Wednesday, August 26, 2015

CHASING MARY--And So It Begins

I suppose it began with “Sesame Street”. A crucial episode when M was the letter of the day. It helped me overcome a key sticking point in my learning. I could spout off the alphabet in a familiar singsong voice, but I’d thought the fast part in the middle, LMNOP, was the name of a single letter. Bert and Ernie et al. set me straight. That breakthrough proved huge. My phonetic awareness grew—m is for mom, m is for monkey.

What a cool letter!

And I became conscious of environmental print—my street name began with M and then there was the big yellow M for McDonald’s. But the fast food sign could not compete with the block, typeset capital M on the wall of a sitcom apartment set. M was for Mary. Was and is. Mary Richards, portrayed by MTM, Mary Tyler Moore.

There was always something about Mary. She visited my living room every Saturday night and, being as that was never a school night, I had the privilege of staying up “late” and seeing her navigate the newsroom and the homefront in a tiny apartment where everyone popped by. I got used to Mary’s place long before Jerry’s. Loopy people dropped in at will. She always had the time or was too polite to say otherwise. No wonder she remained single.

Even as an eight-year-old boy, I identified with Mary. She was my role model. Always gracious, always fighting to remain unflappable despite all that flapped around her. Mary taught me that the world was beyond my control. It was best to hold on to my convictions and greet the onslaught of oddities with a shrug and a smile.

Countless times growing up and throughout my adulthood, I’ve been deluged by other people’s problems. I am an established dumping ground. And as my own beloved Ted Baxters and Rhoda Morgenterns go on at length about a current conundrum, I find myself drifting off, if only for a moment, and saying, “Hello, Mary.”

And so it was only a matter of time before I set out to find Mary Richards. While my colleagues planned summer getaways in Italy and Nicaragua, I set my sights on Minneapolis.

I know I am no better than my eleventh grade classmate who showed up at school on a random, i.e., non-Halloween, day dressed as Darth Vader. Perhaps I am no further evolved than the four-year-old boy I recently saw in full Spiderman costume—just because—or all the little girls at Disneyworld in princess regalia. I do know Mary Richards is not real and she is certainly neither princess nor superhero; still, there is reality in her character due to the fine writing of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” staff.

I also know that the show has, as one online source described it, only a “tenuous” connection with Minneapolis. The show was always shot in a studio in L.A. But the opening and closing credits of the show solidly placed it in Minnesota’s largest city. As Sonny Curtis sang “Who take turn the world on with her smile?” we saw Mary Richards driving to town, na├»ve yet filled with aw-shucks anticipation. We saw a balcony restaurant and the opening ended with that iconic scene surrounded by pedestrians as she tossed her hat in the air, a hurrah, a Let’s-make-a-go-of-this. Indeed the optimism evolved in the theme song, with a second season lyric change from “You might just make it” to “You’re gonna make it.” After all, this was Mary Richards. Human, not superhuman. Indefatigable despite mishaps, hard-knocks and humiliations. As far as I could see things, how could one not want to make a pilgrimage to a veritable City of Hope? Yes, Minneapolis.

I will admit to waffling. I’d planned on Minneapolis last summer after feasting on Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s delightful book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a behind-the-scenes confection about the show. Maybe “feasting” is the wrong word; I consumed the book in bite-size pieces, overjoyed with each passage, needing to set the reading aside to savor the anecdotes.

I doubted the trip. As I incurred too many expenses in the spring—a higher mortgage for a teensy Vancouver condo, car payments for a teensy new car (a Mini Cooper)—I knew the responsible thing to do would be to spend summer at home. What’s not to love about Vancouver in the summer?

But as soon as school let out, I felt restless. Minneapolis was personal business. It had been my destination since I was that eight-year-old, sitting on a sofa in the den of a brick house in Hamilton, Ontario.

I’d put off Mary long enough.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

RUNAWAY GAY


It would seem I abandoned the blog this summer. Truth is, there was nothing to write about. It’s a gay-themed blog and, apart from watching the Greg Louganis documentary on HBO, it’s been a gay-less summer.

Or maybe it’s been the gayest.

