First the good news…

Me and Susan splitting a gut

Splitting a gut with Susan in England last summer

Chemo is over! I met with my doctor yesterday, and he has cancelled my last 3 chemotherapy infusion appointments. We’re done. I couldn’t be happier about that. The accumulation of drugs in my system had caught up with me, and the fatigue was pretty powerful. I’d expected the next few weeks to be even more debilitating since, why wouldn’t they be? So instead I get to continue returning to normal. I gave myself my last injection today.

But that’s not why we stopped therapy. The treatment had done what it could—a few very small nodules and enlarged lymph nodes that had shown up on my baseline CT scan had shrunk or disappeared entirely in this month’s scan. Just what those little things were, we can’t be sure of, but it’s nice that they’re gone. But they were not as important as a larger mass that was detected, and which is growing, meaning the chemo I’d been taking was not working on that particular thing. We don’t know what it is exactly, but chances are very good it is something like the tumor I had removed in December (though much smaller, thankfully). I expect another surgery might be in my near future, to take care of it, but that it will be nowhere near the seriousness of the last operation.

The exact course of action is not decided yet, and in any case, it is in the future, so I am doing what I seem to do so well and focusing on the good news (always first the good news), which is taking place in the present. I am feeling stronger and more energetic these last few days, and I expect that trend will continue—maybe not in a straight line, but generally in the right direction. I can make plans with a little more confidence that my body will allow me to follow through. I know the saga continues—as it may for life—but right now I am entering a good part of it. Thanks for being with me on the ride!

Me at Blue LagoonBonus: For those who like freaky coincidences, check out this, my very last (and I do mean last, maybe forever) shirtless selfie, taken at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland last summer. The weird smear across my abdomen, caused by blowing rain on the camera lens, is in the exact spot my tumor was growing at the time. Make what you will of it. :)
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Stuck

Dave's kissing spotWhat happens when the old ways of tricking yourself into action no longer work? I promised my writing group that I’d send them a new piece by the end of this month. I had been feeling stuck and needed some deadline, however fake, to get myself writing again. It usually works.

Not this time. I can see too easily through the ruse, having tried it too many times, I suppose. Or maybe this time I’m up against some questions I cannot avoid and still hope to get unstuck.

One: Do I really want to be writing? True, I have enjoyed five years of it. I like it as a means to express myself, to get my thoughts together and out in front of some people (a few, anyway). On a good day I can even convince myself that it is doing some potential good, helping people, teaching, healing wounds.

I like the craft and the challenge of it, and I can see myself improving. People seem to like my writing, unless they are just being nice, and I think that I actually am becoming a pretty decent writer. But, as with the visual art I used to do, I have never felt like it is something I am so driven by I could not stop doing it. Do I keep on? I’d like to.

The next question, one that has really got me stuck, is this: What do I write about? I am thinking in terms of writing fiction, mostly, and that has usually been about making stories out of my lived experience—more specifically, my love life. Those were the stories I wanted to tell. I could never figure out what else to write about, and could never understand how some writers seem to have a magical ability to write of things completely outside their lived experience. I am in awe of that skill. I don’t seem to have it. Not yet, anyhow.

This brings me to question whether I have anything new to say or any desire to make up new stories. And it makes me realize, slightly shockingly, that I have almost no interest anymore in the stories I’ve been working on for the past few years. They don’t seem to matter much. This feels suddenly not so much about my writing, but about my life.

You are the love of your life...yes youThe thing is, sometime in 2015, I stopped being interested in my romantic life. I stopped dating, stopped pursuing relationships, stopped caring if I was single, stopped getting crazy over sexy boys, stopped having sex, stopped even thinking about it, any of it. It just all went away.

This is partly a good thing. A big part. My obsession with being in relationships, in having a boyfriend, in having sex, had been a constant in my adult life from the time I came out more than 30 years ago (and there were quite a few torturous years before that as well). For all that time, I remained aware of my status as single or partnered, getting some or not, of keeping my body in shape, of pursuing constantly, of doing crazy and risky and ridiculous things, and judging myself for all of it.

