or “special”) versus a genuine connection or friendship.   If you are allowing someone else’s thoughts or decisions to determine 100% of how you feel, then you’re in for a pretty bumpy ride. 

The alternative is to recognize that most of our emotions / moods/ feelings are the “effect”.  Our thoughts/ beliefs/ perceptions are the “cause.”  If we are unsatisfied with our effects, then the first place we go to change the effects are by shifting the “cause.”  On nearly all occasions, my mood changes when I identify the thoughts or the “shoulds” that are causing them. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

34. Helping Others Feels Good (or "Grab A Shovel")

Yesterday's lesson was about finding the Helpers in your life.  Today's is about learning how to become a Helper in your life.  

Throughout my entire fifty years I have found comfort and purpose by being of service.  Helping others has always been a way of helping myself. Exactly what form it takes has varied a lot over the past five decades.  As a small child I found great satisfaction contributing to my father’s city council campaigns.  I may have only been licking envelopes or folding letters, but I liked knowing that I had done something important to help the cause.  In high school I was often the one other kids would come to with support for their problems, and it felt good to support other teens struggling. 

In college I began volunteering for HIV prevention organizations, combating homophobia programs, and creating a social group for LGBTQ students called “The Porter Lavender Network.”  My greatest success was when I booked the legendary Bettina Aptheker to attend a ‘fireside chat’ with the queer students of Porter College in 1993 just weeks before graduation.  I clearly remember asking her, “Bettina, there are SO many causes that need attention.  How do we know what to do once we leave here?”  Her response: “Damon, there is always going to be a lot of pain and suffering in this world.  There is always going to be an overwhelming pile of shit that needs shoveling.  It doesn’t matter where you start.  Just grab a shovel and start digging.”  Okay! 

Pursuing therapy seemed like the most natural way to channel this intention. Unfortunately, many sectors of American Psychology discourage practitioners from speaking out, acting up, fighting loudly for important causes, taking political positions, and speaking openly about sex and pleasure.  It took awhile but I eventually found my professional voice in the mid-00s by practicing a mix of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), Social Justice Therapy, and Narrative Family Therapy.  I remain critical of therapists today who claim to “help” but refuse to do anything to change the structures that create and perpetuate systemic suffering. 

By 2020 I had found a rewarding and sustainable mix of working in my therapy office in Manhattan while volunteering hours teaching and educating about PrEP in the Facebook “PrEP Facts” group and speaking at conferences around the world.  It often felt like keeping many plates spinning at once, but I found it deeply satisfying to engage with my community on so many levels. 

And then COVID19 hit.

Monday, March 22, 2021

35. Look For The Helpers

The Helpers are those who educate, inspire, and offer us hope that life can get better. 

I was not a big fan of The Mister Rogers Show as a child, but I do remember hearing this sage piece of wisdom somewhere early in life.  If there was an earthquake, look for the helpers.  If there’s a fire, look for the helpers.  If the Manson Family comes to kill you, well then you’re out of luck but if you do somehow get away, look for the helpers.  

Throughout my academic and professional careers I have always looked for the helpers, the mentors, the role models to whom I could turn to for guidance and clarity.  These are people I would ask for advice when I was lost, confused, scared, knocked down, or discouraged.  I can’t imagine what it would be like turning fifty without knowing the people who have helped me get back up, become the human being I want to be, and continue to show me I still have a long way to go:

Nancy Goldberg (“Goldie”) is the first adult who helped me learn how to challenge the toxic status-quo and not accept artificial limitations and dysfunctional standards in 1988.  For more than four decades Goldie kept her classroom door open during lunch and after school for the outcasts and misfits at Culver City High School.  Not coincidentally, she was one of the first confidants for dozens of LGBTQ youth over the years including me.  She is still a vibrant member of her family and community, and someone who has shown me how one can have purpose, passion, integrity, and plenty of piss and vinegar at all stages of life.