Depends on how you view my road trip and how in-the-know you are about ‘70s pop culture.

I’ll fill you in soon enough.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

PASS AND FAIL

The U.S. Border Patrol has become the mother I never wanted. Time after time when I go to the United States, I must get by a nosy inquirer.

Yeah, I know. That’s their job. But they always put me on edge.

It’s not that I am carrying $30,000 in cash. If only. And, no, I don’t have a Canadian-grown apricot rolling on the floorboard of the passenger seat. No booze. No guns. Not even a plastic butter knife.

But the guard always lingers, stares me in the eye and tempts me to look away or shift in my seat. Any subtle expression of guilt to pull me over and drag me into an interrogation room with stale air and a floodlight beaming in my face. But then, maybe I’ve seen too many crime procedurals.

The cause for suspicion? Well, it starts with the obvious observation. There is no one in the passenger seat, no one in the back seat.

“Traveling alone?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“And why is that?” No joke. She asks. I’m tempted to say, “How long you got? Shall we grab a coffee?” but I’ve been coached since I was a little kid to say as little as possible.

“It’s just the way it is,” I answer.

She nods. I defensively read into her gesture. It figures.

“How long are you in the U.S.?”

“Twenty days.”

“Are you meeting anyone?”

And here I get blunt. “Of course not.”

She dares not nod this time. But my mindreading comes into play again. At least he knows.

She returns my passport. “Have a nice trip.” She doesn’t mean it. She probably doesn’t even believe it’s possible. But I’ve made it through. I cleared the border hurdle. A minor victory.

And as I drive off, the excitement of the trip takes a ding. Traveling alone. Three weeks. Meeting no one. Yeah, that sounds sad.

Did she stamp anything in my passport? “Loser” in all caps? I can check when I fill up for cheaper American gas. But, really, they don’t stamp passports anymore and I watched her hands, wary that she might draw a weapon. Okay, I’ve watched too many films with terrorist plots, too.

We had a chat, more questions than I wanted, with a clear focus on my hopeless single status, and then she sent me off, wishing me well yet leaving me anything but.

Mom in a uniform.

Friday, July 17, 2015

HAVE WE FORGOTTEN?

I cannot forget.

The AIDS crisis happened. Millions of people died. Some of them I knew.

Farrell.

Stephen.

Don.

Steve.

Greg.

AIDS overshadowed my coming out process. Fear of death kept me from any period of sowing my wild oats. There were options, of course, but I always read “safe sex” as safer sex. And I was never much of a risk-taker.

I’d first heard of it watching a report by Geraldo Rivera on ABC’s “20/20”. At the time, it was called GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. Some rapid-moving disease was afflicting gay men, radically transforming their appearance and killing them. I watched the report while sitting uncomfortably alongside my parents in my family’s den in East Texas. At the time, I was conflicted and closeted. Concrete walls. Dozens of padlocks. I’d told my college roommate that I’d decided to be celibate for reasons I bumbled through. College and celibacy made for an odd cocktail. Innately, I was a survivalist. This was Texas. To be gay was to be a sinner, a pervert, a future pedophile. (It was a package deal.) And now it looked to be the target of a new holocaust.

It would not be much of an overstatement to say AIDS was always on my mind from 1985 to 1995. The first gay book I ever read was E.M. Forster’s posthumously published Maurice (1971). (Forster finished the first draft in 1914 but deemed the topic too taboo for publication.) It was a magical read that captured the fear in acknowledging my homosexuality but also the hope that love could come. The second gay book I ever read and the first I ever owned was And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts. This read offered no hope, only frustration, deep sadness and intense anger. I still tear up just looking at the cover of a book that informed me but also helped embolden me to remove one or two of those padlocks. My copy of the book found a place on a bookshelf instead of finding cover in the sock drawer.

I read every article I could find in newspapers. I scanned pamphlets from the Dallas AIDS Resource Center. I followed television reports and eventually began looking in professional journals. There seemed to be no hope in terms of treatment. If there was any feel-good element at the time, it was that AIDS was experiencing its own coming out. Anytime a politician spoke the word AIDS, it made headlines. Researchers began sharing findings at global conferences. And sometimes a prominent person had the gumption to tell Jesse Helms to shut up. It seemed there were little battles to be won in what was still overwhelmingly a lost cause.

