Monday, July 28, 2014

Make Peace With Your Looks

How do you respond when someone says something positive about your looks, tells you you're attractive–for example, likes the way you wear your hair, or the sparkle in your eyes, or your beautiful smile?  If you're like most people, you probably dismiss what they say, because the critic in you doesn't believe it, or, at the least, is suspect of it.  So you put yourself down. You say something self-depracating, something that says you know you're not worthy of their kinds words.  

I was reminded recently, when I received an email from a reader in the United States, of how I used to do this all the time.  In part, he wrote:

Another insecurity is my body.  I don't feel fully confident with my body, though I'm not heavy.  In fact, I'm tall and I think [I have an] "average" build, though X. tells me "I think you are perfect the way you are." He's so sweet.  Following our recent trip, he told me that he can sense I'm insecure about my body.  I asked him how and he said when I touch you, I can tell.  I told him the insecurity about my body comes from the pressures of the gay world, how we are so visual and that having a lean or muscular body is the goal.  X. told me it's all in how you see yourself, think about those pressures and standards.  It's true.  I hope to get more secure about things soon.

Wow!  Could I relate.

Here's what I wrote to my reader in response:

What I learned from being with Chris is this:  I used to put my body down [how I looked] all the time too, because I struggled with feeling good about myself (for the same reasons you do).  Yet Chris would always compliment me.  He said I looked great, that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.  Later, he pointed out that, when I put myself down after he'd complimented me, I put him down too, because I called into question what he’d said about me.  If he said I looked great, but I said I didn’t, wasn't I calling him a liar?  Didn't I suggest he didn’t know what he was talking about?  See what I’m getting at?  

If someone pays you a compliment, accept it gracefully.  You don't have to do anything more than say "Thank you."  You are not expected to object.  X. obviously sees something in you.  Maybe you don’t see it now, but you should.  Until then, go along with it.  Believe me, he's looking at you in a more levelheaded, fairer way than you’re looking at yourself.  Don’t insult him by suggesting you’re not as attractive as he thinks you are.  In other words, don’t give him a reason to push away from you.  Just accept what he says and believe he’s being sincere.  Make sense?

The lesson here is, we need to see ourselves as others see us, which is far less subjective, harsh, and unrealistic.  Sure, we have to live with ourselves all the time.  Sure, we see what we consider our flaws whenever we look in a mirror, or when we're in the shower, or when we get dressed.  But are they really flaws?  Not at all.  They are nothing more than those things that make us human, that make us who we are, and they are neither worse nor better than anyone else's. They just are.

Learn to love what you don't like about yourself, because there's a good chance you're the only one who's hung up on it.  Chances are, someone thinks what you're hung up on is what makes you special, what makes you, you.

Accepting how you look is foremost on the list of the things you need to do to improve that relationship with yourself–and, coincidentally, with those around you.  Make peace with how you look.  Like I've written before, your body is merely a vessel.  It's what's in that vessel that means the most.  That's what you should work on.  

There are so many more important things in your life than how you look, which, as you get older, you'll (hopefully) come to realize.    

Looks are fleeting; character is forever.        

Monday, July 21, 2014


So here’s what we know:

    A 14-year-old boy in San Diego, Calif., killed himself last fall after a fellow
    student snuck into their high-school bathroom and recorded a video of him
    masturbating in a stall.  The student…posted the video on social media, it…
    went viral, and two weeks later, on American Thanksgiving weekend, Mat-
    thew, bullied, friendless and beyond comforting, took his own life.*  

When I read this, I was angry, really angry.  But perhaps not for the reason you might think.  Sure, there’s a whole lot wrong with what happened here; however, I don’t believe one of them was the young man masturbating, not even in a bathroom stall at school. 

No, the real problem is our culture’s perception of masturbation.  If jacking off was not so stigmatized, there’s a good chance Matthew’s classmate wouldn’t have recorded him doing it.  With no video, nothing would have been posted online or gone viral, and a Southern California family would still have their son today. 

I don’t care where you stand on the subject of masturbation, I think we all agree this young man should not have ended his life because of the embarrassment, shame, or guilt associated with it.   

Over the years, I’ve learned a good number of my readers, particularly those who take the time to contact me, are young people, both male and female.  No one in their family is gay (that they know of, anyway), so, in a sense, they see me as a surrogate father, someone they can trust.  I’m gay and older, I’ve been in a relationship with another man for over twenty years, and I have some experience behind me.  As a result, they feel comfortable talking to me, opening up, telling me what’s going on in their lives, what some of their concerns are.  And they ask questions.  I believe, from reading my posts, they know I’ll be straight with them, and tell it like it is. 

