Wednesday, June 20, 2018

STATE OF MIND

I’m a huge Sara Bareilles fan. One of my favorite songs is “Manhattan” which has the singer relinquishing the New York hub to an ex.

You can have Manhattan,
I know it's what you want.
The bustle and the buildings,
The weather in the fall.
And I'll bow out of place
To save you some space
For somebody new.
You can have Manhattan
'Cause I can't have you.

It’s a beautiful, melancholy song. A place with millions of people just isn’t big enough for the both of them.

For me, I’ve flirted with giving up an entire state. Oregon. After two and a half years of online contact and dating, my relationship with a Portland guy ended seven months ago. No more quick weekend flights. No more meeting halfway in Seattle. Just no more.

It doesn’t matter that I’m the one who ended things. The sting of failure still lingers. I suppose there’s a good chance that will last until a new relationship comes along to offer renewed hope and to show that maybe I am capable of negotiating through the good and the bad.

Why couldn’t it have been another state? I’m sure I could live the rest of my life with no effort at all in avoiding Boise or, god forbid, a smaller outpost. Yeah, you can have Idaho.

The thing is, I really like Oregon. I’ve been going to Portland and the Oregon Coast for years. I’ve gone to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland a number of times. I’ve long felt that the state is a gem overshadowed by its neighbor to the south. I have no intention of surrendering the state to an ex.

But what I think doesn’t always jive with what I feel. This past weekend, I booked an impromptu trip to Newport on the Coast. I emailed me ex to say I’d be swinging through Portland, offering a chance to grab a meal or ice cream. I figured it would be a nice way to reconnect as friends—or something—, a way to move past failure. I like keeping people I’ve valued in my life.

He never responded.

It doesn’t come as a complete surprise, but it’s disappointing. In hindsight, it would have been better not to reach out at all. The silence did not surprise me, but still it came as a jolt and stuck with me during the entire trip. Suddenly Portland felt more like his town. When I went to my favorite spots—places I went to with him but had discovered before him—I struggled in my mind to take them back as my spots. Same with the hotel I stayed at in Newport. It’s my favorite spot. Yes, we stayed there together once, but I’ve been there many times. The visit was tainted. It wasn’t a full-on grieving; it just felt uncomfortable.

I don’t want to avoid Oregon. I don’t want to avoid the places I like. If we can’t meet to redefine our connection, then I am left to redefine my relationship with these places. I need to take them back. I need to create new memories. To be sure, I made progress. My time of the Coast was highlighted by a bike ride that allowed me to get better glimpses of the views. I kept stopping to take in the gorgeous shoreline and to stare out at the endless Pacific. Remarkably, I spotted whales at each and every stop. Absolutely glorious! I felt utter serenity. For three hours, it was just the sea and me.

I’m headed back in a month, visiting Portland for five days with a friend. He’s got a conference so I’ll have plenty of time to revisit my favorite jogging routes, to get lost at Powell’s Books, to overindulge at Blue Star Donuts and to find new cafés for writing. I’ll also have the opportunity to find a balance between memories of us and memories of my own.

As much as I love Sara Bareilles, I have no intention of surrendering a place to an ex. 


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Marvin.

Parents don't do that to their kids anymore.

It’s not in the Top 100 list of boys’ names; probably wouldn’t make the Top 1000.* It’s on the verge of extinction along with Thaddeus, Engelbert and Floyd. If you’re named any of these, take comfort in having a moniker that’s now “unique” in a world of Bens and Liams.

I had a coffee date with a Marvin last week. And that created a hurdle from the outset. You see, my longest relationship was with a guy named Marvin. It started off blissful, but after nine months, it became abusive…and I stuck with it—and the abuse—for another seven years. So Marvin is a name that gets my back up.

Poor Marvin II. I really wanted to wipe the slate clean and give him a chance. But two days before our coffee, I had a nightmare about Marvin I. Extremely disturbing. And it’s too much of a coincidence that it should occur so close to our meeting. I’m super skilled at repressing so Marvin I hadn’t popped up in years, not even in therapy.

I suppose I could have asked Marvin II his middle name. Or said, “How do you feel about ‘Howard’? It really suits you.” But that would require a whole lot more explanation than a normal, well-adjusted person shares over an introductory coffee.
I’d like to think I could have eventually gotten past the whole thing, dropped the “II” from my mind and accepted The New Improved, Entirely Different Marvin. That would make me evolved. That would have me laugh it off as friends and family (who don’t know about the past abuse) say, “Gosh, you’ve really got a thing for Marvins.”