Margaret Benson Thompson began working with me in year two of my MFT internships in California in 1997.  I was professionally beat down pretty badly during year one (that story is coming up), and came away from that placement doubting myself and my therapeutic skills.  During one of our first conversations I was freaking out because a client hadn’t returned for a session, and I had been conditioned to believe that a client’s absence was a reflection of their therapist’s skills.  I gave Margaret all the reasons why it was my fault the client he didn’t come back:  I said the wrong thing, I crossed my legs at the wrong point, I left the wrong message on their answering machine, I wore the wrong color shirt, maybe I looked tired, maybe my shoe was untied… to which Margaret said, “Nah, I don’t think we have that much control.”  And from that point on, I knew I was going to be okay.   Margaret gave me permission to learn how to show up as myself in the therapy room, to trust the learning process, make mistakes, be playful, find the "magic" of doing therapy.  She helped me to learn we’re not in control of our clients showing up, especially when they are dealing with systemic oppression and traumatic stressors outside the clinic.  She taught me to believe in myself as a therapist and that is a gift I have always been grateful for.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

36. No One Opens Their Mind Or Heart When They Feel Shamed Or Attacked

The COVID19 pandemic has revealed the very best and the very worst of human instincts and social behaviors.  In my fifty years I have never firsthand witnessed such incredible acts of bravery by emergency medical providers, essential workers, supportive volunteers, and diligent scientists.  But I have also never seen such aggressive and hostile actions enacted publicly under the guise of moral indignation and public-health policing.  I have never watched so many individuals inappropriately mismanage their trauma by using shame and humiliation to publicly denigrate other individuals.  As a therapist in New York City I hear the experiences from people on the receiving end of these strategies who were not only living with the trauma of COVID19, but also the horror of being scrutinized by strangers on electronic platforms.  In the end, the criticisms did nothing to change people’s behaviors, they only served to drive the actions underground.  The gatherings still happened, the dates still occurred, the group sex was in full swing in New York City and surrounding areas - it was just more hidden and covert, and still is today.  

This is because no one opens their minds or hearts or changes their behavior when they feel shamed or attacked. In a debate, in a protest, in a meeting, or in a classroom, on social media, condemning another person puts them on the defense, and thereby strengthens their resistance. You sabotage your own position when you try to use embarrassment or humiliation to get another person to change. It typically results in them fighting back harder, deepening their original stance, and driving their actions underground.  That’s all well and good if your intent is to make enemies and increase opposition. But if you have a true investment in helping others and reducing harmful behaviors, then it calls upon utilizing a different skill set. 

I can definitely relate to mismanaging trauma and rage.  In my twenties I was referred to as a "hothead" on more than one occasion. I had a tendency to inappropriately express righteous indignation and outrage about social injustice in classrooms and internship settings. I used left-wing rhetoric as a vehicle for expressing the anger that I had not been permitted to express throughout my childhood. I could easily and acceptably “call out” the object of my attack as a hypocritical homophobic racist sexist bigot.  However, in retrospect I can see I accomplished very little except to make my opponent's argument stronger, and to demonstrate that I was the one who was being intolerant and rigid. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

37. There Is No Universal Consensus Of Sexy

Truth be told -- I typically like the "before" pictures better.  I have never been attracted to six-packs.  I
have never found anything titillating about hairless oily boys. I like full bodied men with curves and confidence who look like they know how to appreciate a pizza.  And thanks to platforms like Scruff,  I know at least 20 million other guys agree.

I spent most of my early twenties working at a popular Castro restaurant in San Francisco called, "The Patio Cafe." The owner had a propensity for hiring "twinks," ie, skinny younger men who personified a fantasy of eternal youth. On Sundays there would be about nine of us working together on the floor. One might think that nine gay men, who had relatively similar physical characteristics, around the same age, would be interested in the same kind of boys.

However, after working the same brunch on and off for seven years in the 1990s,  I found the opposite to be true.  Every male who walked in was the object of desire for at least one of us. It didn't matter how young, old, short, tall, dark, light, hairy, smooth, hefty, thin, clean, dirty, rich, poor, bald, long-haired, nice, mean, smart, drunk, sober, or dumb, he appeared. There was always at least one of us that said, "WOW that guy is hot," while another said, “Girl, you are crazy."

It was then I came to the understand that there is no universal consensus of what is considered "sexy." Different people eroticize different qualities in other people. Some people like their partners to be older, some younger, some hefty, some thin, some with more body hair, some with less. One could go into deeper reasons about "why" one person is more attracted to some type than another, but what's the point? Attraction is attraction, desire is desire, sexy is sexy.  You have it for someone or you don’t.

