Tuesday, March 24, 2015

MENACE ON THE STREETS

My first photo during my New York stay. (Robert Indiana's)
LOVE went largely unnoticed.
I am enjoying my first trip to New York City. Still, it’s not the place to take a leisurely stroll. The pace is hurried. Pedestrians don’t wait on the curb at traffic lights. They inch into the street. But it’s not even inching. They foot into the street; they yard into the street. Yes, New Yorkers have created two new measurement verbs.

I could really fit in here.

Even as I browsed the aisles at Whole Foods, I had to keep my eye out for aggressive cart pushers and basket carriers. I stepped aside, brushed up against boxes of gluten-free rosemary flatbread. Let ‘em pass. I didn’t see any shopper crashes, but I didn’t want to take my chances.

On the streets, it’s an onslaught of environmental print. It’s not just the colossal signage in Times Square. There’s something for sale everywhere. Even in the library. (I bought a book but passed on the Wizard of Oz t-shirt.)

There’s one sign that seems to be following me. It’s one of those ad campaigns that completely envelopes a bus. And I’m not sure if it’s just one friggin’ bus that keeps circling my path or if NBC splurged with its marketing and transformed a Manhattan fleet, but I keep encountering whole-bus signage promoting the new show “Undateable”.

Damn bus.

This is my vacation. This is supposed to be an escaped from my everyday reality.

Wasn't my intention, but I love that the sign on the other bus
says, "Mad Me", the last letter, an N, lopped off.
Customized signage, indeed!
I see it as I schlep to the Museum of Modern Art. “Undateable”.

On my way back from Central Park. “Undateable”.

As I search for authentic New York cheesecake. “Undateable”.

Sorry, NBC, I don’t need the reminders. When I first heard about the show, two thoughts came to mind: (1) I should sue them for mocking my life, or (2) How did they ever cast anyone other than me in the starring role?

I really have no idea whether this is a reality show, a sitcom or something more aptly based on a Greek tragedy. I don’t want to know. The title hits too close to home. Even when I’m 2,400 miles away.

So much for getting away from it all.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

TAKING A BITE OF THE FORBIDDEN BIG APPLE

I hear the stories. Gay guy goes on vacation, imbibes in a margarita or four, hooks up with a hot local guy and returns home with a scandalous story to tell for the next week.

How Steven got his groove back.

Apparently the chances are good. Barflies get tired of the same filler material. They keep their eyes open, waiting for the first “Say, you’re not from around here” guy to walk in the club. Well, maybe not the first. It takes a while for their own liquid relaxants to kick in.

New guy + barfly. It’s a potent combination. Two men with low/no expectations. One night. Maybe just one hour. It’s practically anonymous. Go in with a new name, the one you wish your parents had given you. Remember when “Dick” was acceptable? Try it on if you can say it with a straight face. If not, there are other studly names. Dirk. Gunnar. Just not Rolfe. (He turned out bad in “The Sound of Music”.)

Go wild. What happens in Vegas and all that. So what if your holiday is in Acapulco. Or Cleveland. Conjure up your own Vegas state of mind.

And, yes, I could stand to have a Vegas moment. I’m in New York City and there are so many attractive men. Men with a fashion sense. Men who clearly seem to be gay. Especially when I’m spending all my time in art galleries and in line for Broadway shows. Of course, the boys of Broadway march two by two. I wind up eavesdropping on two old Jewish women in front of me as they kvetch about all the stars of “Glee”. (They catch me nodding as one of them says Jonathan Groff and Darren Criss make a cuter couple than Kurt and Blaine.)

On my third night in Manhattan, I should be going to a gay bar. Perhaps even a bathhouse if I don’t feel like margaritas. But I get bored looking up gay bars on Yelp. I dash out with the clear intention of picking Steve. I cruise the aisles of Whole Foods on 7th Avenue until I spot him: a pint of Steve’s Mexican Chili Chocolate ice cream, the perfect way to end the night after a Broadway show. Yes, that’s the kind of Steve from Brooklyn that truly whets my appetite. I'm thinking I'd love another go at Steve. He’s my sure thing.

