Monday, February 17, 2020

NOT SO SIMPLE

No, no, no.

Not supposed to happen.

No, no.

Don’t mess with me, Cupid. Bad timing. Shoo.

It started insignificantly enough. A brief message, the kind that would make me roll my eyes before a quick delete.

Good morning

A capital letter to start things off (I think the program auto-corrects for that), no period, no substance.

I reminded myself it was a hookup site. No sentences required...in messages or in person. This was supposed to be my transition period as I get ready to leave Vancouver. Absolutely no dating. I’d resolved to focus on sexual liberation, a chance to shake off fear and repression and to finally figure out a thing or two about physical intimacy.

I peeked at his profile. Just as bare-bones as they all are on this site. Two cute photos, fully clothed. I’m probably the only one on there who sees that as a bonus. Would it hurt to smile though?

What the hell...I replied.

It is a good morning! Not raining...I’ll take it.

Casual, mindless weather commentary. (He didn’t give me anything to go on.) Still, I’d managed to model decent punctuation, a sure-fire way to turn on a guy looking for sex. Maybe I wasn’t quite the awkward novice I professed to be.

To his credit, he followed my lead. He used full sentences and correct punctuation in all the back-and-forth messaging that ensued sporadically over the next two hours as we worked out when and where to meet: a cafe that evening. The public setting came as a relief. It meant there was no chance my first impression would be of the guy wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist. It also offered an out. No attraction? I could always thank him for the chat and leave. Whole Foods was nearby so the outing wouldn’t be a total waste. I’d suggested a cafe that was in between, but definitely closer to him. It meant that, no matter what, we wouldn’t be going back to my place. I didn’t have to tidy up and I wouldn’t have to wash the sheets. Convenience trumped risk. If his place turned out to have a secret dungeon or a creepy roommate, I felt pretty confident I could make a run for it.

Just before I headed out, I dared to push through one of the hookup boundaries. I texted my name. Daniel, came the reply. Back to brevity. Fine. Whatever.

I arrived uncharacteristically a few minutes late. First, I battled a faulty parking meter, the damn meter declaring victory as I gave up and found another spot. Then, after I speed-walked toward Broadway, I trusted my memory as to where the cafe was located and turned left, walking one block, then two, then three. Sure enough, the place had vanished!

By now, I should know to never, never, never trust my sense of direction. I turned around and texted to announce my pending arrival. One block the other way. Clearly the cafe’s fault. They need more prominent signage. I glanced in the window and saw him staring out from a stool. I waved and smiled. He stuck with his photo stance. Maybe, in his case, it really did hurt to smile. Maybe he’d just gone through a painful jaw resetting. How would that affect sex?

We ordered our coffees in for-here mugs. Might a nod to environmental consciousness offset sleazy sex guilt? A little conversation would humanize the whole situation. (We were already on a first-name basis, after all.) Still, no need to get carried away. I knew it wouldn’t drag on too long. The place was scheduled to close in forty-five minutes. It was all part of the plan when I suggested it.

That chat didn’t go as expected. No What are you into? No mention of STDs. Not even any pointed leering between long pauses. Instead, we talked about work and family. A university professor and another middle child. Hmm,...imagine that. I shared photos of paintings of Gerhard Richter, an artist I’d first learned about on my most recent trip to San Francisco, while he entertained with stories about his adventures in India. All around me, I could see the red flags.

This was dating talk.

No. Just stop it. He’d smiled plenty of times so I knew kissing and other oral matters were indeed a possibility. How could I smoothly segue from symphony highlights to sexual positions or...or...? Damn, I still had a lot to learn about hookups.

Before I knew it, the cafe had emptied out and we were exchanging contact information. On the sidewalk, we hugged goodbye and I refocused on grocery needs—overpriced cold brew coffee, kale chips, oat milk. Clearly, I’d failed to spark any sexual desire. Should have worn flashier socks.

When I got home, I glanced at my phone and there was a message from Daniel: It was a pleasure to meet you and chat. Old-fashioned happy face...colon and closed parenthesis instead of an emoji. Proof again that the guy knew his punctuation keys. Such a turn-on!

