Thursday, December 13, 2018

SILENT NIGHTS

“It’s a dead zone.”
That’s how I described the Vancouver gay dating scene to a friend yesterday as we chatted over coffee. Might not be dead for everyone, but there aren’t any new prospects for a guy in his fifties. All the online profiles are the same. Even the photos haven’t been updated in the past five years. (Okay, ten years. I’ve been single, of and on, for ages.)
I’m okay with the quiet. I knew I was stepping back into a dating black hole when I broke up with Lance. It would seem sadder to stay with a guy just because there’s nothing else out there.
Usually when a relationship ends, I am eager to date again. Rebounds to affirm I’m an okay prospect. Maybe a few moments of fluttery nervousness before meeting someone new. It’s exciting to feel there is new potential. Maybe I can fall in love again.
When I do remember to check the dating sites these days, it takes half a minute to log in and out of both. No messages, no desire to browse profiles. I’m even enjoying the silence. I don’t feel any sense of doom that time is running out. I don’t have any regret that perhaps I’ve been too picky. (Others can make that judgment.)
I’m appreciating how simple my solitary life is. I can meet with friends once or twice a week. Or I can let the days go by. It’s an advantage of being an introvert that I can experience extended periods with almost no social needs—alone without being lonely. ‘Tis the season for silent nights, after all.


Friday, November 30, 2018

PLAYING THE WRONG CARD

I ducked out lamely. Not as lamely as ghosting the guy or sending a text. We’d gone out about ten times, after all. A face-to-face conversation was required.

But I wasn’t really honest. When you break up with a guy, sometimes being honest may show more brutality than integrity. So I didn’t mention that he talked so much, with never-ending anecdotes, that it was hard for me to feel present. (Would he have had these monologues with his dog had I been unavailable?) I didn’t mention his alarming fussiness, insisting that my coffee table was too close to the sofa and needed to be re-positioned immediately and pointing out dust on top of my fridge during his one and only visit to my place. (Maybe I should date shorter guys.) And I kept to myself the fact that I never got off the fence regarding whether or not I found him attractive. I accepted these issues as my problems. People have said I’m too picky. People have said I need to settle. (Do they really mean I think too highly of myself? In essence, I am definitely not all that. I should just be happy anyone is even slightly into me...when he finishes his near-endless stream of soliloquies.)
Alas, I still have standards, however unrealistic. And my heart wasn’t into drawing things out when I’d finally realized things weren’t progressing and had no chance of getting on the right track. I owed Lance an explanation. I went with a version of the clichéd, It’s not you, it’s me. I needed to be specific enough to be convincing.
I played my mental health card. Yes, I was the worst kind of bipolar poster boy. Technically, everything I said was true. After a period of mania which dissipated shortly after meeting Lance (surely that’s but a coincidence), I crashed into a deep depression and my low mood has continued for the past month and a half. More significantly of late, my anxiety has spiked, making staying home the most sensible option most days. Simply stated, I’d rather just cocoon until I’m able to ride out this wonky mess.
Truth is, if I were seeing someone who listened, I could have talked more about my mood and felt supported. I’d raised both my depression and anxiety before, but my comments went without any followup other than unrelated stories about his mother’s finickiness when dining out and some glitches that came up with one of his writing assignments. (Yes, he’s a writer, too. Cool! But having things in common is not nearly as important as truly gelling.) I’d felt awkward, having revealed vulnerable parts about me and feeling unheard.
Maybe his failure to be curious or even compassionate proved to be the deal-breaker, the final nail after the one-way communication, the fussiness and the questionable attraction. It’s hard to take a risk, sharing parts of me that feel like flaws—indeed, their own deal-breakers—and having my words hang in the air and float away, seemingly unnoticed.
I took the easy—almost unforgivable—route. I was the fall guy. I’m the one who’s not good enough. I’m too messed up to be in a relationship. It was an Oscar-worthy performance for a despicable role. I did what I had to do to be free again. Maybe I thought a face-to-face conversation was noble, maybe I thought sparing him of hurtful honesty showed kindness, but I should not have misused my mental health conditions. Easy to do and yet wholly disappointing.
People who deal with depression and anxiety are deserving of thriving relationships. Feels like I gave the opposite impression, just to avoid a more awkward conversation. For now, I’ll go back to my cocoon and deal with my mental health issues...safely and on my own.