On my final day, I decide to walk through Greenwich Village and to check out the Stonewall Inn. For a Saturday afternoon, the streets seem quiet. I don’t get any sense of a Bohemian culture. Neither do I get a sense that this is a gay area. The Stonewall Inn appears to be a teeny establishment, a big surprise since everything in Manhattan seems so big. I had told myself I’d pop in for a beer but I see no one coming or going and, frankly, I have no desire for any kind of alcohol. I move on, stopping for a moment to gaze at a subpar all-white sculpture to commemorate the Stonewall Riots. The historical milestone deserves better.

If I’m going to stumble on a fling or at least a moment of flirtation, I figure my best chances are just off Christopher Street. I stroll into Big Gay Ice Cream.

Yes, this is my kind of cruising bar.

But, alas, the stereotypes must be true. Gays don’t do ice cream. Not in broad daylight, at least. There are twenty people in the shop. All families and straight couples. I no longer feel inspired to order the Bea Arthur. The camp factor would be fruitless. I settle on the Pumpkin Gobbler instead. I get it to-go.

Two days in a row of self-soothing with ice cream. I’m definitely staying in tonight. And I’ll be doing penance when I get back home—longer jogs, harder swims, heavier weights. It’s not the kind of penance I’d hoped for.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

THE TIME FOR SECOND THOUGHTS

Okay. I see it. My current internet search windows scream, “Mistake!” And the message is ripe. With my move only two and a half weeks away, second thoughts are natural.

I’m writing at my regular table at my third favorite café in my ferry-dependent community. Yes, I’ll admit to liking and frequenting six or seven cafés here. They do cafés well. Shopping, restaurants, the arts? Not so much. Anyway, here I am writing and sipping a nonfat latté from an oversized mug when I see the woman at the table beside me tip her newspaper upward just enough for me to see the nameplate: The New York Times. Well, that gets me excited. A New York Times available here? Is it today’s? A Sunday New York Times?! It takes great restraint not to snatch it out of her hand. And despite a stir of excitement I’m too shy to ask where she got it. Instead I stop writing and conduct an urgent Google Search: “new york times sunshine coast”.

Nothing.

Maybe it’s just as well. It would be heartbreaking to discover after almost ten years that I could have been more informed and culturally connected just by stopping by the local gas station on Sunday mornings. The woman probably came over on the ferry this morning. A Vancouver purchase to pass the time while unwatched tots yell and play tag on the boat ride over.

My search does lead to an article I click on. It’s a 2008 travel piece about the Sunshine Coast in The New York Times.Basking in the Sunshine Coast”. And the place sounds lovely. A great place for a weekend of kayaking and hiking.

On the 40-minute ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver, the geographic and mental shift happens quickly, taking passengers from an urban, glass-walled landscape to one dominated by snowcapped mountains and wide-ranging swaths of green.

Yes, I recall my vacation getaways before I actually moved here. It always felt like I was being transported to another world. Peace, serenity and all that. Notably, the writer states that she only encountered one person on a three-hour hike, an experience I find each time I venture into nature here. When I go, it always feels like it’s mine and mine alone. And therein lies the reminder. At some point, “alone” trumped “serenity”.

The other internet article that is currently open on my screen is glaringly different in tone and subject matter. It’s a CBC report about a Vancouver incident last night. “Double stabbing leaves two dead”. Okay, big city. Crime happens. But this particular happening occurred a block and a half from the building where I’m moving. And even though it’s a quickly released story, there is no chance that a reporter could ever get a quote from a neighbor saying something like, “I’m shocked. You always hear about this sort of thing happening. You just never think of it happening here. It’s just not that kind of place.”

Truth is, it is that kind of place—rundown hotels converted to housing for the most destitute people in Canada; rampant drug use; under-treated persons struggling with mental illness; assorted crimes associated with addiction and the basest efforts to survive.

Home?

Two articles. The differences between where I’m leaving and where I’m going couldn’t be starker. One portrays my current surroundings at its best, a vacation paradise. The other depicts my pending environment at its worst, a chronic urban blight. If ever I were to have second thoughts, these articles would be the impetus.