What a heavy thing to carry for so long! Upon discovering I’d put that burden down somewhere along the way—not sure where or when exactly—I felt immense relief.

So much of my happiness and sadness had been tied up in the question of my coupling, and it became clear I had been living with a lot of mental pain for almost all of that time. Sure, I was happy in the moments things seemed to be working great, but those were fleeting. How much did I invest in the pursuit; and worse, how much in the trying to hold onto or recapture something good?

I came to realize the most basic of truths: This was not a source of happiness for me. It just wasn’t worth it.

Thinking back, I can remember starting 2015 with the idea in mind that it might be the year I gave up sex and romance. This was at a time I was still ostensibly happy seeing someone I liked a lot, mind you. It wasn’t about that. For some strange reason, I just got the idea in my head that it no longer mattered. It wasn’t important. I’d had a good run, and now I might want to stop working at it. Maybe forever, maybe for a while. It was not a concrete goal, just an idea, and I didn’t share it with most people.

Do You Want to Sleep with Dave X Robb?I did joke with a friend that I should have a going-out-of-business sale, and that showed I was maybe not so ready to give it up after all. But I didn’t announce the sale, or the plan, if there even was one; I just gradually stopped thinking about the same old things.

A few big things happened last year that no doubt supported this wish I’d planted in my own head—losing that guy, having big health problems, making huge leaps on my spiritual path—and it kind of happened without effort. It’s easy to not have sex, a lot easier than needing to have it.

I’d certainly entertain the idea of dating or partnering with or just having good sex with someone, and chances are I will do at least one (maybe two, probably not all three) of those things again someday; I’m just not willing to put in the effort. I don’t care that much. I like not caring about it, I really do.

Which brings me back to the writing. I find that I don’t care about my characters. Their problems seem relatively meaningless. Stay together, break up—I don’t care what they do.

A wise teacher once said to take the thing that is stopping you from writing, and make the writing about that. Well, I guess that’s what I’m doing right here. How this translates to my fiction, I’m not quite sure, but I am starting to form some ideas. I’ll send this to my writing group and see what they say.

 

Boyfriendable

Bob Dylan: DesireSo, here’s something: When is it better to give up on something you’re pretty sure you’d like in life than to continue the crazymaking pursuit of it? By now I understand that true and lasting happiness is a state of mind, that it doesn’t come from anything external. Still, I do feel happy and at peace when I’m able to arrange my life in a certain way, when I’ve got all the pieces lined up pretty nicely—not perfectly, that would be impossible. Not permanently, everything ends.

I’ve never considered myself one of those people who can never be happy. The more you have, the more you want, they say. One can never be satisfied. I disagree. I actually think it is possible to be happy, at peace, satisfied—mentally, yes, but even in the material sense—that there’s such a thing as enough. In most areas of my life, I am content. I realize how very lucky I am to be able to say that.

The one area where I struggle most is love. Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m loved. I love my friends and my family and my cat and my life; I even love myself, at least sometimes. You know what I mean: I want a boyfriend.

There, I’ve said it.

Was that hard to say? In a way, yes. I have a hard time asking for what I want. For one thing, I see it as a failure to be happy not wanting. And, while I’m learning to be unattached to my desires, I still don’t like to fail at my goals. (At least I didn’t say I need a boyfriend!)

I know I’ve written about learning to be fine with being single. It took me a lot of work over the past few years to get to that point, and to be completely honest, I cheated. I had a crutch, a pretty special man who loved me for much of that time. We weren’t boyfriends. We didn’t see each other all that often, and we saw other people. We both hovered between “single” and “it’s complicated.” He came to my Singles Awesomeness Day party, at which we all celebrated our singledom, and stayed over. I know, right?