This runs contrary to what the media wants us to believe. Television, movies, and magazines perpetuate the myth that there is only one ideal: young and thin. The goal of these images is to scare you into thinking you are not sexually appealing to others, so you'll buy products to make you feel confident. People are fed these messages so insidiously that they come to believe that young and thin is a universal ideal of sexual desirability, and then live in great fear of not being seen as fuckable to others.

Friday, March 19, 2021

38. Fitting In Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

As a child growing up in Southern California in the 70s and 80s I felt afraid, very afraid.  One of my first memories was being told by an older child that the Manson Family was going to break into my home, tie me to the ceiling beam, stab me to death, and write “pig” all over the walls with my blood.  This is a fairly disturbing thought for an adult to digest but for a child no more than five it gave me severe terror and is likely the reason I still can’t sleep with a window open.

I did what most children do when they're traumatized, I tried to block it out.  But every now and then a television show would preview an interview they had airing with one of the convicts, or their families, or their lawyers.  Whenever local news needed to boost the ratings, teasing a new grotesque detail of the murders was guaranteed to terrorize and titillate.  

At some point in 9th grade I was reading Michelle Philips’s autobiography “California Dreaming” as she described an incident where the Manson family tried to break into her home to kill her too.  Somehow they didn’t succeed and she described them “waddling” away from her home.  That image scared the bejesus out of me but this time I wanted to face my fears.  As overwhelmingly terrified as I felt, I was also curious.  How did Charles Manson get people to kill for him?  Why would they do this on their own volition?  What was the gain for them, what was the reward?

Thursday, March 18, 2021

39. Life Is Better As A Purple Turkey

“You can run with the crowd — which is fine; lots of people do — but if you’re someone who thinks outside of where other people want you to think, you might have some trouble. Because not everybody is going to get it. Not everybody is going to like it. And you have to be prepared to be alone. If you’re okay with all of that, then you can have the life that you want.” — Whoopi Goldberg

In 1979, my third grade teacher Diane Gerwin assigned her students the task of decorating a paper turkey at Thanksgiving so she could display them on the wall. As other kids used crayons to color their turkey the standard brown and white colors, I remember demanding marking pens, so I could celebrate my turkey in bright purples and some blues. Fortunately she appreciated a frustrated eight- year-old diva, gave me some pens, and remarked, "You really have to do things in your own special way, don't you?"

The truth is, I have never fit in with the crowd. As a boy I would have much rather stayed home alone watching soap operas than play a sport outside. As a teen I would have much rather gone off to see Rocky Horror or scrubbed toilets at my job at Denny's than have anything to do with a high school function. I am still not sure if my tendency to do things my own way was an innate instinct, or a defensive reaction to sensing I was “different” and couldn't fit in, even when I tried.    
Nevertheless I thought all that would change when I went to college at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I perceived the campus as a utopia where I could be out as gay, expressive, and finally be an insider in a community of outsiders. Not so much. I entered in the Fall of 1989 to find that the gay community was an established clique who were shut down, unkind to strangers, and had very poor communication skills. Once again, my status as the odd-one-out was maintained.

However, this time I learned a different way of navigating the role of outcast. My friend Michael Santos was also dissatisfied and frustrated by the lack of support and community of the UCSC campus. He suggested that instead of complaining about it that we change things by starting our own group. It was through his guidance and organization that I learned how to come up with a mission statement, a budget proposal, and a plan of action. Soon enough, Michael and I were producing campus events for the "Porter Lavender Network" that were not only welcoming, social, and empowering, but were also drawing larger numbers than the other organizations. In other words, I learned in my early 20s that I could make doing things my own way a strength, not a liability.    

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

40. Social Media Has No Inherent Power

“Freedom threatens to degenerate into mere license and arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of
responsibleness.” - Viktor Frankl 

Earlier in January I was watching a feature on CNN about the victories in the Georgia runoffs, followed immediately by the terrorist insurrections on the U.S. State Capitol.  The pundits were dissecting how the violence came to pass, as one pundit stated, “Twitter just has too much power over people.”  This seems to have the cause and effect exactly backward. 

Twitter itself doesn’t have power.  The people who consume its services have power.  They are responsible for using it, sharing it, enjoying it, and inflating it.  A social media outlet can only have as much influence as its customers allow.  If you don’t believe me, try catching up with your buddies on Friendster today.   