But, really, I’m aware of the extremes. I may very well once again retreat to the Sunshine Coast on weekends when I need to decompress on the ferry and wander alone along rocky shores and on canopied forest treks. My new home is true urban grit, trendy restaurants and shops coexisting with inebriated entrepreneurs hawking stolen goods on the sidewalks out front. I am stubbornly naïve in thinking I can gain a better understanding of the problems, maybe even make a difference. I am also wary, knowing that my desire to be sympathetic and supportive won’t matter if someone wants my wallet or seeks to find spare change in my parked car.

Life will be different. That is certain.

For now, I’ll savor my latté and the local color as a dozen chatty seniors pull tables together, the men with lumberjack beards and rubber-banded greying ponytails, the women still wearing socks and crocs. Time stands still here. Unfortunately, I cannot.

 

 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

THE LONG GOODBYE

The move back to Vancouver is still three weeks away. I’ve got plenty to do. This should be the time when I start to panic, but I’m not there yet. This is when it pays off being an experienced procrastinator. I’ll cram all that chaotic energy into the final week. Maybe even the last two or three days. I can pull all-nighters. It will be a nostalgic thing. University without exams at the end.

The easier things are in motion. Much of the furniture is gone or at least spoken for. Only the bed and the nightstand can join me in my new digs, a teensy condo that only looks roomy if you’re returning from five days in one of those pullout drawer hotels in Japan.

I know the move is absolutely necessary. It’s my only chance to find life again. Yes, that sounds melodramatic, but it is 100% true. The move comes under tacit orders from my family doctor, my psychologist and my psychiatrist. (Like a tennis pro, I have a team.)

Still, I can’t help but feel melancholy as I stare at the empty spaces in the house where I thought I’d live until I became an incontinent, drooling geezer, wheeled off to a nursing home. In late October, 2005, I’d stopped in a furniture store in Calgary, two hours before a flight home after a conference I attended for work. I spent $10,000 in a whirlwind of decision-making, the entire staff at my service as I pointed at tables and chairs and directed how particular items needed to be modified as part of the custom order.  It was a feeling of euphoria. Until then, I’d only owned a mattress and an IKEA chair. Hell, I’d spent my first two years in Vancouver sleeping on flattened cardboard in a spare bedroom in a friend of a friend’s townhouse. I’d never dared to be fussy.

Six weeks later, when the furniture arrived—sans two dining chairs that vanished en route from Quebec—I felt pride. The furniture made a statement. I’d finally made it on my own. A house. With real furniture. None of that discount stuff. Nothing temporary, with the intent of being replaced a decade later when the financial picture mysteriously brightened.

It’s jarring to think that the items wound up lasting only a decade after all. I’ve sold the items off to good homes, all people who work in the school district. Bargain prices. I can cash in for lattés instead of regular coffees for the next while. Back to simpler pleasures.

But there are other goodbyes. Not to people. I’ll still be working here and god knows I didn’t build up a significant social network. What enticed me in the first place was the natural beauty. Each jog and each bike ride now takes on special meaning. Last jog to the town marina. Last biking expedition toward the mill. It is in the outdoors where the greater memories are. This is where the dogs and I picked blackberries. (Yes, the dogs joined in. Lincoln was a natural, undeterred by the prickles. Hoover preferred to be hand fed.)

This is where I encountered the bear on the road and had to stop my bike. Here is where I saw up to a hundred dolphins. This is where I always dipped my front bike tire in the ocean, a ritual to honor my AIDS Project Los Angeles buddy who died twenty-three years ago. (The act recalled my maneuvering his wheelchair through the sand on his final birthday so he could dip his feet in the Pacific in Santa Barbara.) Here is where I chased the coyotes away from the alpacas. And this is where I’d sit against a log, let the later afternoon sun greet my face and feel a fleeting sense of inner peace.

There are a few more jaunts to be had. I’m thankful for that. Despite all the packing, the tossing and the errands left to do, I have the opportunity for full closure. This is not where I will grow old. The isolation did real damage. But there were moments of nourishment in the serenity.