Over the course of the next week, we had occasional texting flourishes, sharing small happenings; nothing scintillating but warm and pleasant. All part of getting to know each other. We agreed to meet again and he made reservations at Vancouver’s nicest Thai restaurant.

Damn it. We were in dating mode.

Over dinner, we exchanged notes about open houses that day. Both of us have our condos on the market. He’s downsizing from a massive place he shared for fifteen years with his ex. (Commitment oriented!) He plans to move to Kitsilano, my favorite part of the city. “And what are you going to do when you sell?” he asked. Gosh, we hadn’t even finished our appetizers.

I’m moving to Toronto.” There. I said it. Game changer. This is what you get when you use a hookup site for dating. I didn’t elaborate and he didn’t probe. Instead, we continued to have a very pleasant, extended evening, both of us dipping into the Strong Like zone. A drink at his place followed dinner along with a lot of tender kissing. Another text dinged as I got back home and much more in the days that followed.

Not a hookup. What the hell is it? Once again, no sense of direction.

Recalibrating...recalibrating.


Monday, February 10, 2020

DEAD TO YOU

You’ve heard the joke. It shows up on many Twitter bios: “In gay years, I’m dead.”

So I’ve got company. Rainbow zombies.

I suppose the age at which we qualify for a gay death certificate isn’t firmly established. Fifty? Forty? Again on Twitter, I’ve seen gay men bemoan the fact they’re turning thirty-two. I half-expect them to include a selfie, holding up a hand-printed poster board sign: The End Is Near. Or maybe it already happened.

Whatever the age, it’s clear that I’ve passed it. Fifty-five. Off life support. Flatlined. Dead.

And yet I still have a pulse. (Just checked again.) I still bear the signs of youth—and, by that, I mean a zit showed up on my back last week. I almost smiled. Almost. (There was a time in the ‘80s when I think I must have covered all-expense paid vacations to Tahiti for everyone on the Clearasil management team.) My bank account appears active—more withdrawals than deposits, nothing new there. My fridge has a several items with expiration dates still pending. (Never mind that bottle of “Calorie Wise” Kraft ranch dressing on the bottom shelf. There was never anything smart about that purchase.)

Ageism has long existed in the gay community. For a supposedly inclusive group, we’ve thrived on compartmentalizing ourselves, on creating clear divides rather than doing what we expect of others—embracing diversity.

When I first came on the scene, it was at the ripe “old” age of twenty-four. There was a whole back-pocket handkerchief culture still lingering but on the way out. Thank god. I didn’t understand it. For some reason, instilled fear in me. What was the difference between a green hanky in the left pocket and one in the right pocket? Did a yellow hanky really have something to do with urine or did people just find it entertaining to elicit looks of horror from me? If only there’d been Google or any sort of Internet. Dating myself, yes. Or some of you might think of it as carbon-dating.

I don’t recall if young gays were called twinks way, way back then. The common term I remember is chicken, more derisively used to label older gay men as chickenhawks. Being gay felt more underground back then. It was past the time when police would do raids on gay bars and the American Psychiatric Association had removed homosexuality from its listing of mental illnesses (although that news didn’t seem to have reached Texas). That’s about as far as gay rights had progressed. “Fag bashing” still floated about on the bored heterosexual men’s list of Things to Do This Weekend. The cheap thrill alternative was just driving by a reputed gay area, rolling down the window and yelling, “Faggot”, “Cocksucker” or something equally hateful/hysterical. Aside from a few straight women lovingly or not so lovingly referred as fag hags, it was safe to assume that everyone in a gay bar was gay. (The community hadn’t fully embraced bisexuals who were viewed as suspect, guys with one foot in and one foot out of the closet.) Coming out stories, commonly shared, were typically dramatic, often punctuated with references to being kicked out, disowned, damned to hell or simply the cause of a lot of tears and ensuing awkwardness.

I say all this because there was a sense that we were an oppressed group and, for some reason, it bred a sense of survival whereby caustic and campy attitudes were very much in vogue. It wasn’t just drag queens that read one another. Put-downs were part of gay play.