I was late to the Internet.  I had no way of connecting to the world wide web until 1998, and even then it was only accessible through a job (sorry, United Health Care).  I spent those early days surfing discussions on soap opera message boards. I was thrilled at the idea of having meaningful conversations and exchanges with other soap viewers around the world.  But I saw right away that threads would quickly devolve into arguments, misunderstandings, and name calling.  From the brainwashing of Hope/Gina on Days Of Our Lives, to the endless Robin vs. Carly debates on General Hospital, to the dissecting of Reva’s clone on Guiding Light, the internet was fired up with opinions and angry battles.  I remember commenting, “This internet thing may work out if people stop expressing their repressed anger against each other.” 

I was pulled into social media kicking and screaming but eventually gave in and created a MySpace account in 2008.  Lo and behold, at age thirty-seven I found myself beginning to enjoy interesting, albeit limited conversations and exchanges with people around the world and thinking, “This is really fun.”  So when Facebook became the Next Big Thing, I thought, “Wow, an unlimited space to have conversations with people from all over the world, and catch up with people I’ve lost touch with.  What could go wrong?”

Initially very little.  In 2008, Facebook was still a space that most people were utilizing to find missing friends, make new contacts, keep up with family members, share shirtless photos, and genuinely engage in positive interactions with others around the world.   By 2012 it seemed the teeth were out, the knives were sharp, and conversations frequently degenerated into critique and nastiness? Why? 

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

41. "Don't Listen To That Old Bitch In Diapers"

Truth be told, I was not a great student in high school.  I wasn’t a horrible student either, I carried a solid “B” average.  My initial promise of being an ivy league candidate like my brother was dashed early on as I approached the Advanced Placement conveyor belt with contempt and disdain (based on how I was treated by the teachers, the feeling was quite mutual).

While attending “normal” (i.e, non-A.P.) classes at Culver City High, I developed a passion for the town of Santa Cruz, and made it my goal to go to college there. I obtained brochures, information, and visualized seeing myself belonging there, long before "picture boards" were in vogue. But when I sat down with my guidance counselor and told her my intentions, she proceeded to pull out charts and graphs to explain why I would not be able to get in. Citing my lackluster grades, no A.P. credits, mediocre S.A.T. scores, and all around lethargic attitude toward education, she recommended I not expend time and energy applying.
With tears in my eyes I left her office, and went to see my favorite teacher Nancy Goldberg, aka, "Goldie." You may not recognize her name, yet she stands alone as one of the unsung heroes in public education in California. For over four decades, she counseled and guided thousands of outcasts and misunderstood youth during lunch and snack breaks, giving us the opportunity to be seen, recognized, supported, and understood. 

So when I came to her in 1988 with deflated hopes and broken dreams, I knew that I would get sympathy. "What's goin' on?" she asked. I told her of my experience with the guidance counselor. "What college do you want to go?" she asked. I explained how badly I wanted to attend UC Santa Cruz. "Well don't listen to that old bitch in diapers," she replied, "We'll get you in!"

Monday, March 15, 2021

42. Pain Is Inevitable, Suffering Is Optional

In the Summer of 2000, Chris Bender and I bonded while he took exquisite care of his dying husband, Rick.  At 43-years-old Chris had already survived childhood abuse, trauma, violent homophobia, losing three husbands to AIDS, and was now preparing to lose a fourth to brain cancer.  I was 29-years-old and could not imagine how one could cope with such unbearable pain in their life and yet still maintain a sense of hope, optimism, love, and humor.  I asked him how he could live after suffering so much.  He quickly corrected, “Oh I feel pain, a lot of pain. I’ll be in pain for a long time. But I don’t suffer.”

What’s the difference?  Chris explained:  Pain is a natural response to a loss, to death, to change, to not getting something or someone you want.  It can be an emotional experience and/or it can also be physical.  If we are fully showing up and living life, we will feel pain and hurt at times. 

But suffering is different from pain.  Suffering is the meaning we derive from pain, our mind’s interpretation of pain.  Examples of suffering could be, “Life is so unfair, I’m a victim of the world,  why love anyone if they’re just going to abandon me, people are so cruel,” and so on.  Suffering is completely optional, it is a decision we can opt-out of anytime.  But if we don’t intentionally opt-out of it then it will opt-in to the mind and exacerbate pain, despair, depression, loneliness, addiction, and possibly self-harm. 

