Don’t get COOKed. Own Who You Are.

Own It!

Own It! Courtesy of Dan Cook’s Instagram

Who you are matters. What you do with your life matters. The image you present to the world matters. And most of all, your identity matters. That’s because each of us occupies a distinct space on this planet that no one else can satisfy. Personalities, talents, and capabilities collide with mission, purpose, and destiny to allow the unfolding of 7 billion epic adventures—all at one time.

A recent celebrity encounter on the beach reminded me of my own responsibility. Yes, that’s the most LA sentence ever written.

It was a sunny day in Venice and I just wanted to soak up the rays. I was landlocked in Kansas for 15 years so whenever it’s above 80 degrees there’s a personal mandate that I find at least an hour to suntan. So I threw on my banana shorts, ripped off my shirt and put on my shades. A 2-minute walk later and I was lying in the sand, caring only about how beautiful the rolling ocean in front of me appeared. This dabble of luxury was actual an act of defiance.

Laying shirtless in the sand for me means bearing some of my deepest personal wounds to the world. I was overweight as a kid and well into adulthood. Ten years ago I dropped 80 lbs., going from a blobby high of 240 down to a very thin 160 in 10 months. Stretch marks envelop pretty much ever corner of my body as a result. I’ve been obese. I’ve been anorexic. I’ve been many things in between. Right now I’m at a point where I could afford to lose a good 10 lbs. and tone up my muscles a bit. So on top of the stretch marks, I’ve got a thicker gut that I’m used to carrying around. Hence the defiance—I’m keenly aware that I’m no pinup model and this, after all, is Southern California so if ever I forget, a constant parade of shirtless muscle boys with toned asses and chiseled chests will remind me.

Weight, in excess or in absence, is the physical manifestation of much deeper forces. I was obese as a kid because food was where I found comfort—an escape from the taunting and teasing I endured throughout my adolescence on account of being gay. As an adult, it’s still all too often where I find solace. Especially when I’m stressed or lonely, food becomes my comfort. If I don’t keep my insecurities in check, the beach turns into a discomfort. Which is part of why I constantly put myself in a situation sans shirt. When I bear my chest I’m baring my soul—sometimes messy, but always true.

Since July 2013, taking off my shirt has revealed more than just my stretch marks. I have a giant sized Buddha engraved squarely between my ribs that runs the entire length of my abdomen. The words CHANGE YOUR LIFE are floating inside the jolly deity’s tongue. Those words are there to remind me that forward motion is the only trajectory. They were purposely etched onto the spot where I carry the most shame so that I could be continuously reminded to keep the negative self-talk in check. It’s working—and if I ever needed proof the universe sent it to me in the form of Dane Cook. Yes, the comedian Dane Cook.

After spending a good 2 hours tanning, I took a walk along the ocean and called my dad to wish him a happy Father’s Day. In the middle of explaining the spiritual significance of plant based medicine (which I’m pretty sure one-ups the “I’m the gay son” quotient) some guy asked me if he could take my picture, specifically of my tattoo. Not having much experience with paparazzi, I obliged, a little annoyed that my conversation was interrupted. I didn’t bother to introduce myself or even take the time to get off the phone. Turns out it was a celebrity taking a picture of ME.

An hour later, I learned that I had been COOKed, DANE COOKED. Apparently, he found my banana shorts, Andy Warhol hair, and giant tattoo amusing enough to have his way with me on social media, snarky comments about self-identity and all. My phone started to blow up as I watched a steady stream of several thousand Facebook “likes”, Instagram “loves”, and Twitter “re-tweets.” Then there were the comments—all 500+ of them in total. That’s where shit gets interesting….

The initial reaction to my likeness being blasted to over 5 million people was a mix of body shaming/gay bashing/transphobia (I’m not transgender, though it would be cool if I were…)/Miley Cyrus jokes. Apparently some people think I look like a wrecking ball…

Basically ever insecurity I had ever encountered was on full display for the world to see; and the world was giving me back exactly what I had been giving myself! The first few dozen comments were harsh. I had a moment when I started to go into the story of believing them. Then I realized we write our own stories! The venom in those comments doesn’t even come close to the potency of the defeating words I’ve often found floating around in my own mind. So I decided to just OWN IT.