That’s why I’m going there today–all the way there.  That’s why I’m talking about masturbation.  As we’ve seen in the case of Matthew Burdette, the stakes are too high if we keep silent, if we don’t tell young people what they want to know, what they need to know.  If parents or guardians or someone in authority isn’t comfortable telling them, then I will.    

And I’ll start, as I usually do, by talking about my own experience, so you know I know what I’m talking about.    

I masturbate.  There.  Another closet behind me.  If admitting I masturbate makes you laugh, or squirm, or somehow lessens your opinion of me, then so be it.  I’d rather be honest than not.  As I see it, what’s the point of writing this, or any post here, if I don’t tell you the truth?  If I don’t opt to help instead of hide.   

I’ve masturbated for as long as I can remember, starting when I was a little boy and had no idea what I was doing.  All I knew was, it felt good, I liked it, and, after it was done, I felt sleepy (in fact, many doctors recommend insomniacs masturbate before bed, because it reduces anxiety, relaxes, and encourages sleep).   

I continue to masturbate today, even though I have a partner.  I enjoy having sex with Chris, but I also enjoy having sex on my own.  Chris knows I masturbate and has no problem with it.  He doesn’t believe, as some do, that it takes away from our sex life.  Sometimes, we even masturbate together.  Sex is a multi-faceted experience.  There are all kinds of things to do, either with someone or alone.    

A lot of myths surround masturbation; perhaps you’ve heard some of them.  Like, if you do it, you’ll go blind.  Or you’ll grow hair on your palms.  Or you’ll get acne.  Ridiculous.  Believe me, if they were true, I’d be afflicted by all of them.  And, just in case I need to say this, I’m not.  Nor are 95 per cent of men, and 60 to 80 per cent of women, who are reported to also masturbate.   

When it comes to masturbation, I’m particularly concerned with our culture’s misguided perception of it.  And how you might perceive it, as a result, or perceive yourself, if you do it.   

So, let me be clear on this.  It’s possible you’ve gotten information from somewhere that jacking off is wrong.  Or shameful.  Or self-indulgent.  Or something else that’s negative or awful or even sinful, because of religious beliefs, or because whoever told you was embarrassed and wanted the subject to go away, or because he didn’t want to admit he does it himself.  But all of that is nonsense.  To repeat, it’s nonsense.  Don’t believe any of it.  

Masturbation is useful.  If you have no one in your life, which a good many people don’t, you can still be sexual (as you should be), and still enjoy one of the most pleasurable experiences available to us as human beings (and it’s completely safe sex).  Masturbation is good for learning what you like and what you don’t like; what feels good and what doesn’t feel good.  There’s nothing wrong with knowing your body, exploring your sexuality, enjoying what you’ve been given–even if it’s by yourself.  What you learn will make you more self-aware, and it will make your sex life with a partner more fulfilling. 

So, if you feel guilty because you masturbate, stop it.  You have no reason to.  

In the end, masturbation is no different from eating, or sleeping, or going to the bathroom, or any other function we do.  It’s perfectly natural and normal, not shameful or self-indulgent or sinful.  And we owe it to ourselves, and each other, to see it that way.  I do it, and millions and millions of people around the world do it.  There’s no reason why you shouldn't too.    

In his article, referred to below in the footnote, Peter Scowen, editorial writer and editor at The Globe, writes:  

    In the absence of even nominal public education about masturbation, what Matthew
    Burdette needed was some person of stature in his social circle–a teacher, or a jock, or
    maybe a celebrity–to step forward and admit, I do that too.  In the absence of that,
    and if it could help other boys struggling with the fear, guilt and shame of being
    caught, maybe all of us men should find the courage to stand up and say, don’t worry,
    guys, you’re not alone.                              

So here I am, standing up and saying it.  You are not alone.  I masturbate.  And it’s okay if you do too.
* Quotes are from “Masturbation is…a Sin, Selfish, Healthy, Harmless, a Weakness, Human Nature, the Last Taboo,” by Peter Scowen, The Globe and Mail, Saturday, July 19, 2014, p. F4.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Is It Love?