Perhaps fortunately, Marvin II and I didn’t click. Perhaps I’d subconsciously held back. But then he texted me the next day with a string of compliments. (Did he really think we clicked?!)

Alas, I had to let the text exchange die. If I’m not supposed to dismiss someone because of a name, I’m also not supposed to drag something out because that same name, with some sort of guilt and determination trying to fix what can’t be fixed.


So it’s back to checking for (no) messages on online dating sites and hoping a Ben or a Liam or even a Thaddeus—all safe names—to express an interest. Anyone really. Except maybe Marvin III.




---
     *Okay, I did find Marvin, ranked a lofty #559 on this Top 1000 list, but still… 
       (And, sorry, Thaddeus, Engelbert and Floyd, you didn't make the cut.)

Friday, June 8, 2018

GAY MATH


Everybody does it.

That’s what people say when they have their first beer at 15 or 16. (Or 12?!) They say it when they scratch up someone’s fender, backing out of a parking space, not leaving a note. They say it when they go ten miles per hour above the speed limit. (Okay, fifteen.) They say it when they fudge their taxes.

It’s always seemed like faulty rationalizing rather than any expression of logic. Admittedly, I’ve relied on it to justify my heavy foot on the gas pedal. I’m getting better, but that may be part of getting older.

Ah, getting older. Happens to everyone. Except online. Can’t tell you how many 55-year-old bodies I’ve seen on “41-year-olds” and how many “53-year-olds” look 68. It’s gay math. Certain, ahem, numbers get inflated. Others get significantly reduced.

I feel so square. I’m 53. I say I’m 53. I work out hard, I watch what I eat (to extremes). I could easily lie. Say I’m 47, 48, maybe go even a little lower. Everyone does it, right?

Pass.

It’s a turnoff to me. It’s a trust issue. If the first thing you say about yourself is untrue—something so basic—how am I supposed to believe other things? Yep, I shut down over first coffee whenever a guy readjusts his age. If age is just a number, why not be real? I’ve been dismissed because of that real number. I know that. But that’s the other guy’s issue not mine. I can keep my integrity intact.

I’ll close out this post with a humorous section from John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Penguin Random House, 2017). (Highly recommended!) This passage is taken from a first date in a pub in Dublin, 1994, back in the days of personal ads instead of online dating/hooking up. Seems “Everyone does it” has quite a history.

                He frowned a little and took a long drink from his beer. “You’re

                in your fifties?” he asked. “I thought you were younger than

                that.”

                I stared at him, wondering whether he was a little hard of

                hearing. “No,” I said. “I’m forty-nine. I just said.”

                “Yes, but you don’t meant that you’re really forty-nine, do you?”

                “What else would I mean?”

                “Jesus, you’ve been off the dating scene quite a while, haven’t

                you? The thing is, most men looking for other men claim to be

                younger than they really are. Especially older men. If you meet

                a man from a personal ad and he says he’s in his late thirties,

                that means he’s pushing fifty and thinks he can get away with

                thirty-nine. Delusional, most of them, but you know. Whatever.

                When you said you’re forty-nine, I assumed that meant you were

                mid to late fifties in real life.”

                … “Do you meet a lot of people from personal ads?” I asked…

                “From time to time,” he said. “I met a lad a couple of weeks ago, he

                said he was nineteen but when he showed up he was almost my own

                age. He was wearing a Blondie T-shirt, for Christ’s sake.”

                “I used to have one of those,” I said. “But why would you want to meet

                someone who you thought was nineteen anyway?”

                “Why wouldn’t I?” he said, laughing. “I’m not too old for a nineteen-

                year-old.”

                “Well, I suppose that’s a matter of opinion. But what would you have in

                common with a boy that age?”

                “We don’t need to have anything in common. It wasn’t his conver-
                 sational skills that I was after.”

                … “So how old are you?” I asked finally.

                “Thirty-four.”

                “So does that mean you’re really thirty-four?”

                “It does. But I’m twenty-eight when I meet people.”

                “You’re meeting me right now.”

                “Yes, but that’s different. You’re older. So I can be my own age.”

                “Right. And have you had many relationships?”

                “Relationships? No,” he said, with a shrug.


Sigh. Thanks, John Boyne, for writing something so relatable. It’s always funnier when it’s fiction!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

PETTY THEFT


He stole it literally from under me. Or behind me, I suppose. My backpack. Broad daylight, public café.