I’m gay. I wear colorful clothes. I have weird tattoos. I rock large crystals around my neck. I have spiritual beliefs many find bazaar. I have stretch marks and body fat. That’s me, right now in this moment. And I’m good with that.

So I posted a simple statement that read: “Happy to be comfortable in my own skin. Proud to be gay. Own who you are. Love is the only thing that’s real. Everything else is an illusion.” Then I pasted a link to this blog explaining the origin of the tattoo.

Once I flipped the dialogue in my own head a funny thing happened—the conversation online shifted. A cavalry of “be yourself” defenders came riding in. Words about being who you are, loving yourself, and accepting your physical form overtook the haters. My message box started to be flooded with people telling me their own stories about battling eating disorders, feeling out of place, and wanting to change their lives. Shift the energy within and it emanates out.

Getting good with who we are is important not so much for our own egos, but rather for understanding how the uniqueness of our being fits into a broader collective. For me, I live as boldly and authentically as possible, presenting a colorful, loud and unique avatar so that others might step out of their shell and step into the fullness of who they are. When we work to ignite the spark in others, we all grow exactly as we should.

Dane Cook had his way with me at the beach, but we’re the ones who can get the last laugh if we just drop into the uniqueness of our own identity. OWN WHO YOU ARE

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2014: Change Your Life

CHANGE YOUR LIFE

It started out as a wallet. It became a mantra. Then a tattoo!

It started out as a wallet. It became a mantra. Then a tattoo!

I saw those words graffitied onto a wallet at the Hollywood & Highland mall right after I finished a hike up Runyon Canyon.  It was late September 2012, and I was wrapping up my first visit to Los Angeles. I desperately wanted not to be returning to Wichita, KS the next day. Such was my fate.

That’s exactly why those three simple words painted onto a red-bricked backdrop and mass-produced for consumption on a faux-leather money-binder arrested my attention.  They were calling out to me, screaming at me really, to do the one thing I’d long been afraid of doing: changing my life!

Whatever else happened, 2013 will always be remembered in the annals of my personal history as the year when I did, indeed, change my life. I bought the wallet for my best friend that night, but somehow I knew those words were as much for me as they were for him. The next day, I returned to Runyon Canyon early in the morning.  I climbed to the pinnacle and stood on top of a rock. The sun beamed down warmly. To my right, the Hollywood Sign sank royally into the towering hills. To my left, the pacific waters of Santa Monica glistened as sunlight danced across the beach. In front of me, a sea of soaring towers and sprawling buildings lit up.

I knew that I belonged down there.  Somewhere in the midst of the congestion, someplace in the middle of the cacophony, I was certain there had to be a place for me. Where I was—and how I would get there—I did not know. But standing alone on that rock with this panoramic vision unfolding, my eyes had seen the future. There was no turning back. There was no looking elsewhere. There could be no more delay. I had to change my life.

I made a promise to myself at that spot. By the end of the next year, 2013, I would be living down there. I would make a plan. I would make it happen. I would just do it.

“I’m just going to do this,” I said out loud.

Those words set in motion a roller coaster 14 months that would test my will, challenge my values, try my patience, and see me nearly lose my sanity. Yet, I ultimately found grace, peace, and satisfaction within that did, indeed, make that intention a reality. Today, I’m sitting in a Hollywood coffee shop reflecting on that experience, with my own studio apartment a few miles away and a job I’m eager to return to after the holidays.

But getting here wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t supposed to be.

I’m not the only person who has been fundamentally unhappy about a specific, key aspect of my life.  I needed to live in a big city, and as much as I love many of the people in Kansas, Wichita just wasn’t where I belonged anymore. I know a lot of people who are in places where they don’t belong, too…and it’s not all about geography. It’s the dead-end job depleting your ambition that you won’t leave because you fear the financial unknown. It’s the failed relationship you rekindle because the thought of being alone scares you more than the idea of being continuously wounded by someone who doesn’t fit you. It’s an ideology you cling to—maybe political, perhaps religious—that doesn’t align with where your core vales are anymore. It’s facets of our life, some big and some small, that add up to setting us back more than they do moving us forward. Once you know you’re going nowhere—and don’t fool yourself, because you do know—you, too, have to change your life.