Tuesday, November 20, 2018

WHAT IF IT'S NOT

WHAT IF IT’S US
By Becky Alertalli and Adam Silvera
(Balzer + Bray and Harper Teen, 2018)


This could have been a blockbuster combination. Becky Albertalli is the author of Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda and Adam Silvera wrote More Happy than Not. Each book is a bestselling YA novel with a gay main character. In What If It’s Us the authors have gotten together to write about two main characters, Arthur Seuss and Ben Alejo, told in first-person, the chapters alternating between Arthur’s point of view and Ben’s. To be sure, the book is a bestseller. But is it all that it should be?
Arthur and Ben meet at the post office. There’s something special about the exchange but then it’s over. It’s one of those memorable first connections, the type of “I Saw You” that you read about in the personals. Was the chance-meeting simply a nice moment or is it fate? Will they meet again—SPOILER ALERT: Yes—and, if so, can they make something lasting develop from the promising, albeit brief, first interaction? The against-all-odds vibe is compounded by the fact that Ben lives in New York City and Arthur is only there for the summer with his Georgia family.
Arthur is an energetic, bright, in-your-face, Broadway musical loving gay teen while Ben is a more guarded, introspective, videogame playing and Sims-story-building character. Arthur has never had so much as a single date while Ben is only two weeks out of the crushing end to first love.
Arthur is too on-the-nose as a stereotypical gay character, a younger, smarter version of Jack McFarland of “Will & Grace”. Puppy-dog likable. He’s so obsessed with musicals that sometimes Will he see ‘Hamilton’ while in New York? feels like the central question to the story. By contrast, Ben is hesitant, introspective and one more inclined to mess things up.
The story has a typical romance arc—will they get together, will they get back together after the inevitable (and, here, predictable) relationship challenge, will they live happily ever after?
I didn’t love the story, but then I didn’t hate it either. It’s a perfectly fine confection, a light, easy read that floats along, capturing the essence of giddy, butterfly-flapping young love. Both characters are fully out as gay. By golly, even the parents are one hundred percent supportive, with an Alejo-Seuss family dinner happening as the third or fourth date.
If I had read this as a teen, I’d have considered the story pure fantasy yet I’d have adored it and reread immediately after getting to the last page. Maybe I’m too jaded now to digest the plot. Maybe it wasn’t fair to read this concurrently with an adult novel about a mass murder, thus making the lightness glaring juxtaposed against the other book’s darkness (and more sharply defined characters). Maybe I had too high expectations, especially after reading Silvera’s darker More Happy than Not. While I didn’t fully love More Happy, Silvera established himself as a promising author with a distinct voice. What If It’s Us feels more commercial and a squandered opportunity to further develop what I thought was Silvera’s unique talent. It didn’t help that there’s an unnecessary epilogue, a literary structure that typically rattles me. Epilogues always make me wonder if authors doubt the reader’s ability to wonder into the great beyond.
I could have done without the entire bubbly storyline of Arthur. Everything about him feels too cute. A better story could have focused solely on Ben and his world as he attends summer school and wonders whether any part of his relationship with his ex, Hudson, can be salvaged. Is let’s be friends realistic, particularly with a first love? A closer, deeper look at Ben’s world could have brought out more in supporting characters Harriet and Samantha as well as more development of Ben’s Puerto Rican identity. My hunch is that this is where Silvera’s writing would have wowed the reader. Alas, it seems I’d hoped for a different novel.






Tuesday, November 13, 2018

JEROME BY HEART

Written by Thomas Scotto
Illustrated by Olivier Tallec

(Enchanted Lion Books, 2018)

Jerome by Heart is a remarkable picture book about a boy named Raphael who unabashedly loves his friend Jerome. The story begins endearingly:

He always holds my hand.
It’s true.
Really tight.

On field trips to the art museum,
it’s me he chooses as his buddy.

That’s why I love Jerome.

It doesn’t bother me at all.
Raphael loves Jerome.
I can say it.
It’s easy.

And this is how it should be between two young boys who are best pals. Just as it is with two young BFF girls. But what should be often isn’t. Perhaps that’s why Jerome by Heart seems exceptional. Perhaps that why the title page includes a quote by French poet Jacques Prévert: “And the passers-by pointed their fingers at them. But the children who love each other aren’t there for anyone else.”

Yes, sadly we begin early in socializing young boys to be more restrained in their same-sex affection. We interpret too much closeness as “gay” and, golly, isn’t that uncomfortable? When Raphael tells his parents one morning he had the best dream ever and says, “It was good in a Jerome kind of way”, Raphael notices his parents’ reactions. “Dad stares at his shoelaces, like he doesn’t hear a word I’m saying. Mom digs through my backpack and sighs, ‘Eat your cereal, Raphael.’” The depth of the bond cannot be acknowledged.

If only adults were as uninhibited as young children!

Raphael’s pronouncements are positively charming:

From now on, every day is for Jerome.