I was lucky. For some reason, I’d pretty much emptied everything onto the table before he got it. My glasses and case, my laptop and cord, my phone and cord,…even a notebook with all sorts of notes about my writing projects. Unusual for me to unpack so much. He got away with the backpack itself—an oft-complimented Keith Haring blue and white Herschel—a couple of vegan magazines and some research notes that I have on my laptop as well. Lots of napkins, pens, pencils, a pencil sharpener,…contents he’ll dump in an alley.

Hey, maybe I’ll convert a carnivore. Maybe I’ll create a writer. (Many of my ideas have first been scrawled on napkins.) Or maybe I’ve just reinforced and emboldened a thief’s habits.

Sounds like a fish story, but it’s true. Right out from under him! I swear!

It shows how intense I get when I’m in a writing session, a surprise to even myself. Writing in a café, I look up regularly as patrons come and go. This morning was no exception. I don’t know for certain who stole it, but I think I do. Guy with a crutch. We made eye contact. He wandered behind me as I sat at the end of the café. I don’t think he bought anything. He asked to use the restroom. That’s presumably where he stuffed my empty backpack into his own. Nice! I saw him leave. I could still see him a half block away when I realized by pack was gone.

Maybe I could have chased him down, but what would have been the point? I’d accuse, he’d deny. The evidence was out of view. I couldn’t exactly grab his backpack, unzip it and yank out my own. What if I were wrong? There’d be witnesses, watching me try to take away a backpack from a guy with a crutch.

It’ll go for five or ten bucks on the street. I paid fifty. I can look at it as an excuse to go backpack shopping. A new style! (I’m currently reverting back to a perfectly good Herschel that’s accumulated a few stains along the bottom.) I’ll probably search obsessively and buy a brand new backpack, the same version I had before. I like what I like.

As with anyone, I feel violated. Someone pegged me as a target. He got into my space. He grabbed what was rightfully mine.

It could have been worse. It could have been worse. It could have been worse.

My laptop is my most prized possession, filled with writing. My phone is loaded with photos, contacts and notes. You’re supposed to backup these things, but I’m techno-clueless.

It happened on Hastings Street. It’s that street, a section of it a hub to the most destitute people in Canada. There’s some sort of support services building right across the street. I write in the same café five days a week. I watch the people crowd the building, waiting for it to open at 7:30 each morning. There’s always an urgency of activity over there…the start of “the wrong side of the tracks”. I’m not usually judgy; just openly curious. Today, feeling violated, I’m not my best.

The easy thought is, He needed it more. And maybe something like this was overdue. I’m stingy when someone presenting as homeless asks for change. I overthink things, desperate to find a better solution than people scraping together a handful of quarters. I moved to this area fully aware of the surrounding poverty, along with the prevalence of mental health issues, addiction problems and everything that goes with that. As my head continues to spin uselessly, failing to brainstorm something to create deeper change, the backpack represents an involuntary donation. Maybe the incident will prod me to get more involved and to become more active in my quest to be enlightened.

Three years here. My first theft. Remarkably, my bike remains in my parking stall and my car has yet to be broken into. I’ve experienced worse living in other parts of Vancouver. The backpack, for me, is mere crumbs.

I still feel violated.

It’s easy to overreact. I’ve had sweeping thoughts today. Don’t let people use the restroom if they’re not buying anything. Stop giving them water, free coffee and day-old pastries. But then logic takes over. I’ve seen many down-and-out folks come into the café. I’ve never been stolen from and I’ve never heard another customer yelling, “Stop! Thief!”

Shit happens. I’m physically fine. I still have all my writing…my passion, my hard work. He just has a backpack.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

DOUBLY DISORDERED


Sometimes you get towed in with an ignition problem only to be told you need a whole new engine. Or something like that. I really shouldn’t use car analogies. I’m not even sure I know how to put air in the tires for the one I’m driving these days.

Last fall, I was admitted to hospital for acute depression. I went in voluntarily but they immediately certified me as involuntary. An unnecessary and highly unappreciated step, as you might imagine. I was already there and I wasn’t going anywhere. But that maneuver by some presumably well-intentioned doctor after a five-minute conversation with me made my eighteen-day stay so much more complicated. To say I was being admitted involuntarily when I’d gone to see my psychiatrist, discussed the decision to admit myself, waited for him to type a supporting letter, then stopped back home to pack for my stay and walked into ER,…well, that was rubbish.

I already knew this wasn’t going to be anything like those sojourns in lovely white mansions with grand porches surrounded by fields of green grass where patients dance about waving butterfly nets. I’d seen that in old movies. That kind of place would’ve made me feel better (as long as I didn’t get tangled in the butterfly nets too often).