It’s one thing to have that ‘Runyon Canyon magical moment’ where you see the dream you want to claim; it’s quite another undertaking to execute a plan to make it happen. When the scenery is grand, the temperature is warm, and you are high on the possibility of life, it’s easy to say that you will do something big. Inevitably, though, we all climb down the mountain.

For me, that climb was literal and fast. A few hours after I made that bold pronouncement, I wasn’t in California anymore. I was in Kansas, where the land was flat, the views were nil, and wind-chills had temperatures somewhere in the high teens.  So I did what we all do…I started making excuses:

  • I have too much student loan dept. I can’t move until I pay that all off (that will be never).
  •  I work at a non-profit. I can’t possibly save up enough money to move in one year.
  •  My resume sucks. My career path is weird and disjointed. No one in L.A. will ever want to hire me, especially since I’m from a flyover state.
  •  I’m not pretty enough for Los Angeles. I have curves and stretch marks. And dark circles around my eyes. I’ll be laughed out of town.
  •   I barely know anyone in L.A., and I pretty much know everyone in Wichita. I’ll have no support system if I move!

Self-flagellating excuses…sound familiar? Your list will read differently than mine, but all those excuses are doing the exact same thing that mine were doing: holding you back! Everyday, every moment really, we have an opportunity to see our life through the veil of fear or the veil love. I had conditioned myself into seeing life only through frightful sepia. All along, though, I’ve had a choice. After much reflection (including 10 days of not talking and doing nothing but sitting and meditating at a retreat!), I finally chose the wiser alternative. I re-wrote my narrative (and you should re-write yours, too!):

I always made the payments on my loans, and my credit was strong. I didn’t exactly make a ton of money at my job, but I was far from having to penny pinch. We also did just institute a new flex-schedule policy that allowed me to work 4 longer days a week and have 3 days in a row off, giving me the ability to get extra income from part-time work. My resume was as strong as I sold it, and I had solid references eager to help me get where I wanted. While I couldn’t do anything about somebody else’s prejudice toward Kansas, I could resist the ridiculous impulse to indulge it myself.  I’d been single my whole time in Kansas; even if the guys in LA all thought my hideous, at least it would be warm and I’d have millions of things to do. Not that such a scenario is likely in a city with 10 times the number of people and probably 20 or more times the number of out, gay men! And not knowing anyone, well, I’d just have to make new friends and fresh connections!

With a more honest account of my life in the forefront of my mind, I was better equipped to make and execute the actual plan that was going to get me to Los Angeles. It included working four jobs and cutting back my spending drastically to save up $20,000 so that I could get here and have enough money to stay afloat until I found employment. I wasn’t going to rely on anyone else to get me out of Kansas; I couldn’t hope to be hired away. I–and I alone–would have to get myself to California. Like I said on that rock on top of the canyon, I just had to do this!

And I did. I worked the jobs. I saved up the money. I survived some intermittent drama. I even ended up getting “hired away” and got to leave Kansas a full month a head of when I intended. While I’m beyond grateful for my new job, I got myself to California. I was coming with or without it. That mindset actually made the search and interview process a lot more seamless and natural. There really WAS a place for me down there in those lights, and because I was of the right mindset, I was able to find it!

CHANGE YOUR LIFE

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Change doesn’t come easy. There were a lot of struggles to get me to where I am today. I wanted to give up…several times! But I knew I couldn’t, and I needed a consistent reminder. Mid-way through the year, I got those formative words tattooed onto my stomach…in the tongue of a giant Buddha. After doing some research, I discovered that the wallet image was actually taken from a mural painted onto a piece of the Berlin Wall. A concrete slab that divided and oppressed was repurposed to uplift and inspire.

My move to Los Angeles is about more than a geographic climate improvement, and it is much grander than an upgrade in city cachet (though those two facets are quite awesome!).  In moving, I truly am changing my life because when I drove out of Kansas, I left behind some tired, old ways of thinking that had nothing to do with where I was physically and everything to do with where I was mentally and emotionally. There are things I would have done a year ago that I won’t entertain now…and when I think about regressing, those three words are permanently affixed on the front of my person to remind me that I can’t!