The goodbye comes with mixed emotions. Has it been the time of my life? Hardly. Still, I feel a genuine sense of gratitude for the ways in which this stay enriched.

 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

THESE EYES

I am not overtly trying to scare people. Really. But surely I do. In the grocery store, I avoid the cereal aisle. No need to horrify the three-year-old in the shopping cart whose sole focus should be manipulating his mother into adding a box of Lucky Charms to the cart. (What the hell is muesli anyway?) That child needn’t be distracted by my ghostly face. And, truth time, I needn’t hear his unregulated voice say, “Mommy, what’s wrong with that man’s eyes?” (If only parents could teach their tots the art of the whisper. So much more essential than shoe tying.)

Yes, I am aware of my tired eyes. Beyond tired. If there were a film crew in my area, they’d hire me as a zombie extra. Even if it’s a movie that has nothing to do with zombies. Why pass up the opportunity? Just let the zombie walk through the stable in “The Black Stallion” remake or the labor movement exposé on migrant farmers. Be revisionist. Zombie mash-ups are all the rage.

Okay, so I’m getting a tad carried away. (I love that word. Tad. I declare it the word of the day. Somebody try to trend it on Twitter…after you slog through my rambling blog post.)

The eyes have had it. I am going through a graver than usual sleep challenge. And the effects are terribly unsightly. All that work to maintain a youthful body goes unnoticed. Puffy, saggy, coon eyes upstage firm pecs. I may have to borrow Shia LaBeouf‘s paper bag. If only the eye slits weren’t so large.

And now you tell me I have to adjust my clocks. I have to move them ahead. Lose an hour of sleep. Or, more precisely, an hour of scheduled sleep time. You can’t cheer me up with the logic that there will be other zombies in my midst, at least for Monday and maybe Tuesday. It’s temporary. They’ll adjust. And, really, their dark circles are mere shades of grey. I’ve got football-player blackness under my eyes.

Perhaps that’s it. I must adjust the zombie look. Buy a helmet. I’ll be the fifty-year-old football wannabe. Never mind that I never figured out how to hold that wonky-shaped ball. Never mind that I’m two decades beyond any passable impersonation of a jock. And never mind that no one EVER called me a jock, no matter how far back I go in my scrapbooking brain.

Oh, hell. It is Shia time. Pass the paper bag. I’ll wear it well.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

ALL AROUND ME

We’re an egocentric lot. Ever notice how a certain topic may have had no relevance in your life for the past decade or two or ever and then, when it suddenly matters, the subject everywhere? Articles in the newspaper. Twitter comments. An overheard conversation on the bus. Yes, all this focus on, oh, say New York City, is a sign. The upcoming trip is meant to be. The world is telling you so, in the form of helpful bus messengers with distractingly tattooed facial features. All this Big Apple talk. New York, New York, New York. Yes, it’s all for you. What else could it be? What are the chances that the topic could come up at random? Sure, there are 8.4 million people who live in that town, but this is the West Coast, a different country even. Despite all that science gibberish, the world revolves around you. Or, really, me.

Okay, this post has nothing to do with NYC. It is true that I am making my first trip there next month, but this is not the time for that. I needed a lighter way to introduce a heavier topic. I could have led with ancient Egypt. The first time I ever taught that, articles about pyramids and Tutankhamen suddenly popped up everywhere. How could that be a coincidence? I mean, that was all old news. Ancient history.

The subject that I’ve been stumbling upon all too often in the past two years is suicide. And let’s be clear, I realize that neither Robin Williams nor recent Oscar acceptance speeches have anything to do with me. My egocentrism has its limits. The first ongoing thinking on suicide came from a screenplay idea. I had a clear vision of an opening scene involving a suicidal woman working at a daycare. Then more scenes. Dark thoughts, but darkly comical. I suppose I’ve wanted to tackle a project like this ever since I saw the underrated “Crimes of the Heart” on New Year’s Eve, 1986, in a movie theatre in Fort Worth, Texas. The performances of Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton, Tess Harper and Sissy Spacek crackled, but Beth Henley’s screenplay (based on her Pulitzer Prize-winning play) was the true star. Dark, yet warm and funny at the same time. A major writing accomplishment.