It’s weird to think that AIDS helped me come out. It got me out of the bars in West Hollywood and allowed me to establish my first gay friendships that didn’t evolve from failed pickup lines. I even found love for the first time in my life after being introduced at an AIDS volunteer appreciation gathering. My AIDS buddy group facilitator dragged me onto the dancefloor, told me to stay put and then dragged out a certain AIDS Project Los Angeles employee. “You two should get to know each other.” And so we did.

At some point in the mid- to late-1990s, I began reading less about AIDS. At first, I’d skim the first paragraphs of an article, then I’d just glance at a headline. There had been some hopeful signs, but I’d hit AIDS overload. And then I received the news of my Dallas friend Farrell’s death through a Return to Sender stamp on a returned card I’d mailed him shortly after my move to Vancouver. Reason for Return: Deceased. He’d never dared to confide in me that he had AIDS. Living in Texas, the stigma remained too great. I think that’s when hope died within me. This extraordinarily kind, gentle soul, ultra-conscientious and responsible, a man with no family and few friends, likely died alone at the ripe old age of thirty-five. There was no answer to “Why?” I pulled away.

And almost at the moment I stepped back, real progress started to happen. People I knew who were HIV positive stayed like that. They averted what was supposed to be the imminent AIDS diagnosis. I still see them in passing today, twenty years later. No cure, but something that can be managed.

Wonderful, wonderful progress. It’s what we all yearned for so impatiently in the late 1980s and early 1990s and what most of us probably became resigned to not happening. Not in our lifetimes, however stunted they may turn out to be.

Maybe it’s because improvements in managing HIV and AIDS happened over time that there was never a time to celebrate as with the end of a war. It took so long and yet seemed to happen quietly overnight.

For the most part, these are good times to be gay, at least in a growing number of countries. The euphoria and expressions of Facebook support that came with last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage have no doubt made this summer’s procession of Pride Festivals in North America all the more festive. Let us indeed feel the joy.

And, yet, let us remember as well. Like the Holocaust, remembering is somber and many people don’t want to go there. Why do they keep bringing THAT up? According to amfAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research), nearly 39 million people have died of AIDS-related causes and more than a million people each year continue to die. Much remains to be done in less developed areas of the world. But even in places where treatments to manage HIV are accessible, there remains stigma and managing it comes at financial, physical, mental and emotional costs.

I’ve lamented before, but I fear we’ve become complacent. And I sense that the generation younger than us lacks perspective or any real appreciation about the decimating impact of AIDS on gay life and culture. Being back in Vancouver, I can access events that never made it to my rural area. A case in point was the screening of the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague” which played at a branch of the Vancouver Public Library two nights ago. I had read about the film when it was first released but there was no possibility to see it. A friend of mine thinks it may have had a few showings in Vancouver shortly after its release. Its total box office take was a paltry $132,055.

I saw a poster for the screening two weeks prior and excitedly photographed it and texted it to a friend. “Want to go?” It took him a day to respond but, yes, he was in. Being a free event, we knew seats would fill early. The day of the screening, my friend went online and learned that tokens for the screening would be given out an hour ahead of time. We were there even earlier. (There proved to be an added benefit as my friend shocked me in saying, “I haven’t been in a library in years.” He did some important sightseeing—“Wow. I thought all the books would be old and smelly.”—while I returned some books and used the internet to post a blog entry.)

With our tokens in hand—Victory!—we grabbed dinner at a nearby Thai joint and returned fifteen minutes before the 6:30 screening. We were the first to claim our seats. To my shock, there were less than fifteen people in attendance when the documentary rolled. (Three teens with fast food sodas popped in half an hour later, talking loudly and shuffling about. Two ducked out after three minutes; one stayed for a solid ten.)