From time to time, a reader asks me, Is it love?  Or, How do I know it's love?  Or, How long does love take?  Or some variation of that.  A good many of my readers are younger and haven't experienced love yet–not romantic love, the kind you feel toward someone other than a family member, for example.  I've done my best to answer their questions over the years, but I've never felt totally comfortable with what I've said.  After giving it some thought lately–and inspired by a recent email correspondence with a new reader (thank you, Chad)–I want to give my answer another try.

I begin with a little about my own experience of love.  Before I'd met my partner, Chris, just over twenty-two years ago, I'd never been in love.  I was thirty-two at the time and thought, if I keep going like this, I'll never know what love is.  I knew I couldn't accept that, and I'd keep trying until I found someone to love and to love me back–even if it took the rest of my life.  I would never give up, not about something as important as that.  (I'll say a little more about the experience of learning to love oneself in a bit.)

So I met Chris on a beautiful, warm late spring evening in June 1992.  I knew he was special from the start, and I knew he was different from all of the other men I'd met over the years-different in a good way, different as in, I could see myself with him.  We complimented each other.  We clicked.  Our rhythms were the same, if that makes sense.  Was it love at first sight?  No, I don't believe in that.  I believe in infatuation at first sight and lust at first sight, but there was none of that with Chris.  It was all very level-headed, and tentative.  I'd been down this path with a few other guys before, and it had never worked out.  With Chris, I planned to be cautious.  But I was also hopeful.

And needy.  Yes, I'll admit it.  I needed a man in my life.  I needed not to be alone anymore.  I needed not to feel like it was just me against the world.  I needed someone to come home to.  I needed someone to talk to about the day I'd had at work.  I needed someone to spend evenings and weekends with.  I needed someone to share some of my interests.  I needed someone to hold me.  I needed someone to kiss me.  I needed someone to want me.  I needed someone to care.  That's what I needed most of all–someone whose very presence in my life told me I mattered.  Sound familiar?    

I told Chris I wouldn't play games with him.  If I wanted to call him on the phone–this was before cellphones, smartphones, and the like–I would.  I had no intention of waiting for him to call, just to stroke my ego, to prove to me he was genuinely interested.  I owned how I felt about talking to him or being with him, and, if I wanted to, I'd do something about it.  In other words, I would not wait for him.  (What I'm trying to get across here is, don't play games with someone you're interested in, or you might play yourself out of the best thing that might have ever happened to you.  Don't be insecure, and don't be a fool.)  

I'm a shameless question-asker.  I will literally ask anyone anything, given the opportunity.  The worst he or she can do is tell me to mind my own damn business (it's never happened, by the way, because I'm convinced most people like to talk about themselves, if someone is genuinely interested in what they have to say).  So, when Chris and I spent time together, I asked questions.  Lots and lots of questions.  Never once did he tell me it felt like I was interviewing him for a job, but he could have–the job of being my partner.  I needed to know everything about him.  And Chris being Chris, he told me what I wanted to know.  And I knew what he said was sincere.  I knew I could trust him.  That way key. 

Okay.  So back to love.  My recent reader asked me, how did I know when I loved Chris?, or something to that effect.  It's the same as asking, Is it love?  Or, How do I know it's love?  And my answer was, I didn't.  Not really.  I kept waiting for the fireworks to go off, but they didn't?  I kept waiting to feel head-over-heels for Chris, but I didn't.  I knew I felt something toward him, but I wasn't sure what.  I knew I felt connected to him.  I knew I felt invested in him, the more time we spent together.  I knew I didn't want to lose him.  But were all of those facets of love?  I had no idea.  I'd never experienced love before.  I hoped I'd recognize it, but I wasn't sure I would.  I just went along, because I'd never felt better than when I was with him.

Ten months after we met, Chris and moved in together.  A big step.  A big change in my life.  Was I ready to make it?  Oh, yes, I was, if it meant I'd be living with Chris, if it meant I'd see him every day, get to share everything with him.  Was I in love with him then?  Maybe.  I still wasn't sure.  But what I'd felt toward him at the outset had certainly gotten stronger.  It was undeniable.  And I felt less cautious about feeling it.  I was pretty sure Chris wasn't going anywhere, and it was safe to invest in him completely, but I still wasn't certain how he felt about me.  I mean, people say and do all sorts of things, but do we ever really know exactly how they feel?  That's where faith comes in.  And hope.  I had the faith and hope that Chris and I were the real deal, that what we had would last.  So we rented a new, beautiful apartment in Vancouver's Yaletown, and began our life together. 