[B]y dinner, I’ve stocked up on enough of Jerome to
last me the whole night.
That’s important.

Olivier Tallec’s illustrations, bathed in golden tones and soft, earthy colors, adds to the warmth of Thomas Scotto’s text. This is a magical little picture book that makes me smile every time I leaf through it.

May Raphael and Jerome grow into more evolved, more loving human beings. May the rest of us find inspiration in them and shed at least a few of our inhibitions.

Friday, November 9, 2018

OLIVER BUTTON IS A SISSY

By Tomie dePaola
(Voyager Books, 1979)

My last blog post highlighted three picture books about gender-nonconforming boys. I’d noted that there have always been boys who wear dresses and who don’t follow the “expectations” for being a boy, but picture books have only recently picked up on the topic.

But then I discovered Oliver Button Is a Sissy at the Vancouver Public Library. Published in 1979, the book is by prolific children’s book author/illustrator Tomie dePaola (Strega Nona). The opening page gets right to it: “Oliver Button was called a sissy. He didn’t like to do things that boys are supposed to do.” We see him picking flowers while boys play football in the background. In subsequent pages, we learn that Oliver likes nature walks, skipping rope, reading books, playing with paper dolls and playing dress-up. (For other reasons, it troubles me that reading books is included as an atypical boy activity, something that makes one a sissy.)

While Oliver sings and dances in the attic, a sheet draped over his clothes, his father appears and says, “Don’t be such a sissy! Go out and play baseball or football or basketball. Any kind of ball!” Yes, it’s 1979. Back then, even the adults—even parents—could openly put down non-masculine behaviors in boys. Still, the page disturbs me greatly.

Eventually, Oliver’s parents enrol him in dance classes—“‘Especially for the exercise,’ Papa said.” He’s perfectly content as the only boy. But the boys at school make fun of Oliver’s tap dance shoes and he is rescued by girls. The sissy label doesn’t go away. Until, at the end of the story, it does. Or does it?

This is another great book to use with children and adults. For adults, there are some who fail to understand that challenges for gender-nonconforming youth go back far beyond our present time when LGBT issues get more press. There are adults who selectively remember childhood, whitewashing their own role in putting down or failing to stick up for “sissies”. For boys who don’t fit traditional gender roles, the book helps to understand the “problem” is not theirs alone; in fact, it goes back to their parents’ and grandparents’ time. There have been lots of Olivers and there always will be. Hopefully, we’re getting better at understanding and accepting them.


Monday, November 5, 2018

BOYS WEARING DRESSES

MORRIS MICKLEWHITE AND THE TANGERINE DRESS
Written and Illustrated by Christine Baldacchino
(Groundwood Books, 2014)

10,000 DRESSES
Written by Marcus Ewert
Illustrated by Rex Ray
(Seven Stories Press, 2008)

JACOB’S NEW DRESS
By Sarah and Ian Hoffman
(Albert Whitman & Company, 2014)


I love picture books more now than I did as a kid. They’ve gotten better (although I still have a soft spot for Curious George books and Are You My Mother?). As a teacher, I regularly read picture books to my classes. The students always got excited. As a principal, I continued my readings, sometimes crashing a classroom and letting kids vote from five I’d brought along. I began every staff meeting and every PTA meeting with a picture book. If I tried to skip the reading, parents would protest, “But this is why we came!” Yes, we all like to be read to. We like to relax and marvel at playful and/or intricate illustrations. We enjoy the careful word choice and how a story can be told so concisely.

I adore the funny ones (e.g., The Day the Crayons Quit; Warning: Do Not Open This Book; I’d Really Like to Eat a Child). I’m captivated by the a-ha books (Flotsam; Way Home; The Other Side). And I’m amazed at how picture books so ably tackle big issues, such as death (Zetta Elliott’s Bird) and illegal drugs (Clark Taylor’s The House that Crack Built). Check out any of these titles from your local library. You may decide to add a picture book to your regular book haul.

As much as I could go on and on about picture books, I shall rein it in and focus on a trio that I wish I’d used in my education career, books that need a gentle, curious adult to elicit a needed discussion on gender roles and gender identity. As the titles make clear, these are books about boys who wear dresses: Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, 10,000 Dresses and Jacob’s New Dress.

First up, Morris. He lives with mother Moira and his cat Moo. (Yes, the alliteration is a little heavy at the get-go.) Morris is one of those youngsters who likes many things. “Mondays are great,” we are told, “because on Mondays, Morris goes to school.” So many of the things he likes happen there. What Morris likes most is center time, when he chooses to play dress-up. That’s when he gets to wear the tangerine dress which “reminds him of tigers, the sun and his mother’s hair.” He loves the swishes and crinkles he hears while moving in the dress and the click, click, clicks from the shoes he wears with it. But, “[s]ometimes the boys make fun of Morris. Sometimes the girls do, too.” Soon Morris doesn’t want to go to school.