Without a doubt, older gays were often mocked by the younger set. “Look at that old queen...” A drunk older gay man or one who dared take off his shirt or went solo on a mostly empty dance floor made for easy dissing. I attributed all this to a great deal of insecurity—that comes with feeling oppressed—and a sense that in our main playing field, the gay bar, everyone was being sized up. Everyone was ripe for derision. Everyone except the rarefied hotties who knew all eyes were upon them and only paired up their kind, waiting for the dance floor to get crowded before taking off their shirts, and joining in, more grinding than actually busting a move.

I’ll admit that I played along as best I could. (No, definitely not as one of the gods!) The campiness often bothered me. It felt mean. But it went down better with a couple of Tom Collins. (I never took to beer unless I could stuff a half dozen lime wedges down the neck of the bottle.) Being camp was the sanctioned humor du jour and, while I was secretly appalled by many of the comments, I was also awed. How was it that these guys were so quick? I couldn’t keep up.

This is around the time that I honed my self-deprecating nature. If I could freely make fun of myself, it took away the sting of being a target by other gays. In theory, at least, that’s how it was supposed to go.

I will admit that I participated in disparaging older gays. They were easier fodder for people like me who struggled to nail a campy persona. There were certain bars that were almost no-go zones, places where the older among us congregated. We’d go every so often for a laugh, in the same way we’d occasionally do a couple of laps in The Spike, a leather bar. Niche groups. As if the gay community never really broke free from the crushing categorization mindset of high school. Gawking within our own supposed “community”. Lots of “Would you look at her...” Easiest line, often no elaboration required. Whether it was someone in leather or someone whose hair had gone salt-and-pepper, I’d always squirm and make a face of horror when one of my small pack would nod in that direction and say, “There’s your boyfriend.”

It’s all an example of how the “pride” part of gay pride was very much a work-in-progress. More of a fake it till you make it concept. I suppose flaunting pride worked better in parades than donning banners that read, “Gay Shame”.

The point to all of this is that I’d like to think gay culture has evolved. Enlightenment comes with acceptance. Indeed, the old campy humor seems very much passe, preserved by the drag queens but, even among them, it feels more forced than ever.

Here in North America, it seems a stretch to claim to be oppressed, at least for the LGB and Qs in our LGBTQ community. Announcing you’re gay draws fewer looks than saying you got a new tattoo. We can marry—something none of us packed into gay bars in 1990 would have ever believed possible. Sexual orientation is included in hate crime legislation in many jurisdictions. Same goes for housing and job discrimination laws. More to do, yes, but things seem to hinge more on a matter of time rather than on possibility.

Maybe it’s time we change our ways. Some of them, at least. Reflect. Keep whatever is or was good about gay culture but grow as well. All this time we’ve been focused on others changing to accept us. Oh, the strides we’ve made! How about acknowledging that we’ve got some changing to do, too? How about greater acceptance within our “community”?

At fifty-five, I don’t expect to be resuscitated anytime soon. I can accept that this is karma, biting me in the ass for past misconduct. I don’t plan on making buttons that say, “60 is the new 40” and passing them out at Pride. I can learn to knit. Maybe I’ll adopt half a dozen cats. (I’ll knit them little sweaters!) Still, I hope that gay men fretting over thirty candles on a cake can avoid getting their own death certificates until many decades from now. Let them continue to live, to be seen, to be heard and, most of all, to be valued.

Monday, February 3, 2020

BUY GAY OR BYE GAY?

Do you make it a point to seek out LGBTQ-owned businesses?

There was a time when that made perfect sense. It was a given. In my early years in Vancouver, I remember picking up a new copy of the gay yellow pages every year or so and skimming through it, making mental notes of businesses and services I might need to access. Buying from LGBTQ providers was just another way to support our community.

But here I need to come clean. Even back then, I couldn’t just blindly support an enterprise that dared post a rainbow sticker in the corner of a window. (Yes, there was a time when the symbol made a bold statement and risked a loss of business while cultivating a niche clientele.) I couldn’t fully commit to the unwritten expectation: I’m gay so you should support me. Quality and value still mattered. And, despite how much it rubbed me wrong as I grew up, I seem to sometimes verge on being a cheapskate like my father. Too often it turned out that the gay business couldn’t really compete, not just against big box stores (which I tend to avoid) but compared to other small businesses. Should I fork over an extra five or ten bucks of my paycheck just because a service provider is gay?