It’s an important film, one that chronicles the efforts—some might say antics—of ACT UP and offers insightful perspective from those in the archival footage who indeed survived. It also shows us real heroes—people like Mark Harrington, Iris Long and Peter Staley. And it brings back the always agitated Larry Kramer—the world needs Larry Kramers, as polarizing as they may be—and Dr. Anthony Fauci, a man whom I’d once pinned so much of my hope on facilitating an early breakthrough. It reminds us of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, now warehoused in Atlanta, and not displayed in its entirety since, shockingly, 1996. Wouldn’t this be a fitting year to bring it back into public consciousness?

Where were all the other viewers? Maybe there’s a way to download it online. I could only find trailers for it on YouTube. (And how sad that as I began to type the film’s name, the prediction device offered “How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse” first.) Clearly, the library expected a big turnout as did I. It seemed like a sad joke when the librarian collected our tokens before pressing Play on the laptop. I suppose I’m becoming an elder statesmen, fretting that the young will be unaware of our past, but I am also alarmed about my contemporaries. I don’t see them at AIDS Walks and they were no-shows once again. (The other audience members seemed to be straight couples and an emotional sixty-year-old woman sitting behind me who frantically flicked some clicking device each time the film reached an intense moment.) It’s a gripping movie that has played to too few.

“Plague!” Larry Kramer shouts at one point. “Plague! This is a plague!” More than 6,000,000 had died by the film’s focused period ending in 1995. Holocaust numbers. There are active groups that help us remember the ravages and injustices of wars past. What about the AIDS crisis? Are there not others who feel it is critical that we remember, that we honor and that we pass on our own narratives?

It is my sincere hope that others connect forget as well.

 

 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

NOT THIS SUMMER

I head out in a few days. I bought a new Mini Cooper a month ago and that purchase spawned my summer plans. If I were fiscally responsible, I’d stay home and halt the spending spree of the past year. And I gave that inner voice due consideration before tuning it out. Let winter be the time for belt tightening, generic pasta and over worn socks with holes.

A sporty new car calls for a road trip. It’s a month of travel, more or less. The last part is at the family cottage in Ontario and I can always cut that short if social judgment becomes something the wine can’t ease. It is a tiny cottage after all.

I am lucky to have a job that allows for extended summer vacations. I spent the last two summers in Los Angeles and had a wonderful time. It would have been easy to go back, but Minneapolis won out. Clearly, I am travel-challenged when a vacation comes down to L.A. versus Minneapolis, but I have future summers to become more refined. Omaha awaits!

One of the nice things about this trip is that I don’t have a relationship prospect waiting for me upon my return to Vancouver. It’s not that I plan to have wild sex in a hotel in North Dakota or by a stream in Montana. No, I fully expect to pass through those gay hot beds without even a flirtatious nod. I’m totally okay with that. I’m not exactly the poster child for espousing all the glorious advantages of being single, but I do like looking ahead without having to look back.

Four times in the past I’ve left on long vacations only to have a nascent relationship waiting at home. Twice those links evolved into love upon my return and twice they fizzled faster than a Fourth of July sparkler. A vacation is all about being in the moment and I don’t do so well when my head is wondering what will be or won’t be with the guy who is waiting or is not waiting back home.

Let this vacation be a time when I can linger with my feet in the sand or on a bike. Let me order a double scoop without the guilt…or, at least, not quite so much. Let me rotate through a suitcase of clothes without feeling I need to make a fashion statement. Let summer be summer.

No summer lovin’ just loving summer. I’ve already Googled several ice cream stops.

 

Monday, July 13, 2015

OPENLY STRAIGHT (Book Review)

Young Adult novel

Written by Bill Konigsberg

(Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013)

Times have certainly changed since I was in high school. Pre-Glee, pre-My So-Called Life, there weren’t gay teen characters I could look to as role models for navigating high school cafeterias or, worse, the boys’ bathroom. Yes, there were rumors of swirlies in the toilet, not specifically for gays but for dweebs who lacked bladder control. I think I “held it” for my entire tenth grade year.

I’m not saying it’s easy now. Just easier. No doubt, if you’re young and questioning whether you are gay, every “That’s so gay” comment still stings. Every joke about dropping soap in the gym shower seems intended for your ears. Any admiring glance at a member of the football team still involves great risk.