You are the love of your life...yes youSo, basically, my being fine with being single was…I wouldn’t say a lie, just not really being put to the test. I wasn’t quite single, not all the way. It was more that I was fine with not having a traditional relationship. And even that’s not entirely true. I wanted more from him and felt like I couldn’t get it (for lots of reasons I won’t get into here), so I adapted. As wonderful as our times together were, that part of it made me sad. I felt like I lost something of myself in the adapting. And I lost him anyway.

When I think about the sadness I experience chasing not only love, but any kind of desire, I have to wonder when it’s worth it. Over the past few years, I’ve been learning to give up attachment to finding happiness outside myself, learning to love purely by not wanting to get something from others, breaking my pattern of grasping after love, abandoning jealousy, embracing impermanence and emptiness…so, in many ways, this boy was a great teacher. I mean that sincerely. He came into my life at the perfect time. And I have to believe he left it at the perfect time.

I am not at all sure I’ll ever find another guy like him, a kind, super-sexy man who made me feel loved and held, understood and accepted so fully. People keep telling me the Universe (they say it like it should be capitalized) will provide for me; they are convinced I will find the perfect man. I hope to, but I can’t count on it. That’s just reality. I’ve set the bar really high. It is one of life’s cruel ironies that by the time one learns how to truly love (and how to screen potential dates really well), the possibilities narrow for lots of logical reasons. I’m not a pessimist, yet I know, just as I know I’ll never make the Olympic gymnastics team, I may have reached “peak dating,” “peak sex,” and “peak boyfriend” in my life. Or not.

Dave X Robb lying on the sand in CarmelBeing with someone unboyfriendable, I’d half-convinced myself I didn’t care if I had a real boyfriend. But I do. I mean it when I say I’ll be fine (more than fine) if it doesn’t happen, but it would sure be nice. That’s my desire.

Some people mistakenly think Buddhism teaches desire is bad. I used to think that. Desire is not a problem; uncontrolled desire is. Is it possible to have desire without attachment? I think so. As long as I can hold my wish without getting all crazy around it, I should be fine. Yeah, so easy-peasy.

 

Panacea

Cosmology painting, Thimphu Dzong, BhutanHappy Lunar New Year! I know it was a couple days ago. As I’m fond of saying, any day is a good day to start again…assuming you want to start again. Which reminds me, Lent  began Wednesday. If you missed it and ate a big bag of M&Ms that day like I did, just start now.

And then there’s Valentine’s Day. That was a week ago. I keep missing blog-post opportunities in my head; but then, nothing is ever wasted. I got one of those year-in-review things in the mail today from a friend, and it included the 2013 year in review too. See? It’s never too late.

I went to a wonderful, funny, warm, wise talk on Valentine’s Day called Healing the Heart through Love. You didn’t have to have a broken heart to get something out of it, lucky for me, since my heart is in pretty good shape these days.

What stood out most was not the number of times the speaker, Gen Kelsang Chokyi, used the word “panacea”—although it was high; I think she said it something like 6 times—but the way she used it. Have you ever heard “panacea” used without the words “not a”? Have you ever heard someone say “such-and-such is a panacea”?

Angkor, CambodiaChokyi did. Six times. She said love is a panacea. It will heal whatever ails you. And you know what? She’s right.

Before you jump all over me and say love is to blame for the most painful heartbreak you’ve ever been through, hang on. Define “love.” Here’s how I define it: Love is wanting someone else to be happy. (Remember that from 2012?) The pain we commonly associate with love, that other thing that breaks your heart, hurts, stinks, is so confusing, is a battlefield? That’s attachment: wanting something from the other person.

Now that we’ve got that straight, let’s see if love really is a panacea. Well, where do our problems and suffering come from? Our problems don’t come from outside. They come from our self-grasping and self-cherishing mind, wishing ourself to be happy, usually while neglecting others, except maybe a few choice others whom we like because they make us happy.