My first hairstylists in Vancouver were gay but that quickly became problematic. First, I developed crushes on each of them. (Hell, that happened to me in Los Angeles, too. My first ever boyfriend was a stylist. Sure, we met in a bar, but I suspect that’s where my soft spot for guys with scissors began.) The crushes were never returned. That alone wouldn’t have sent me away. Back then, in particular, I had eternal hope. Surely one day my hairdresser would snag his comb on that mole in the back of my head and, not only would he offer a first-ever apology, but he’d suddenly be smitten. I love a guy with a big mole. Said no one! I stuck around until I admitted what had been a problem all along. The cuts were passable, but the chair-side manner was wholly lacking. They couldn’t even fake an interest in the conversation, mmm-hmm-ing and uh-huh-ing in all the wrong places. I finally decided to seek unrequited crushes in other places and I’ve had women stylists ever since.

When the stakes have been higher, I often went first to the gay guy. There were times I felt my business was taken for granted. Yeah, I’ve got this. I’m gay, he’s gay. It’s a done deal. Sometimes the stereotype of gay men being flaky when it comes to dating seemed to spill over to the business world. The gay-owned bakery I show up at to begin my daily writing wouldn’t open on time, the service would seem indifferent despite my loyal patronage. An interior designer submitted plans for a home reno that looked like an embarrassing cut-and-paste job from other people’s websites. An insurance agent wouldn’t show up for a scheduled meeting. A contractor suddenly abandoned a job, never even bothering to come by to pick up the tools sitting in the basement. A mortgage broker would call to cancel ten minutes after our session was supposed to have started. The gay brand took a beating.

Recently my rainbow support has wavered again. Since I’m listing my condo and hoping for a quick, profitable sale (Isn’t that what all sellers hope for?), I decided not to go with a family friend whom I’ve used on several occasions and found to be too passive. Instead, I interviewed two real estate agents with multiple recent sales in my building. Both are experienced, high performers in the condo market. One of them turned out to be gay. While we met, you could feel us feeling each other out, testing our gaydar readings. I noticed in his pitch materials that he gave back to charity, not just to the SPCA but to a local AIDS organization. Advantage gay realtor.

But then I looked more closely at the materials each agent submitted and there was a slight difference in the commission percentages each would take upon the sale of my unit. I punched the numbers into my phone calculator and that seemingly small disparity worked out to $2000. I made the decision harder than it should have been. Personally, I thought the gay realtor was nicer and I felt considerable gay guilt. A quick online search of provincial real estate commissions affirmed that he was charging me more than the industry standard. This was a business decision. The charitable causes were a distraction. How much did he actually give and isn’t that a personal matter anyway? I’ve always resented when corporations stage an annual public relations day, wooing you in and trying to come off as good guys by donating a day’s worth of sales from a “Smile cookie” or a Blizzard to a children’s charity. Just donate the money out of your own sense of corporate goodness and be done with it; don’t tie it in customer sales. As for my seemingly altruistic real estate guy, I could pass on him, donate $1800 to the AIDS charity and still come out ahead. (I do donate to the same charity but I don’t feel a need to divulge how much. As I’ve been trying to say—albeit in a bit of a ramble—that’s personal.) After too much hemming and hawing, I went with the other guy, a veritable real estate shark. Sell the damn condo so I can move on with a new chapter in life!

Turns out the move is a convenient way to end my relationship with another gay service provider, my dentist. I’ve been going to him, off and on, for a dozen years. I initially knew him from a gay sports league and, not having a dentist, he was a convenient choice. A good choice it seemed up until a few years ago. The walls of his office are adorned with stunning modern art paintings and a Zen kind of instrumental music is always streaming. Part art gallery, part spa, part Buddhist temple...with a new toothbrush as a parting gift! I was a low-maintenance patient, always getting praise and even an expression of awe for how well my teeth held up. (Sure, there was always a nudge about flossing more, a task I’ve always felt was about as much fun as cleaning the toilet bowl.)