But there are Gay-Straight Alliances, if not in every school, in many. There are Pink Shirt Days. Acceptance is nearer. Let’s face it though. In high school, everyone is struggling with acceptance. The definition of what is acceptable is extremely narrow, defined by a highly nuanced code that shifts according to what is trending in the hallways and online.

I bought a copy of Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight for a number of reasons. I’d heard him speak at the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators summer conference in L.A. a couple of years ago and appreciated his earnestness in offering advice to all of us less successful writers, gay and otherwise. I’m working on a young adult manuscript and I need to continue to familiarize myself with what’s on the market. I am naturally drawn to novels with gay characters. And, finally, the premise of the book intrigued me. Why would an out gay teen establish a new identity, striving to pass as straight?

I’m sure it’s not current adolescent lingo, but I thought, That’s whacked.

Once openly gay, how do you go back in the closet? Seamus Rafael Goldberg lives in Boulder, Colorado with parents who are beyond accepting. They have a celebration for him at Hamburger Mary’s and his mom becomes president of PFLAG. Rafe even takes to the speaker circuit, talking to high school audiences across the state about what it is liking being gay. It seems the only trauma Rafe experiences in coming out is his parents’ overly exuberant acceptance. My how times have changed! To be fair, Rafe tires of being seen as gay, first and foremost. Adolescents naturally cringe at being typecast. They crave being part of the group, but also yearn to seen for their individuality. Rafe feels his status in his Boulder world is that of The Gay Guy.

To suppress Rafe’s gayness, Konigsberg needs his main character to move. And so Rafe enrols in a private boarding school in Massachusetts for his junior year. It’s a place where soccer is the status sport and Rafe is immediately accepted as a teammate. As a straight guy, he mixes with the jocks. He is one of them without any of that gay awkwardness.

Except it’s still there. He still hears the gay jokes. It’s just that he’s not the target.

All of this makes for an odd problem. Rafe has already gone through the coming out process. Now he’s actively suppressing part of his identity.

                                All summer, I’d gone over every scenario in my mind in terms of
                                gay stuff at Natick. I had firm plans in place. I was going to be
                                label-free. Don’t ask, and I won’t tell. The only way I would
                                actually liewas if I were asked directly, “Are you gay?” In that
                                case, I’d say no.But even then I wouldn’t go on about being
                    straight.

As I read the book, I never shook the feeling that there was something unsavory about Rafe’s turning his back on part of himself. Rafe seems not fearful, just dishonest. As he forms a close friendship with Ben, I braced for a train wreck. It felt like all those soap opera plots where a girl fakes being pregnant to keep a guy. It never works.

As the closeness of Rafe and Ben’s friendship deepens, it is obvious that Rafe’s concealed out-ness will doom their relationship. Would things have gotten as close had Rafe been out as a gay classmate? Likely not. But then the reader might fault Ben. Instead, it is the main character who is hard to like. Rafe’s interactions are deceptive. The old things-got-out-of-hand argument garners little sympathy.

And that’s the problem with Openly Straight. Ben, not Rafe, is the character the reader empathizes with. Any confusion Ben experiences is genuine. Rafe comes off as likable as all those fake-pregnant characters. His conflict is contrived. It’s a well written book but the premise is plain icky. For generations, gay men have shared their coming out stories. These experiences have united us and helped redefine “family” and friendships. No doubt, Konigsberg wondered, What if there is no story in coming out? What if it’s too easy? What if a character rescinds his out-ness?

This twist on coming out comes off as sad and backward. There’s a reason all those characters who fake pregnancy are hated by soap opera fans. And there’s a reason they are never the main character; instead, they get in the way of the characters and the stories we like. Rafe becomes more and more unlikable as he plays it straight. I got to wondering, What’s the point? Is this what a writer needs to pitch to a publisher that feels coming out stories are so twentieth century? Whatever the reason, Openly Straight is fatally flawed and no amount of yarn spinning can twist it into a good read.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

THE SPORTING LIFE

Getting connected was a top priority after moving back to Vancouver. Regrettably, after ten years away and seven years before that in a relationship, many of my friendships had faded to black. It’s not a completely new beginning, but it’s close.