Here’s a quote I love from 8th-century Buddhist scholar Shantideva:

All the happiness there is in this world
Arises from wishing others to be happy,
And all the suffering there is in this world
Arises from wishing ourself to be happy

We suffer because we are self-absorbed. Sorry to break it to you. But actually, that’s good news. It means we can do something about it. Shantideva also famously said, and I paraphrase, we can try to cover the whole world in leather or we can put on a pair of shoes. We don’t have to change the whole world in order to be happy; we just change ourself. Direct your attention to wanting others to be happy—to love—and see what happens.

Enough

When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

—Lao Tzu

I HEARD THIS QUOTE the other day, and it reminded me of a feeling that keeps coming back to me these days: that I am lacking nothing. I have health, happiness, peace of mind, and love. I have wonderful living conditions. I have a lot of things I don’t need, but that I like. I have enough.

My life is so good. I realize that might seem boring. So much of life for many of us is wrapped up in the pursuit of things—things to acquire, to accomplish, to see and do. What if we decided we’ve got all we need and we are doing enough? It could be an uncomfortable thought. A lot of people seem to thrive on striving for more.

bucket_list_antarcticaI could, if I had to, try writing a bucket list of things I’d like to do, experiences I haven’t had, places I’ve never been, things I want that I don’t have…but I am long past thinking I can find real happiness externally. Moments of it, sure. I like to travel and experience new things as much as the next guy. But I don’t require such things to be happy or to feel my life is complete.

There is a manic, YOLO quality to some of these bucket lists. You may (or may not) only live once, and you’re smart to not want to waste your human life. But does that mean we need to rush through life chasing after everything that grabs our attention?

A part of the thrill seems to come from checking things off the bucket list. There’s a little endorphin rush. I get it. But are we valuing the destination over the journey? (I just discovered a wonderful New Yorker article on bucket lists, inspired by President Obama’s stop at Stonehenge, that asks similar questions.)

I wonder if anybody has ever completed everything on their bucket list. Then what? Does completion bring fulfillment? Or depression? It seems to be in the nature of these lists to be never-completed. Our desires cannot be sated by accumulating experiences, so we keep adding more.

Fuck itThere is something a little sad about all this. Bucket lists say “This will make me happy.” If you ever take the time to read many of them (there are websites and apps where you can do that), you might be struck by how many list the same predictable things: skydiving, mountain climbing, visiting every continent. Usually things that cost money.

It’s nice to have goals and make plans. I’m glad people are thinking about what will give their life meaning. But that’s the thing—often with these lists, nothing seems very meaningful. It’s all very self-centered. Where are the bucket lists about healing the world or helping to improve the lives of others?

There seems to be an implied presumption on the part of bucket-listers that they (a) are entitled to do or achieve or experience anything they can dream up and (b) will live long enough to accomplish it all (or die trying). Sounds to me like a recipe for extreme frustration.

tikkerNone of us knows how much time we have left. People die unexpectedly all the time. Taking that quiz on Facebook that tells you at what age you’ll die won’t save you (and, sorry to break it to you, but it tells everyone they’ll live to be over 110); nor will the watch that purports to count down how much time you have left. (The person who steps in front of a bus because they’re checking how much time they have left will be very disappointed!)

There are things I would like to do before I die, but nothing I can’t live without doing. There are things I might like to have, but there is nothing more I need. I would like to live a long life—by some standards, I already have—but I know I might not. That’s life.

 

First Take

Roberta Flack: First TakeBECAUSE IT’S MY FAVORITE chakra, I’ll post another piece I did focusing on the heart, this one based on an exercise called “Waking up clichés.” We were encouraged to take worn-out, heart-based turns of phrase—I immediately thought, 1970s love songs! Perfect!—and transform them into something fresh and new. Running with the Roberta Flack reference in the writing I’d just done, I chose to transform another of her songs in this reworking of an old story, parts of which I’ve told before.