But then my stellar teeth started to show cracks. Literally. Fractures in a couple of the back teeth. My greatest phobia came into play: needles. My phobia is well documented by psychiatrists. I know it’s illogical and my reaction is highly embarrassing but I’ve always felt intensely violated when jabbed with a needle. It’s traumatic for me and, unfortunately, often for the needle bearer as well. What is wrong with this guy and how did I get stuck with him? Sorry ‘bout that. I try to keep the adversarial relationship between the needle and me but there are always other casualties. My dentist’s approach seems to be that he can spring the needle on me without an advance warning.

SURPRISE!

Epic fail. Every time. I’m left with a rising sense of distrust and the entire Zen atmosphere is lost. Things got really bad at the beginning of December when he poked me with a needle three times in a fifteen-minute period. The freezing never took. By then, we both wanted to flee. He gave up and referred me to an oral surgeon. A needle in the arm that time as three nurses tried to distract me with inane chitchat (favorite “Friends” character...really?!) and I tried to fixate on the light snow falling outside.

It’s not just my dentist’s approach to needle stabbing that has me relinquishing my gay allegiance. I’m not sure he’s all that good at what he does. He struggled mightily a couple of years ago when removing my first cracked tooth. After a lot of huffing and puffing that would have impressed many a fairy tale wolf, he had to saw the tooth in half and extract it piece by piece. “You have deep roots,” he told me. Maybe so. By the end, I think he came close to dislocating his shoulder. For the past week, I have a temporary tooth in the spot where he’s putting in a bridge tomorrow evening. I’m not so sure the substitute tooth is supposed to be protruding into mouth, a strangely sharp edge slicing away at my tongue. Perhaps being gay and a halfway decent volleyball setter aren’t the qualifications I should be looking for in a dentist.

I want to support gay businesses. Maybe things will be better in Toronto. Seems that’s my becoming my great hope in a growing list of subject areas.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

A DRUG DEAL GOING DOWN

The following is a piece I wrote back in the fall. It may come across as a bit dark; I suspect that’s why I didn’t post it then. Still, today a major Canadian corporation, Bell Canada, is holding its annual Let’s Talk Day, intended to shed light on mental health issues. Thirty years ago, when I interned at a mental health non-profit agency not far from L.A.’s Skid Row, I could not understand why people would go off their meds. If they do some good, why stop? Now I get it. Stigma is still part of the struggle.