Every night before we went to bed, I told Chris I loved him.  I made a point of telling him that.  No one had ever told me he or she loved me.  We weren't that sort of family.  So, when I got to know Chris better, I told him I'd tell him that I loved him.  Again, no games.  If that's how I felt, I'd say it.  The problem is, I still didn't know if what I felt toward him was love.  We'd been together a year or so by then, and I still wasn't sure that's how I felt.  When you have no experience with love, how do you know if what you feel is the real thing, is what all the writer's write about in great literature, what the recording artists sing about in great songs?  How do you know?  Love is exalted to such a level that, unless you can relate exactly to what you've read and heard, you have no idea if what you feel is the same thing.

Some time between then and today, I fell in love with Chris.  To put that into perspective, some time over the past twenty-one years, I fell in love with the love of my life.  Can I narrow it down from that?  No, I can't.  Did I fall in love with him closer to the time we met than to today?  Of course.  I know in my heart I've loved Chris for many years.  But do I know exactly when it happened?  No, I don't.  All I know is, it happened.  And that's good enough for me.  I have what I've always wanted, and it's everything I ever thought it would be.  I've experienced great and deep and abiding love, and, even if Chris were taken from me today, at least I can say that.  My love for him wouldn't end.  I'd continue feeling it until the end of my days.  In that respect, I'm a lucky man.

So, where does that leave us in our discussion of, Is it love?  With the very best answer I can give you.  Perhaps with the very best answer anyone can give you:  What's the hurry?  Why do you need to know right now?

Sure, I'll admit that when I told Chris early on I loved him but I didn't know for sure, there may have been a part of me that thought, if I tell him I love him, maybe it'll happen.  Maybe if I say it, say it often enough, my feelings will match my words.  In other words, maybe I can will myself to love this man.  And maybe there was an element of that.

I know for sure there was an element of, if I tell him I love him, he won't leave me, thereby guaranteeing the success of our relationship.  Remember, I was needy as hell.  Did what Chris had to offer satisfy that neediness?  Absolutely.  But did my telling him I loved him guarantee we'd stay together?  Of course not.  I see that now.  Lots of people are madly in love with each other and break up, for a variety of reasons.  Just because you love someone doesn't mean you'll be together for the rest of your lives.  But I thought, if Chris doesn't really love me, but I tell him I love him, then maybe he'll come around, feel the same way I do, and everything will be great between us.  Delusional, for sure.  But, hey, you do what you've got to do, right?  Or what you think you have to do at the time?

Love.  It's the experience of a lifetime.  It's what we're here to do.  There's nothing else like it.  Life is meaningless without it.  And I believe the greatest tragedy is when one dies and has never known true love.

But, if you've just met someone, and you're having fun together, and you can't wait to see him, and your days are filled with thinking about him, and you wonder if what you're feeling toward him is love?  Don't.  Don't wonder about it at all.  What's the hurry?  Why does it need to be love right away?  Like is just fine too.  Or strong like.  Or whatever you want to call it.

There is no need to fall in love right away, or to know you've fallen in love.  Frankly, if you have to ask yourself if you're in love, you probably aren't.  Because you'll know.  You'll know when you're in love.  The knowing won't come from your head, from intellectualizing it, it'll come from your heart, the center of love.  Your heart will tell you when it's love.  And I doubt you'll look up one day and realize you're in it.  I don't think it happens that way.  You'll just feel it.  It'll be there.  The ground beneath your feet will finally feel solid.  And you'll know.   

So, take the pressure off.  Just be with that person.  Do things together.  Have long conversations.  Go for walks.  Laugh a lot.  Then laugh more.  Spend evenings at home.  Enjoy nice meals at restaurants.  See a good movie.  Dance.  At this point in what you have together, you're doing exactly what you should be.  There's no reason to complicate it by asking yourself, Is it love?  Give it time.  Let your feelings work on their own timetable.  Don't rush anything.  Be sure.  Relax.  Just enjoy yourself.  If it's meant to happen, it will.  It will.

And, in the meantime, if you haven't already, fall in love with the most important person in your life:  You.  That is the person you should ask if you're in love with, because he or she is the greatest love of your life.  If you don't know that yet, I pray you will.  Because that love is the source of all great love.  Don't believe me?  You will.  At least I hope you will.