And so I began to write. The flurry of early scenes came with ease. Why stop and outline? The story, the characters would be my guides. But the story and characters stalled in hospital. My comedy became melodramatic. Murderous ideas flopped. A change of setting made matters worse. I put the project aside. Not dead, but on life support. And so my suicidal character hovers about. Sometimes I pay her a formal visit; sometimes I can’t cope—I don’t know how to rescue her or her story. But I can’t let her go. She needs me.

I’m sure it is that writing and not my increasing despair that led me to read Judith Guest’s novel Ordinary People a year and a half ago. I’d first seen the movie as a midnight screening on campus during my freshman year and Timothy Hutton’s performance has stuck with me ever since. (I have a Mary Tyler Moore obsession so the fact that Hutton’s portrayal lingers stronger spoke volumes about his acting and, I presumed, the source material from Guest.) Naturally, after reading the book, I had to see the movie again.

Still, my screenplay remained comatose. Thoughts about suicide continued to shuffle about in my head. But I knew, based on how the subject was taking on more personal relevance, I needed to focus on other things. Happy thoughts.

And so I bought Allie Brosh’s wildly refreshing book Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened. This had nothing to do with being stuck on suicide. In fact, I stumbled upon the book after some comment I made on Twitter about not being able to follow anyone who committed three writing errors in a 140-character Twitter profile. Someone replied by saying he agreed with me “alot” and by giving me this delightful link. I bought the book, looking for a stickler companion to Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves, not as Ordinary People II*. It was as laugh out loud funny as I’d hoped. (I’ve read it twice. A third round is imminent.) But smack in the middle of the book were two brutally honest chapters on the author’s bouts with depression and feeling suicidal. My god, that’s me. How did that get slipped in? Maybe I picked up some wonky world-revolves-around-me edition.

How else to explain this sudden literary fixation?

My next book pick was one that I grabbed while in a rush at a bookstore. I bought it based on the title—It’s Kind of a Funny Story—and for the fact that I had a vague recollection that the novel had been adapted into a motion picture with a comedian or two in key roles. Figured I’d get to study a writer’s attempt to carry humor through an entire book and then I could treat myself to the movie version so I could casually fit all this into a conversation with someone, along with the standard Book Snob line, “The book was way better.”

It’s Kind of a Funny Story wasn’t a funny story at all. Not even kind of. It was all about suicide. Well, and drugs. After some heavy suicidal ideation, this kid got assigned to an adult psych ward. It mirrored so much of my hospital experience. I’d turned to reading for escape, not for validation of my traumatic experience. SPOILER ALERT: The book ends with the kid making it. He’s almost rosy-hopeful in the end. I made the mistake of Googling the author, Ned Vizzini. He killed himself in December 2013 at the age of thirty-two.

So not funny. I never bothered checking out the movie.

Next came The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. No suicides. But the main character’s husband goes through years of depression. Still not enough distance from the subject.

In searching for this image, I discovered
the book was adapted into a movie last
year. Who knew? Apparently, based on
box office returns, no one.
My most recent read is by British author Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down. I checked it out of the local library right before planning my most recent weekend escape to Seattle. He was doing a talk and a book signing for his new release, Funny Girl, and I felt it would be rude to attend without having read—or begun—one of his prior titles. I passed on the more familiar books on the shelf like About a Boy and High Fidelity. I wanted to be different. Maybe I could pose a question based on a less celebrated work. Ooh! Maybe I’d sound smart. A veritable Book Snub who doesn’t even need movie adaptations to guide reading selections! All I knew about the book was that it was about four very different characters and that Hornby took on the first-person narratives of each. And it was supposed to be funny. My kind of reading, my kind of writing—at least, what I aspire to write.

The first sentence brought back a familiar refrain. “Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block?” Seriously?! Yes, the four characters had nothing in common. Nothing except for the fact they each decided to commit suicide from the same building on the same New Year’s Eve.