First Take

Even from this distance, a half-block away, Rick could tell—Jesse in person was more gorgeous than in the photo he’d sent. In the photo, his face was half-hidden by a pulled-down baseball cap, posing, showing off the pecs and abs and narrow waist, nicely ripped but merely hinting at handsome. As they came within striking distance, Rick saw, he felt, as Jesse’s whole face erupted with a kind of childlike openness, what Patti Smith would call such naked joy, unusually wide-smiled beaming. Rick regarded the sexy scruff of a beard, the beauty mark on Jesse’s jaw. And those dark brown eyes unafraid—they held a glimpse of something, something deep; they told a story as ancient as the heavens, the formation of the planets, their moons, the sun and the stars, a story at once brilliant and dark, Jesse’s eyes profoundly happy and giving, and at the same time reflecting some of the gravity of sadness that is life. All this in an instant.

They embraced at once and exchanged a kiss, a polite kiss. They separated just enough, still hugging, to take another good stare at each other and smile. Jesse smelled faintly of tangerines and tobacco. They came back together, mouths open just enough for a proper kiss equal parts Jesse and Rick, lips and tongues licking teeth, tasting mint, slurping and sucking spit. Rick’s right hand moved automatically like it knew what it was doing up to the back of Jesse’s buzzed head, caressing the stubble, knocking his hat off kilter; and Jesse, too, pulling Rick closer, as if closer were even possible, boots up against sneakers, almost tripping, these two guys making out like teenagers on the sidewalk outside the Galleria Park Hotel at dusk on a Saturday night, the stores closed and the street pretty quiet, but still…

Jesse shuddered. Rick felt it. He held Jesse tighter, kept on kissing. It felt like the boy was on the verge of coming right there, standing, fully clothed, all this from a kiss, their first kiss, a damned good kiss. Jesse laughed into Rick’s mouth. He shook again, trembling tremors. Sensitive boy. Not three minutes past meeting and Rick felt protective of this sweet little guy, as if Jesse could collapse right there on the sidewalk if he weren’t there to prop him up. He reached a hand under Jesse’s sweater, first touch of the skin electric-warm as toast. He laid his hand lightly over Jesse’s heart, held it still, and all went quiet. He felt the heart beating, barely, felt his ribs, Rick’s fingers slotting into the spaces between, massaging, fingertips sliding outward, away from the heart, Jesse’s chest rising and falling. Rick found a hard nipple and gently squeezed. Jesse let out a little moan. Rick ate it up.

“You like that,” Rick said, not quite a question, his other hand moving down, slipping into the gap at the back of Jesse’s stiff, brand new-feeling blue jeans, resting there steady and flat on his sacrum. In that moment, Rick felt his own power, felt he could control this guy if he wanted to, send him soaring into the stratosphere and back, make him come right now, at his command, pressing buttons by kissing and moving his fingers just right.

* * *

“Fuck, papi, that was good,” Jesse said. He smiled. He and Rick lay naked on the big white hotel-room bed, spent. Yeah, it had been more than good. Rick had never fucked without a condom before. This was new. And he was fine with the decision, if you could even call it that, however unconscious and far from rational thought it had been. He had always strictly followed the safe sex mantra to use a condom every time, assuming every partner could be infected. He was tired of it all, tired of the loss and the fear and the barriers, the literal barriers between himself and his lovers. Rick had never felt so close, so trusting with a guy he’d just met. There was something about Jesse he couldn’t quite explain. It just felt right.

“We should use condoms, don’t you think?” Jesse had asked not a half-hour before.

“Yeah, of course,” Rick replied. “It’s not like we don’t both have sex with other guys.”

But when it came right down to it, it would have felt so wrong to stop, to tear open the packet, to do all of that… It would have broken the spell, Rick felt, interrupting the flow of the most intimate, knowing choreography of their sex. It would have introduced the buzz kill of death. It would have broken the fragile bond of trust already forming between him and Jesse, childlike in their ecstatic relief at having found each other, two lost souls wandering the barren wasteland of Craigslist looking for real connection and now celebrating their extreme good fortune, kissing the whole time fucking, eyes wide open and searching and smiling, breaking every gay-sex stereotype, their eyes wet and overflowing at the happiness that swelled within their bodies, over them, filling the room, the hotel, the whole of downtown, over the bridges, throughout the Bay Area, and into the dark, unknowable universe beyond.