Chris and I had a lot of long talks about this subject as Rick slowly drifted in and out of a catatonic state.  To hear someone speak this way, while they are in the middle of a fairly catastrophic situation, made a strong impact on me and how I would live from that point on.  Anything can happen to us, we can be hurt in so many ways.  Yet our interpretation and response to the hurt is where we can assert agency, choice, and ultimately deeper understanding and calm. 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

43. You Can Love Yourself by Rethinking "Love" and "Self"

Illustration by Alberto Mier
While preparing this 50 Lessons series I had the great honor of being quoted in two features for CNN, both centering around themes of loving yourself around Valentine’s Day.  I thought they turned out pretty well, and that both articles offered solid advice on ways to grow and maintain love for one’s self and others during the entire year.  That is, however, until someone close to me said, “I understand what you’re saying. I just don’t feel love for myself. I never have.”  

So I realized that it may help to clarify what I mean by “love” and “self,” since the way I experience these concepts are very different today from how I would have described thirty years ago. 

When I talk about feeling “love,” I don’t mean an infatuated gotta-have-it adrenaline-rush love.  I don’t sit around inflating myself with affirmations and giving myself ecstatic kisses all day.  For me love is more accurately described as an overall energetic presence than an acute emotion.  It is an ever present experience that is calm, warm, and centering.  It is a recognition that I am merely nothing more than a vessel for Spirit, and in that context, using “I” or “Self” is a misnomer.  

In my world, we ALL contain the loving presence of God within us.  When I say “God” here I am not referring to a critical judge who decides who is naughty or nice.  “God” for me refers to a generous abundant energy, not a judging entity.  I use the term “God” interchangeably with “Spirit” or “Light” or “Cher” (because I’m still That Gay).  

In the spirit world there is no separation -- there is just infinite loving energy.  There are no bodies, no vessels, no “others”, just abundance.  We are living on this thing called “earth” in separate vessels called “bodies” that give us the illusion that we are distinct from one another.  In this world of separate bodies it is considered normal for people to think they can hurt an “other” without hurting themselves.  In the Spirit world we recognize all living things contain the energy of God, and it is impossible not to hurt a living thing without damaging the God in you at the same time.   

Saturday, March 13, 2021

44. Words Shape Experience

Heart Brain designed by Scott McPherson
I have always been fascinated by the reciprocal relationship between words and beliefs.   Do the words we speak reflect our beliefs and values, or do the words we're given create and sustain beliefs and values?  Do we create language to accurately reflect life experience, or do we have lived experiences based on (and limited by) the language we are using?
This chicken/egg debate has raged on through centuries of debates in Psychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality.  The different approaches of cognitive science investigate how words and language shape culture and society, and we continue to see the impact of that today in how people debate socially sensitive terminology.  One thing for certain remains clear:  The words we use impact our perceptions, our emotional reality, our sexual health, and our interpersonal relationships.  

I have directly experienced how changing language can improve my mental health and emotional functioning.  When I stopped using the word "should" at age nineteen I discovered a wealth of peace, empowerment, and relaxation.  I realized that the majority of my depression and anxiety came from oppressive "shoulds" I had internalized throughout my life that led me to believe I "should" be someone different from who I am.  Once I could challenge and change those "shoulds," I could begin to experience love, acceptance, and start helping others. 

I have now been working in mental health for nearly 25 years, and have observed that there are patterns of language and standard phrases that create and/or exacerbate human suffering, separation, and shame.  But because they maintain traditional norms, they are not regularly held up to scrutiny or challenge.  My therapy practice often involves actively exploring these concepts with individuals and couples to see if they reflect their true values and intentions.  Here are just a few examples:

“Should” -  As I mentioned above, one of the problems with "should" is how positions someone against reality.   I also find “should” problematic in the way it undercuts the speaker’s responsibility and agency.   When you say, “I should go now,” or “We should talk,” what are you really saying?  That you don’t take responsibility for your wants or desires?  That there was an election where someone voted on what you should be thinking or feeling?  Was there a committee? Were meetings held?  Cumulatively this is way of disavowing agency and blaming others for their feelings and identify as a victim.  Alternative:  “I’m going to go now” or “I would like to talk.”  These replacements offer the speaker agency and authority of their preferences and decisions. 