If I’d told thirteen-year-old me that the plan to connect involved getting involved in sports, teen me would have scoffed, frowned and gone back to listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”. By that age, my identity as benchwarmer/scorekeeper/injury faker had long been established. It’s freaky how much early perceptions—by self and by every other youth I encountered—hang over us.

I’m aware enough of the past to never consider the gay softball league. I totally fit the Gays Can’t Catch stereotype and my throwing skills are even worse. It would have to be par three for me to throw from the outfield to any infielder.

My closest friend here speaks almost rhapsodically about curling and keeps trying to get me to join that group. I’ve curled twice in life and it gets dangerously boring. Curling leads to boredom which leads to twirling. It’s an odd spectacle, one that should never go public (more than twice).

Instead, my sports program looks to running, tennis and volleyball. This is the time when teen me would skip the record needle ahead to “I Don’t Want to Know” and turn up the volume. Three sports? Ambitious. Lofty. Delusional.

Ah, but it is doable. I must conquer—or at least not stumble—one sport at a time. First up, running. I’ve dropped in with gay Frontrunners groups in Ottawa, Seattle and Los Angeles with mixed results. The L.A. folks are the friendliest while the Ottawa group left me wondering why I’d driven an hour to jog alone.

I first tried to run with the Vancouver contingent in June last year. There was a large group of about sixty and everyone seemed to talk pre-run in established cliques. The social dynamics proved too intimidating. I did my stretches and headed off for a solo run.

Now that I am living in Vancouver again, I have a greater interest in making a go of it. Last night was my third run with them. The “with” is a generous preposition. On the first two runs, the leader of that day’s run greeted me and ran the route by my side. No doubt, he sensed social fear in my eyes.

The third time was not so lucky. I always seem to be running late—literally—to make the starting time. This time I blame an overstock of overripe tomatoes. I’d gone to a farmers’ market on Sunday and bought far more fresh produce than one man can consume. Before the run, I was madly chopping veggies so that I’d have a well marinated pico do gallo as an oven-free summer dinner upon my return.

I ran from the condo to the gathering place. I was already feeling the heat. Things only worsened as I had to stand around waiting through announcements and the circle round where everyone says their names (and I remember none of them). All that standing around allowed the perspiration to soak into my sky blue shirt. I was a sweaty mess, the wet mass spreading as I became more and more self-conscious. Despite the huge age difference, I have failed to create much distance between myself and teen me.

At last, we ran. I could have fallen into a comfortable pace with the friendly leader but my customary jog is slightly faster. Early on, I made the decision to break from the pack and join three guys out front. But I didn’t technically join them. I lingered behind. For the first twenty minutes, I stayed with them, able to hear their conversation while not having to participate. It was just as well. The sea air had gotten into my nasal cavity and I had to regularly sniff back a stream of mucus.

Maybe it’s the disgusting sniffing noises that made the threesome pull ahead, but it was more likely that I was fading in the heat, delicate, sweaty, snotty soul that I am. They got a block ahead, then two and finally they were out of view. (Hey, the seawall was crowded.)

The run apparently ends after one crosses over a bridge because there was the trio, interrupting their stretches to give me the high five. I accepted the gesture and ran on. So much for socially connecting. I’m very much a work in progress.

Ideally, I would have squeezed in chat time during the run. Alas, I was in nowhere land between Too Fast and Too Slow. Alas, there never seems to be anyone in what I define as Just Right.

I realize that, having failed to do any connecting other than a couple of hand slaps, I should have stopped running, joined in the stretching and offered some insightful comments.

“Whew. What a run!”

“Lots of people on the seawall tonight.”

“Man, it’s hot, eh?” (Notice the carefully placed “eh”. It invites a response or, if ignored, can be shrugged off as a well-accepted Canadian quirk.)

But I was still a twenty-minute jog from home. (What running group doesn’t go full circle?!) I was too sweaty and wallet-less to join the gang for dinner. Pico de gallo called. And I still hadn’t gotten control of that runny mucus situation.

This group running thing remains a work in progress. Small steps. I’m not moving anytime soon. And I’ve got a rediscovered Fleetwood Mac classic to help pass the time.