Most of you aren’t going to brand yourself with a grandiose tattoo and move half way across the country to a city where you barely know anybody.  For each of us, the change we need is different. Whatever it is, though, do it. CHANGE YOUR LIFE. You don’t have to carry anything into this new year that you don’t want. Really, you don’t!

CHANGE YOUR LIFE

Aside

Freedom: Uncomfortable. Compelling.

17833_568175505032_1064411_nLately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about freedom. There’s the politically charged notion of liberty that stands stubborn in the face of a tyrannical majority. There’s the circumstance of being released from captivity or escaping from some sort of confine. And then, there’s the condition of personal autonomy. It’s a state of being where the sum of one’s actions and the totality of one’s life choices allow for the parameters of existence to be completely and totally defined by, well…you!

Freedom is why I am moving to Los Angeles. I’m quitting a good job and boxing up an easy life because I can. I’m 31 years old. I’m single. I’m responsible. I don’t have children to raise. I don’t a partner to consider. I have no pets. I don’t even really have family who factor into the equation of my daily life decisions.

What I do have is myself, and lately I’ve experienced a renaissance of sorts in reconnecting to that odd, peering reflection I see daily in the mirror.

I didn’t turn 30 gracefully. I’ve spent the better part of the last year bemoaning what I don’t have.  I’ve lamented career choices. I’ve coveted my friend’s romantic relationships. I’ve formed highly inappropriate attachments. But at a certain point, we have to take inventory of what we do possess.

In the shadow of loneliness lurks the obsidian silhouette of epic sovereignty. For me, being alone at this point in this life is a true gift.

In moving to Los Angeles, I am embracing the notion that my existence can be an artful safari. Maybe selling everything you own and venturing to a sprawling metropolises where you know very few people isn’t what you’re supposed to do at 31, but it’s what I’m doing! I’m actually quite excited about the prospect of arriving in the second largest city in the U.S. without a job or without a place to live. That’s because the ideology of work and home have arrested my development.  I don’t know who I am without one or both of these crutches. No, that doesn’t mean I’m going to be unemployed for very long or homeless at all. I’ve been smart about saving up money to ensure my survival. I’ll be laser-focused on finding gainful work.  But sometimes you have to completely let go of the past before you can fully embrace the present. California will be my blank canvass. On it’s expansive, golden coast I will paint something daring and fresh. Life is not a reality one should settle into; it’s a state of being on should boldly define.

I am under no illusions. I’ll be alarmed when I roll into the jam-packed streets of Hollywood and my dented yellow Ford Focus doesn’t have it’s own space to park in. It’ll be disarming that first week or two when I won’t have a bed to call my own. I will do doubt feel a tinge of fear when payroll deposits cease to find their way into my bank account.  I’ll be a little lost wandering crowded streets and discovering new venues where not a soul recognizes me. When I get home–once I eventually have one–there won’t be that familiar maze of art to comfort my sensibilities. I won’t have a Jayson to imbibe a bottle of win with. I won’t have a Lynette to eat Indian food with. I won’t have a Steffen to visit at the bar or make vegan pizzas with. I will have none of the boundaries that define my sense of safety, comfort, and belonging.

But what I will have is everything else—the awesomeness of the unknown. I don’t know what it feels like to wake up as a Californian, to know that your backyard is a canyon and your front porch is a beach. I can only faintly fathom what it will mean to live in a city where being gay isn’t an aberration. My taste buds can only water over the prospect of having raw, vegan, and multi-ethnic cuisine available at nearly any corner.

I will attract the right job that will put me on a path toward financial prosperity and personal enrichment. I don’t know what that will be yet, but it will be something meaningful and challenging that will allow me to grow in the exact ways in which I need to develop. I invite with eager anticipation new friends into my life. I look forward to random connections made as I hike canyons, stroll beach walks, go to yoga, delve deeper into my spiritual interests, wander aimlessly along the streets, peruse art galleries, and seek out awesome music. I’ll take writing classes, volunteer for a film festival or LGBT group, and go to Meet Ups. I might even get political again…this time in a liberal locale!

I’ll do all of this because the sum of my choices has allowed it to be. I am grateful to have the freedom to make this giant, uncomfortable personal change!

We should fall in love with our life a little bit each day. If we don’t, we owe it to ourselves to make some adjustments. Change is uncomfortable. If you’re being true to yourself, though, it will always be compelling.