“Cheating”  -- In Rational Relating I made a case against  “The Myth Of Cheating.”  Basically I group the word “cheating” with the words “adultery” and “infidelity” --- all terms that were coined to weaponize sexuality and separate people who love each other.  By framing sex as a pawn in a game where one “cheats,” by attaching shame to sexual decisions, you set up an implicitly adversarial dynamic between two people that usually causes hurt and pain.  Alternative:  Having “Integrity.”  Anytime someone in a relationship acts outside their integrity, i.e, says one thing and does another, they are doing damage to their relationship.  It's not directly about sex or genitals, it's not about someone doing something “to” the other.  It just means that if I consistently act outside integrity in any form then there is no reason for a partner to trust me and feel safe being in a relationship with me. 

Friday, March 12, 2021

45. "It’s Like Something Is Choking Everybody. Only They Don’t Know They’re Choking."

I was 13-years-old when I went to see 1984’s “Footloose” in theaters four times.  Kevin Bacon plays Ren McCormack, a hip 1980s Chicago music-loving teen (skinny ties and all) stuck in rural Bomont, Utah, where it is illegal to dance. Ren makes it his mission to Fight The Power and liberate the oppressed adolescents of Bomont so that they might jump, shake, shimmy, and twirl rhythmically at their own will. 

Throughout the film Ren is verbally harassed, physically assaulted, set up on false drug charges, and ultimately suspended from school for his activism. He finds himself baffled that his attempts to legalize dancing would be met with such resistance. After a brick is thrown through his family’s window he laments to his forlorn mother, “I don’t understand this town. It’s like something is choking everybody. Only they don’t know they’re choking.”

Five years later I began exploring the world of men and bars in West Hollywood. I thought I was going to enter a new world of brotherhood, community, friendliness, kindness. Instead it seemed to be laden with antipathy, affectation, alienation, and at times brutality. People were generally not very nice to each other and certainly not welcoming to strangers. It seemed gay men were frequently unhappy, defensive, more interested in posturing than connecting, and didn't fully realize how much they were suffering.  “It’s like something is choking everybody. Only they don’t know they’re choking.

Twenty years later I worked with Project Achieve in New York City, doing education and outreach for the current HIV Vaccine Trial (HVTN 505).  Part of my work was going into gay bars and nightclubs throughout the city and talking with potential participants about sex, vaccines, and the possibility of taking part in end the HIV epidemic.  So often I would see young men enter a club space and look lost.  As a sympathetic face offering condoms and yo-yos they would often tell me their struggles and woes of the evening.  Many shared feelings of not fitting in, needing sex to feel worthwhile, and a general fear of being alone their entire lives.  Even when they had money, privilege, and a full social life in New York City so many gay men told me how they hated their bodies and feared being lonely.  “It’s like something is choking everybody. Only they don’t know they’re choking."    

Thursday, March 11, 2021

46. Just Show Up

"80% of success is showing up" - President Barack Obama

I get asked how the PrEP thing happened.  How did I get my story onto the front page of The New York Times, on MSNBC,  NPR, and into conferences around the world?  How did I score an invitation to attend Barack Obama’s LGBT Pride Celebration in 2016 and shake his hand?  I wish I could say I had a master game plan that I strategically manifested.  But truthfully, for the most part, I just showed up for things.  And as for the other parts, I was prepared, patient, perseverant, polite, and (usually) punctual.  

The simple importance of showing up in our lives cannot be overstated. There is no substitute for being physically present at a social event, a meeting, a networking opportunity, an appointment. It is usually the person who shows up consistently who is rewarded with promotions, invitations, contracts, and opportunities. I can't think of one person who has achieved a modicum of success in their lives who has not attested to value of showing up.  [Madonna's story of showing up at the hospital bed of the President of Sire Records to get her first record contract signed lives on in infamy]

Immediately after I “came out” on Huffington Post Live about using PrEP in November 2012, I started getting asked to show up at agencies and organizations to discuss PrEP with their staff.  For most part this was all unpaid volunteer work.  It would be years before I’d even think to ask for money for teaching about PrEP-- it was something I did because it felt like it was an important thing to do, and it was really a lot of fun.  As long as it didn’t significantly disrupt my therapy income, I was willing to show up anywhere.  The more I showed up, the more people gave my name to the press. The more press asked me to show up, the more my name was included in conference panels.  The more I showed up at conferences the more I was asked to show up at agencies and organizations.  The more I showed at agencies and organizations, the more I could start asking for money.  And so on.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

47. Forgive Them Father

"The other side of forgiveness is freedom."  -- Oprah Winfrey 

When I was 26-years-old I was approached with an apology.  Someone who had hurt me greatly had done an inventory of his life, assessed the damage, and took initiative to right some wrongs.  He apologized to me, and I said I forgave him. 