On the title page of 10,000 Dresses, we see Bailey, smiling and wearing a simple white t-shirt and underwear. The message: this is a boy. But the story opens, perhaps jarringly with, “Every night Bailey dreamed about dresses.” There’s some awkward language about a stairway in a “red Valentine castle” that had me frowning, but this is more of a message book than a literary marvel. Bailey’s dreams involve dresses of rainbow-flashing crystals and lilies, roses and honeysuckles. Her dreams are instantly dashed by her parents. (Yes, this 2008 book uses preferred pronouns of she and her for Bailey.) “You’re a boy,” his mom says. “Boys don’t wear dresses!”

And Bailey’s response is heartbreaking: “But...I don’t feel like a boy.”

Jacob’s New Dress goes down the same path. Boy likes wearing dresses. Other boys don’t understand and make fun of him. Boy learns to be himself/herself regardless. Of the three, this one felt more for adults than kids. As I read it, I was more focused on the hesitancy and mixed messages of the adults. Despite the fact Jacob’s teacher says, “The dress-up corner is where...you can be a dinosaur, a princess, a farmer—anything!”, she then says to Jacob, “What new thing could you imagine being? A firefighter? A policeman.” Jacob resists her guidance and answers, “I’m the princess.” Yay, Jacob! His mom doesn’t let Jacob wear his home dress to school, explaining, “It would get dirty at school.” And when Jacob makes his own dress out of towels—surely that can get dirty—his dad frowns and says, “Put on some shorts and a shirt under that dress-thing.” The end page of this book includes an authors’ note and an educational note about “pink boys” and “gender-nonconforming children”. I think the story speaks for itself.

There have always been Morrises and Baileys and Jacobs. But, in my day, they would have to change. They would have to don and dream of dresses in secret. Either that or the bullying would be relentless, stretching from kindergarten to the great beyond. Morris would be mocked as “Margaret.” “Melissa.” Or the much-maligned, all-purpose sissy taunt: “Nancy.” But we’re in a time now when most recognize that it’s everyone else that needs to adjust. Morris is just being Morris. Bailey can be whoever she wants. Let Jacob wears what he likes. Why should anyone have a problem with that?

Sadly, they still do. As early as kindergarten, boys know to avoid pinks and purples and to leave the dolls alone in the play centers...unless they are being used to fire out of a make-believe cannon. Traditional (or conforming) gender roles are already established, whether it’s due to nature, nurture or a combination.

A colleague of mine shared how she refused to buy toy guns or other weaponry for her two boys and yet, even before they learned to wave, they were using their thumb and index finger to form a quick-draw gun. Bang! Bang! As I shopped for my cousin’s baby shower this summer, I was dismayed that so much, from cards to gift bags to stuffed animals, came only in pink or blue. Baby Jack’s nursery is painted green and adorned with gray whales, crabs and octopuses. I am further reminded of a fascinating New York Times article about trying to reverse gender roles and also teach gender neutrality: “In Sweden’s Preschools, Boy Learn to Dance and Girls Learn to Yell”.

Some may indeed be entrenched (and most comfortable) in their typical male or female gender identification. The point is to open their eyes to the fact it’s okay for others to express themselves differently and to open the door for others to explore a more fluid or less typical gender identity.

These are important books to read and discuss with children, perhaps more than once over a period of years. Despite greater awareness of Morris, Bailey and Jacob, gender-role and gender-identity defying boys remain a minority. It is easy for peers to find their behaviors and preferences queer, in the “odd” sense of the word. If a child’s first reaction—i.e., a boy wearing a dress is odd—is not elicited and considered, then the opportunity for transformational learning decreases. A child may listen to the story and go away unchanged, still reacting critically when he or she observes another child acting outside of gender norms. Ridicule goes underground. Then it’s a burden for the targeted child to have to muster the courage to report or to have bear on his own.

Books like these seek to increase awareness and acceptance to reduce burdens. They also provide safe reference points for parents, teachers and children. “Remember when we read that book about Morris and the orange dress...?”

These books are worth reading, perhaps a week or a month apart. I wish they’d been around and read to me when I was a kid. It helps kids to know that Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress (or 10,000 Dresses or Jacob’s New Dress) isn’t some one-off book. Beyond the fact the main characters wear dresses, there are positive traits about each character that should be elicited from the reading audience. The boys-wearing-dresses images may be vivid takeaways but there is more to admire about Morris, Bailey and Jacob.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

THE SHOW GOES ON

Sometimes in the brouhaha we miss out on the finer points.