How to explain this unconscious cycle of suicidal reading? Perhaps I have been irresponsible. I do hate reading book blurbs. I don’t want an inkling of plot revealed too soon. But for the next little while, I think I must change my reading habits. I’ve got Tina Fey’s Bossypants on deck next. She doesn’t seem the suicidal type. Maybe I’ll retreat to comics after that. Collections of Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, anything by Berkeley Breathed.

 
I would happily let the world revolve around someone else right now.

Or, if everything must continue to revolve around me, I need to channel a new topic. The inexplicable fascination with the Kardashians? The life of a belly dancer? Amazonian grasshoppers?

New channel. Please.
 
 

 


*I do realize that not everyone agrees with my conscious decision to leave off the s when writing the possessive form for a person whose name ends in s. To me, adding the extra s looks cluttered, a distraction to the eye as I read. The apostrophe hanging after the s in the last name suffices. Not sure what Lynne Truss’ (or Truss’s) position is on the matter. I could look it up in her book, but that would be a mere formality. I won’t change on this issue.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

SIZE ISN'T EVERYTHING

The countdown is on. In five weeks, I leave my rural incarnation of solitary confinement and return to Vancouver. And one sudden thought rushes to mind:

Maybe I should have rented.

Yes, I bought a teeny, tiny condo. It’s all I can afford in the Vancouver market. It’s one reason I left the city ten years ago.

I’d given Vancouver an eleven-year run. It hadn’t been the right fit. I have always been a big believer in “no regrets” and in never taking a step backwards. But, in truth, there weren’t many options. I am about five years away from my earliest possible retirement and moving to another province (and another pension system) seemed utterly impractical. I have applied to return to the U.S. where I earned two degrees and lived for sixteen years, but U.S. Immigration has my application sitting in a giant slush pile in some basement of some decaying government building. I’ll likely be retired—maybe even dead—before my number comes up.

It was Vancouver by default. Not exactly a rousing endorsement. I’ll make do. Hopefully, I can even thrive. But my current state of All Quiet on the Dating Front has led me to believe that there remains an ambivalence imbalance. The breathtakingly beautiful city is more indifferent to me than I am to it.

In the dating realm, the conventional thinking is there will be more opportunities in Vancouver. Really, how could there not be? But, as anyone will tell you, size isn’t everything. An emphatic “meh” from a significant metropolis can sting more than nonexistent shoulder shrugs from nonexistent gay men in the boonies. I stand to be rejected for me rather than for my home. That’s a scary prospect.

I am starting to wonder if I am simply not a Vancouver kind of man. I’m not outdoorsy enough. Heck, I don’t even own a pair of hiking boots. I have never gone to a yoga class. (No doubt, I’d be a terrible distraction to the instructor. I am stretching. I swear.) And I can’t even name the current coach of the Canucks. Maybe the Vancouver shunning is justified. If only it could be remedied by stocking up on Lululemon gear and traipsing through mud.

On the dating site OkCupid, I rarely get a sniff from a Vancouver guy, even though I state that I live close to the city. In fact, of the last dozen men to “Like” me, not one is from Vancouver. Instead, I’ve piqued some interest in two small towns in Florida, Brooklyn, Palm Springs, a place I’ve never heard of in the U.K., a tiny dot on the map in Missouri, Singapore, Portland, Seattle, Pasadena, Toronto and Panama City. The last ten guys to send a message were from the Philippines, Singapore, Redhill (UK), Calgary, Washington, D.C., two from London and three from Seattle.

Typically, people run dating searches within their geographical area. My results show that either they really don’t like me in Vancouver or I am more attractive when viewed from far, far away. Maybe both. Not very encouraging. I suppose there is that other possibility that single gay men in Vancouver aren’t terribly serious about finding someone. Maybe solo hikes up the North Shore Mountains are all they need to satisfy the endorphins. Perhaps the whole lot is a passive posse. That’s not helpful either for an awkward, shy guy like me.

Yep, I bought in Vancouver. It’s a grand gesture. Do you hear me, Vancouver? This is called commitment. I’m settling in. And already I feel unsettled.

Just what is the immigration policy for Panama anyway?