But the truth is I didn’t forgive him, because I had no framework for understanding real forgiveness.  A more accurate statement would have been, “I am not going to openly hold a grudge against you any longer.  I will still blame you for my pain and will still focus on the error of your ways but now I'm going to act like I'm rising above it.” 

It wasn’t until seven years later after I began studying a psychological-spiritual text called “A Course In Miracles” that I came to understand my idea about forgiveness was misinformed.  My perspective on human behavior, and why people do cruel things to others, was broadened to include harmful actions under the subheadings of “fear” and “scarcity.”

The only thing “wrong” this person had done in his life was to react to the mistaken notion that love is a scarcity.  He believed his safety came from attacking and belittling others. He thought if he was “perfect” he’d be worthy of abundant love and attention.  Just like me.  Just like you.  Just like pretty much every human on earth. 

Let’s be clear what forgiveness is not.  Forgiveness is not an agreement that the other person’s actions are acceptable.  It is not indicating there is an approval of one’s decisions, or that the violation will be forgotten.  It is not expressing that trust will ever be rebuilt, or enabling that person to hurt you again. 

What forgiveness does is restore you as the authority of your affective experience.  It allows you to resume full responsibility for how you feel and puts you back in control of your decisions. It is a confirmation that all humans, including yourself, are capable of making mistakes.  It is a choice of recognizing that most people in this world are taught to act and react from fear, and that cruelty and insensitivity are oftentimes a byproduct of that fear.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

48. It's Okay Not To Feel Okay

"I don't want to die, but I ain't keen on living either."  -- Robbie Williams 

There have been several times I wasn’t doing so well. I appeared okay from a distance, I probably told people I was “fine”, but I was not so fine.  And to make things worse, I wasn’t used to being very kind or accepting to myself about the fact that I wasn’t okay.  

I spent five years living with a friend/brother named Jhan Dean Egg.  We met in the Summer of 1993 and survived many trials and tribulations with housemates over the years.  Jhan was always open about living with HIV and he had come to trust that I would help and support him in any way I could.   

In the Fall of 1996 Jhan sat me down and asked me if I would be the legal executor of his will.  He didn’t have much in material values to distribute, but it was important to him that his wall-to-ceiling music collection was distributed in a very specific way, in a very specific order.  I assured him I would follow his wishes, signed the paperwork, and forgot about the whole thing.  His health was good, his energy was high, his seemingly never satiable craving for boys was constant. 

In mid-summer of 1998, Jhan’s health deteriorated, quickly.  The cruel part was that his brain was deteriorating before his body, and he was aware while it was happening.  At 27-years-old, nothing could have prepared me to watch my 33-year-old friend decompensate before my eyes.  Late into the night of Sunday, December 13th, 1998, Jhan died in my arms.

There’s an emotional punch that comes with witnessing loss, an energetic weight I can only describe as “heavy.”  After his death I felt emotionally and physically tired.  No amount of sleep or rest or carrying on with “normal” activities replenished the persistently drained energy I carried day and night. Furthermore I began experiencing panic attacks on Sunday nights which only contributed to my sense of overwhelm and exhaustion. 

Monday, March 8, 2021

49. This Is Not A Dress Rehearsal

By April of 1988, I was closeted, scared, terrorized by the AIDS crisis, and not sure I was ever going to come out as gay. I didn't really see the point, as I didn't know any gay people that seemed happy, there were zero positive role models in the media, and it seemed like being out would make my already somewhat miserable high school experience even worse.  It seemed easier to live a shell of a life pretending to be someone I’m not.  