I watched the premiere of “The Conners” this week and then read the uproar on Twitter. No Roseanne, no show. People trashed the show although I’m sure many did so without watching. I don’t begrudge (non) viewers for sitting things out after Roseanne’s firing, but I do cry foul when they call the show “crap” without seeing it.

I loved Roseanne before she ever had a hit show. I remember seeing her on “The Tonight Show”, having a VHS tape of her Domestic Goddess stand-up routine and watching it repeatedly when I needed a good laugh. I don’t think I missed an episode of “Roseanne” and I appreciated the inclusion of LGBT characters, namely, Sandra Bernhard’s Nancy and Martin Mull’s Leon. To be sure, Roseanne as a person has polarized many times in the public eye. She’s an individual who would be challenging for any producer, showrunner or agent to rein in. (I suspect many of the people who were most offended by her infamous singing of the national anthem were among the angry mob decrying her firing for referring to Valerie Jarrett as a Planet of the Apes offspring.) People can agree to disagree on whether she deserved to be fired for her “bad joke”, tweeted while on Ambien. As was the case with Kevin Spacey’s “House of Cards”, to cancel the entire show would have unjustly affected far more people.

I was not a fan of “Valerie” after they axed Valerie Harper and changed the name to “Valerie’s Family: The Hogans” (later, “The Hogans”). I did watch a few episodes, however, primarily because I could see that Jason Bateman, even at that age, was a true talent and Edie McClurg is a hoot in anything she does. To be clear, as a rabid, lifelong fan of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, I will always be #TeamValerie and her masterful comedic talent was sorely missed as producers tried to salvage a hit show. Ultimately, I stopped watching but not until giving the reboot a shot. Deep disappointment will always follow a star’s exit from a show, regardless of the circumstances. I sorely missed Delta Burke on “Designing Women”, Shelley Long on “Cheers” and even Suzanne Somers on “Three’s Company”, but continued to watch two out of three of the sitcoms. (John Ritter’s pratfalls and exaggerated gay mannerisms were too off-putting.)

What the abstainers of “The Conners” missed, beyond the continued fine acting of John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf and Sara Gilbert”, was the further development of an important storyline from last season on “Roseanne”: the acceptance of Darlene’s ten-year-old son, Mark, as he confidently explores gender identity and sexual orientation. Last season, Roseanne and Darlene accepted Mark in his choice of clothing while Dan remained uncomfortable. Without his Rosie in the premier of “The Conners”, Dan had to come to terms with Mark on his own. At first, he tried to opt out of offering advice over which boy crush Mark should sit beside on the bus ride to a school field trip, but then Dan came around and helped Mark create a pro and con list for each boy. (Ultimately, Dan favored the seemingly well-adjusted boy whose family has money—they vacation in places where you get a tan!—while Mark decided on the brooding boy instead.)

I am curious to see how Mark’s character will develop over the course of “The Conners”. This is a great opportunity for a positive portrayal of LGBTQ acceptance and gender fluidity on a major television network. Frankly, I think there is more time to develop this without Roseanne on the show even though I am confident that Roseanne was fully in favor, perhaps even instrumental (along with Gilbert), in introducing this character. We all know that Roseanne is larger than life and a show with her can’t help but stay on her as the primary focus. Last season, Mark’s character got a lot of attention in the first episode and then wasn’t developed further. With a major character out of the mix, others will receive more airtime. (Heck, even DJ got a couple of lines this week!)

I contrast Mark’s role on “The Conners” with another show that I saw for the first time last night, “The Cool Kids”. On this particular episode, Leslie Jordan’s Sid, a gay senior citizen, tries to suppress every cliched gay mannerism and decor choice so he can remain closeted in front of his clueless (ha ha!) adult son. Nothing subtle there. Call it “Three’s Company, 2018”. I laughed once or twice simply because Leslie Jordan is that good at playing flamboyant and just watching his efforts to contain his hip movement showed a mastery of physical comedy. But the broad strokes of “The Cool Kids” feels truly old-school compared to the more nuanced, matter-of-fact portrayal of Mark on “The Conners”.

The premiere of “The Conners” was bound to generate strong reactions on Twitter. (The whole “it’s not ‘Roseanne’ without Roseanne” argument seemed the silliest—hence the name change, folks!) The naysayers certainly had their say. Now I hope the writers on “The Conners” and the actors continue to enlighten and amuse with thoughtful stories and exemplary acting for as long as ABC decides it’s a viable show.