No, this would be unpleasant. This would be an ongoing battle to regain my rights…and a writing pad…and my clothes. I could go into extreme detail about everything wrong with the experience. I journaled what I could, first with crayon because it was all I could find, then with one of those stubby mini golf pencils because it’s all they’d offer when I begged, all on scraps of paper—the backs of the menu sheet that accompanied each food tray meal, a torn out magazine page with an abnormally large amount of white space. It’ll make a memoir one day. Or maybe not.

Feeling like I had no control over my environment, I did what I always do when I am overwhelmed. I began to starve myself. I ate and drank nothing during my first day in a holding pen of sorts, the Acute Behavioural Stabilization Unit, where patients are expected to calm down as the heavy locked doors constantly slam while hospital employees use the room as a shortcut corridor from one place in the hospital to another. Zero food, zero sleep.

Once transferred to a “regular” psychiatric unit, I first refused food because it wasn’t vegan. Then, I refused what I deemed as being too high in sugar and fat. Then, what was too discolored to actually be an edible version of the food they said it was. (That’s why the tray came with a coveted sheet of paper listing of what was on it: to clue you in that a mini tray of sliced something was actually zucchini.) The expectation was that all of us had to report to the “dining room”, a sad open area with bright florescent lights, to eat at the same time. That didn’t work for me. I didn’t want to socialize. I didn’t want people seeing what I ate or didn’t eat. As I took my tray to my room, a nurse stopped me and said it was against the rule. My shoulders tensed. Rules. Fine. I left the tray and headed back to my room, stomach empty, the growing gurgles strangely satisfying as a sound of defiance.

As I had a different psychiatrist each day, I had to constantly rehash my cycle downward and explain my food issues. A doctor overrode nurses’ objections to me eating in my room and I faced icy looks from Food Traffic Nurse for the rest of my stay. There was a mouse problem in the unit. Indeed, I saw several during my stay. Cute critters. And smart. Based on my observations, many psychiatric patients are too highly medicated to really care about keeping food on the tray. The dining room surfaces areas were regularly a sticky, crumb-strewn mess.

I still refused to eat most of what was served. A dietician became a daily visitor. Nurses were instructed to do daily calorie counts regarding my intake. Once I was allowed to wear my own clothes and I got passes to leave the hospital, I was permitted to buy my own food—nonfat cottage cheese, nonfat yogurt—and keep it in a locked fridge that I could only access when my assigned nurse was available.

I was a problem patient. Depressed with too many extras. I rapidly lost significant muscle mass just as I did during my previous hospitalization. But this time something different happened. As part of my discharge, they referred me to an eating disorders program. I cried when the dietician asked if I’d be amenable to that. I’d struggled with disordered eating for at least thirty-five years, mentioned it to doctors and, being as I was a guy, nothing ever happened. Finally, an opening!

After an ECG, bloodwork and a two-hour assessment and my diagnosis as being anorexic was official. Add it to my résumé. I cried again. Relief. Even triumph. I’d lived with this for so long on my own, its intensity varying during various periods in my life but it’s presence always there, always taking up so much thought and time each and every day.

Help maybe. A new motor perhaps.

I’ve been going to weekly courses and meetings for five months now. No change in my behaviour. I still restrict food and occasionally binge. I still over-exercise. I still spend an inordinate amount of my time thinking about what will and won’t be my next snack or meal. I wonder if, after all this time, thoughts and habits are too entrenched. I’ve created a warped version of a safe, controlled environment for myself.

For now, it’s a victory that medical professionals have identified another male as having an eating disorder. I’m convinced this is still woefully underreported amongst men and, particularly, with gay men. Eating disorders can look different for men, with the obsessions over protein and muscle gain. I witness the same guys at the gym going to extremes with their bodies and talking to strangers ad nauseam about tuna and oatmeal consumption as they log hours doing dumbbell curls and stealing glances of themselves in the mirrors. Is it healthy? Can they stop?

For now the focus is more confined: Can I?

 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

THE FACE OF DEPRESSION


I hear it so often when a person who has experienced depression commits suicide. People are surprised.

He seemed to be doing better.

She was laughing more.

Look at the most recent photos. He looked so happy.

But depression isn’t something you can always detect on the surface like a rash or a broken arm. Shouldn’t all of us know by now that a Facebook/Instagram life is often nothing like the real thing? A tasty looking pizza pic is just that. And I haven’t had difficulty forcing a smile for the camera since those obligatory family photos of my adolescence. If anything, social media has only made us more practiced at faking it.