Rick knew in that moment, Jesse’s body entwined with his own, heart pressed against heart, that he had found something, a satisfied peace previously unknown to him, a comfort in feeling accepted and sexy and lovable. He had been searching his whole life for this and wanted nothing more than to abide in the warm spaciousness of it forever.

He hoped, he sensed, that Jesse felt it, too, Jesse who was asleep beside him now. Rick was dead tired but couldn’t stop looking at Jesse, his smooth, taut body at once strong and vulnerable and small, sweaty, sticky salted-caramel skin and tan lines, sexy as fuck, eyes gently closed and the hint of a smile still on his face, his face, his beautiful face.

* * *

This was based on the beautiful, cliché-ridden song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” made famous by Roberta Flack, recorded in 1969 and released as a single after appearing in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me (1971). It went on to become the #1 song of 1972 and is still the song most likely to make me cry

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the end of the sky

The first time ever I kissed your mouth
I felt the earth move in my hands
Like the trembling heart of a captive bird
That was there at my command, my love

And the first time ever I lay with you
I felt your heart so close to mine
And I knew our joy would fill the earth
And last till the end of time, my love

The first time ever I saw your face
Your face, your face, your face

 

Shelter from the Storm

Barbra Streisand: PeopleWHERE DO WE GO for refuge? There is a Buddhist answer to that question, and it’s a good one—the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—and though that ought to be enough for me, I find that I still rely on another source of refuge in my life.

People.

What do I mean by refuge? For me, it’s about finding a place where I can feel supported, especially when I am not strong enough on my own. It’s a place where I can let my guard down, be exposed and vulnerable, and know I will be loved. Shelter from the storm: we all need that. I hope I can provide it for others, too.

This idea became clear to me recently when the three people in my life who I consider most important to my feeling grounded and loved happened to be, all at the same time, away or otherwise unavailable for a spell. Lucky for me, I have a lot of wonderful friends who contribute to making me happy, so I was not alone. I am also a whole lot better than I used to be at being on my own and knowing that I am always connected, so there was that, too. It was not a crisis, in other words.

But it was interesting. It was really striking to have that small support network of mine temporarily unavailable. It made me realize how much I rely on them, and how lucky I am. I wish everyone could be so lucky.

People want to be supported unconditionally. I guess that is one of the big attractions of marriage. I am skeptical of the notion that we can find one person to provide all that we need, forever. I’m not even sold on Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracksthe idea that we need anything from anyone—ideally, we wouldn’t, and I’d like to get to the point of experiencing the truth of that. But until I reach such an enlightened state, I am glad for my support system. It’s nice.

So many people in our culture make a fuss about finding that special one, what we used to call a “soulmate.” (Does anyone still use that word, or have they all been laughed off the dating websites?) One is the loneliest number. Who decided that one is enough? And does anyone honestly believe that there is only one person in the universe we are destined to find and stick with for life? Dating is challenging enough without the pressure to find the supposed one in 7,236,660,000 you could be happy with.

I was reading something recently about arranged marriages in India. I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic, not by a long shot, and I know these things are fraught with problems—gender and economic inequities and so forth. Despite that, it got me thinking. We modern Americans tend to look down on the idea as limiting individual freedom (Gasp! The horror!), but looked at a certain way (theoretically, at least), there could also be a very nice element to arranged marriage: an attempt by society to match people up, to be sure no one ends up onKurt Vonnegut: Slapstick their own (unless they want to be). Yes, I know that’s not how it always works in practice. That said, I’ve read studies showing people in arranged marriages generally tend to be happier and are more likely to stay together. I’ll bet the lack of unreal expectations is a factor. Love the one you’re with.

So, maybe not marriage, but wouldn’t it be nice if everybody could count on having someone they could count on? It seems like human nature to seek refuge in each other. I remember long ago reading something along those lines by Kurt Vonnegut, some kind of scheme to match people up. Lonesome no more! And so it goes.