Then on April 11th, Cher won the Academy Award for Moonstruck. This underdog, this audacious outcast, whom I had watched and admired on television my entire life, was finally seeing the rewards for her passion and devotion to her work. Furthermore, she came to the ceremony in a unique one-of-a-kind Bob Mackie see-through gown that signaled, "I am here, deal with it." Later that night in a pre-recorded interview, Barbara Walters asked her, “Do you care what other people think of you?” Her response:

 “It hurts me if people don’t like me, it hurts me if other people don’t understand what I’m doing and they’re angry with it.  But after all this is my one and only life.  This is not a dress rehearsal for anything else.  This is the only one I know about.  It’s more important to me what I think of me than what other people think of me.”  [starting 14:37]


With that piece of wisdom I set out to live my life with as much passion and integrity as possible.  I slowly started telling people I was gay at the end of 11th grade, and continued throughout my senior year of High School (there was no social media to help with this!).  I went to college at UC Santa Cruz and used Cher's words to find my voice politically when I spoke out against blood donor discrimination policies, the [first] war in Iraq, the atrocious medical conditions of the Cowell Health Center, as well as ultimately forming my own queer social / support group called the “Porter Lavender Network.”  I moved to San Francisco to pursue my graduate degree in Psychology, work and volunteer in HIV prevention knowing this was not a dry run, not a "dress rehearsal."  

Sunday, March 7, 2021

50. Sex Doesn't Have To Be Scary

My own “spring awakening” woke up in the summer of 1985, much thanks to the incredible slew of hairy hunks on NBC’s daytime line-up. From Bo Brady, to Perry Hutchins, to Ted Capwell, there was no shortage of troubled scruffy heroes who somehow found themselves in various states of unclothed mayhem. At age 14, I started becoming aware of my impulse to be underneath all that fur and muscle, and conscious of my urges to do something about it.

However, in the midst of being ensconced in these soap worlds, a real-life drama was playing out on the news. Rock Hudson, whom I was familiar with more for his work on “Dynasty” then from his rich movie career, was being talked about everywhere after coming out as having AIDS. Nearly every network seemed to find it necessary to contrast the images of a young, healthy, vibrant Hudson, to the gaunt, ill, and frail man whose body was ravished by the cruel disease. It became embedded in my mind in this vulnerable moment that sexual impulses led to illness and death, and if I acted on my desires, that would be me someday.  

Every intimate encounter, every sexual moment was interrupted by the inner thought, “Is this the time something is going to go wrong? Is this the time I’m going to have pay for it?”  No matter how good it felt, no matter how satisfying the sexual experience, I couldn’t subtract the terror of believing that pleasure would ultimately kill me like Rock Hudson. Although my partners, both HIV positive and identified-negative, used condoms in every encounter back then, I still lived from HIV test to HIV test in complete and utter fear that something went wrong and I would be next. Every cough, every sore throat, every fever and every night sweat was accompanied by the paralyzing thought, “This is it, I’m seroconverting.” I lost sleep, I lost concentration, and I lost time worrying.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Turning 50: Let's Do This!

Why 50 Lessons of 50 Years?  As I get ready to turn fifty-years-old on April 25  I am noticing that so many people, especially gay men and women, are unwilling to share how old they are.  It seems bizarre to me that after surviving two global pandemics that anyone would hesitate to proudly declare their chronological age.  Yet despite their beautiful resilience, an abundant amount of people express shame and dread about doing the most natural thing any of us can do: get older.

Several years ago I wrote a book titled “Absolutely Should-less,” which was intended to offer tools for managing depression, anger, and anxiety by challenging and eliminating harmful “shoulds.” What I had not anticipated was how deeply certain “shoulds” (and “should not’s”) could run about aging.  The ideas, “you should look younger, you should not have wrinkles, you should stay thin, you should not get gray hair, you should not have body hair, you should act your age...” are fed into our synapses very early in life. Often times we don’t realize we are internalizing these messages from media, culture, family, society, yet their effects are evident.  If you have ever judged yourself for getting older, gotten worried about a wrinkle, criticized yourself about gaining weight, or felt dread about an upcoming birthday, then you have been conditioned to believe toxic notions of aging. 

As my own “50” mark approaches, I am excited and energized.  Both AIDS and the COVID crises have been painful and devastating, but they have also afforded me such a deeper sense of gratitude that I get to live to see another decade.  Getting older has continuously enabled me to experience power, purpose, and pleasure  in a way I could not have foreseen in my 20s, 30s, or 40s.