I recall the shock over Robin Williams’ death. Someone with such a frantic energy and the facility to make people laugh,…how could he? (I suspect he was bipolar.) Same thing when Chester Bennington, the lead singer of Linkin Park, took his life. The media posted pictures of him shortly before his death. I refused to look, but I surmised they were smiley images. How could there be such a mismatch between what’s inside and a broad smile or a robust laugh?

If we don’t dig, we don’t see. Public persona can hide the private agony. After all, we’ve been socialized to hide it. Stop being a downer, man.

The weekend before I was admitted to hospital in September, I went on a fifty-mile bike ride. I took in magnificent ocean and mountain views north of Vancouver. I appreciated my natural surroundings. Maybe I was even trying to pedal away dark feelings. To be sure, getting outside had been an ordeal. It took me two hours to get my socks on. The shock over Chester Bennington’s death gave me the wherewithal to snap pictures as I lay in bed, feeling utterly hopeless and helpless. Most shots didn’t have much in me in view. I didn’t have the energy to do any sort of posing or to even look and see if I was in frame. It was plenty just lifting the phone and pressing the button. Later, I deleted dozens of pics and was left with a few that honestly show how things were in the absence of a social media log-in.

This is depression. This is what it looks like when putting on a front gives way. This is the eve of my downfall. Things only got worse. The bike ride provided a reprieve; it didn’t fix anything.

If you know someone who has experienced clinical depression, all I can say is don’t make assumptions. Don’t read a hell of a lot into the thought, He looks good. People get good at covering up. In my experience, it’s rare for a person to continue to ask, “How are you?” and want anything more than the rote “Fine”. The question is synonymous with Hello.

It has to feel safe for someone to open up, not just once but on a continuing basis. It’s too easy for a person with depression to internalize things with What’s wrong with me? and Nobody cares. The default is, This is my burden. I go it alone. It’s ridiculously easy to fake fine. We’ve been socialized that way. It’s what’s expected. So there should be no surprise that someone’s depression goes unnoticed. There may be a period of genuine remission, but a resurgence is entirely possible, as with most afflictions.

Even when blurred by depression, a person’s suicide is his or her own action. I don’t believe in casting blame. That’s why it’s also referred to as taking one’s own life. The personal agency is at the heart of it. But people can do better with the check-ins for loved ones known to have mood disorders. Go beyond the how-are-you. Add, “No, really,…how are you?” Or name it. “Where are you at in terms of depression?” “What’s your mood been like?” “How well do you think you’re handling things?” These more specific questions venture beyond the hello. They show you care. You are prepared to talk about more than the warming weather, the slumping Blue Jays and how a gay skater won “Dancing with the Stars”.

For goodness sake, after asking an open-ended question, allow the person to have the time to respond. I’ve found that talk of mood disorders makes so many people skittish. A minute or two and it’s back to pulling out phones and photographing pizza. Do that and the chance your friend will open up in the future is significantly minimized. This kind of conversation makes a person feel extremely vulnerable. You’ve lost their trust. They can’t be brutally open only to be shut down halfway.

Ask. Then listen. Acknowledge. No advice necessary.
That’s all.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

EXPANDING MY HORIZONS

A few catchy titles on display at Ada's Technical Books & Café
Okay, so this post doesn't have anything to do with being gay or dealing with mental health issues. But then, the main reason I keep a blog is to have a forum for writing and to get feedback from readers either in the comments section or, as is more often the case, on Twitter. Writing can feel like a lonely, even foolish endeavor. What's it all for? Self-doubt often creeps in. I have several--six, I believe--first draft novel manuscripts awaiting revision, but trying to get an agent or an editor can seem far away and next to impossible.

So, yes, I blog.

And lately, I've started to think about essays and other articles I can pitch to newspapers and magazines. Getting a shorter piece published, helps refuel when my confidence as a writer sags. Last October, UNESCO designated Seattle as a "creative city", specifically a City of Literature. Interesting. I had just gotten out of hospital, so I could only file that piece of information in the back of my brain. I just wasn't ready. In March, I began preparing a trip to Seattle that would be entirely focused on literary destinations. Then, over the Easter weekend, I drove down and crammed in twenty-seven places and events in order to decide which ones should be included in the ultimate literary travel vacation.

Returning on the  ferry from Bainbridge Island to Seattle 
After writing the article, I submitted it to The Globe and Mail, arguably Canada's most respected newspaper and today the article has been published. A bit of short-term validation. I'm thrilled and honored as this is my first travel piece.

In case you're interested, here's the link:

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/article-seattle-by-the-book/


Now I've got to come up with another pitch...