I’ve been seeing psychiatrists for five years now and it still feels strange. Unpleasant even.
I had issues when I was going weekly. One doctor and I clashed. He was intent on proving I fit into a textbook model for depression and tried repeatedly to get me to confess that I was an angry person. He’d bait me with a thesaurus. After I’d share an anecdote, he’d say, “And how’d that make you feel...agitated? Huffy? Furious?” If I had any anger, it was session-specific. I eventually decided it was better to go back on a waiting list than to keep seeing him.
My next weekly guy wanted me to buy into mindfulness. I obligingly bought his chosen book on the subject and couldn’t help but scribble all my objections and skepticism in the margins. No doubt what he was scribbling on his legal pad: Resistant to therapy. After a few assigned readings and some futile attempts to incorporate mindfulness into our sessions, he lost the blinking contest. I would never become a disciple. Our sessions evolved into comfortable conversations. Too comfy, perhaps. I didn’t see myself growing. I was the same old mess. After seeing him for three and a half years, he retired last March.
The breakup seemed harder on him. He fretted over the transition for months. I regularly had to reassure him that I would be okay. I didn’t mention that I looked forward to the change. Maybe a new doctor would have a different perspective. Maybe he or she would offer new insights that might lead to improved ways of coping with my anxiety and depression. If nothing else, I knew my time would be freer. Apparently, psychiatrists who do psychotherapy are a dying—or retiring, at least—breed. No more weekly, fifty-minute sessions.
The pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. My new psychiatrist sees me once every two to three months for what comes off as a random chat, never exceeding ten minutes. I leave each time with the same thought: “What the hell was that for?”
I’m certain I’m not benefiting from these brief sit-downs. (Does the chair even get warm?) Still, I have to go. It’s all come down to drugs. He’s my dealer. Today’s appointment feels especially unsavory. Part of it is the setting. My psychiatrist has been assigned not based on my needs or any matching criteria; rather, he works out of the provincial health unit closest to me and he apparently had a space. While I live on the edge of the sketchiest part of Vancouver, his office is in the thick of it. To get to the building, I walk by addicts passed out or pawning their wares on Hastings Street and then take a zig and a zag until I’m alongside the tented homeless community that has taken over Oppenheimer Park for years. The glass door of the office I enter is decorated with the message, NO NARCOTICS ON SITE. I guess the hardware store was out of welcome mats. I arrive, carrying my laptop without my version of the Linus blanket, my Herschel backpack. (At the end of my first appointment, my psychiatrist eyed my backpack on the floor and warned me about a chronic bed bug problem in the building.)
Yeah, so the stage is always set for an unsavory kind of feeling. It gets worse as I dutifully answer his left-field questions—“What’s your writing process?”; “Did you like teaching?”—knowing that the Q and A leads to nothing. He’s going through the motions and, frankly, so am I. All I want is the slip of paper that comes whenever he suddenly decides time’s up. Gimme the prescription.
The sad reality is I can relate to the people I pass on my way over. I’ve learned the hard way, through trial and serious error, that I don’t function without my drugs. Rather, I dysfunction. Grandly. I spiral quickly downward, the bubble wrap coming off what had been neatly packed and stowed boxes of gloom, doom and utter despair. I frighten myself and doctors. I get locked up.
As I fold the paper I’ve come for, pocket it and leave the building, I feel dirty and ashamed. I fret as I have so many times before, wondering what the long-term harm may be from taking these pills. I flirt with a timeline for when I may once again go drug-free, cold turkey. I’ve been stable for almost four months now. My recently retired psychiatrist told me on several occasions that I’d be on meds for the rest of my life. (“Think of it like a diabetic who needs insulin,” I’ve been told by several well-intentioned professionals.) Still, I hold out hope that maybe I’ll learn some effective strategies to work through anxiety without needing to reach for an Ativan and I’ll be able to talk myself through heretofore crippling bouts of prolonged depression without Seroquel or Abilify or Mirtazapine. But I know I’m not going to learn any strategies from my bimonthly chitchats with my current psychiatrist. And the lift I get from a current pop song like this or that is fleeting. I don’t have answers now and I have plenty of bad memories from psych wards and meltdowns in doctors’ offices. Despite the bargaining, wishing and protesting, there is only one option: I have to stay on drugs.
By the time I walk back past the tent city, around the woman on the sidewalk nonchalantly shoving a needle into a vein in her arm and dodge several zombie impersonators walking wobbly lines, I know I can’t really relate to these neighbors. I catch a couple hugging and see groups huddled together. I hear laughter, some of it with another person by their side, some of it alone, and it’s our differences that are more pronounced. They have all the connections they need.
I walk into my drugstore, have a seat in front of a familiar pharmacist and pull out my paper, my doctor’s note that hooks me up for the next ninety days. I try to smile and make eye contact but mostly I stare at my right knee, bobbing up and down, one hundred fifty times per minute. With only a glance at the piece of paper that I slide across the counter, he knows I’m not here on account of a persistent hemorrhoid issue, a case of the crabs or the latest flu strain. Those things shall pass. As many times as I’ve done this, my face still burns.
When I return in an hour to pick up the prescription, I’ll pay for a bag of chips and a box of Walkers shortbread as well, not on account of any expected surge of the munchies; to the contrary, those items will sit untouched in my cupboard for many months. I just need to normalize the experience, like how I load up a basket of groceries when the only pressing purchase is a twelve-roll package of toilet paper. Pharmacists and grocery clerks know too much. I’ll shove the pill bottle in my jacket and go bagless on the chips and cookies. The shame in walking home and coming off as a junk food junkie is nothing.