Thursday, March 25, 2010

THINKING OVER A DO-OVER

Walking the dogs this morning, I glimpsed the For Sale sign perched on the other side of my laurel hedging. It warrants a mention since I haven’t noticed it in weeks. Like the rhododendron that is suddenly blooming,…unremarkable, and then it pops out. That sign has been pitched in the lawn for three months now. I glanced to make sure it hadn’t been vandalized. Of course it hadn’t. I guess I never fully shook that urban mentality.

Although it’s still All Quiet on the Nest-Turn Front, my move back to the Vancouver area got a boost this week with a job offer for a position arising in the summer. I accepted. Rather than activate the panic button over what I’m going to do with the house, I turned my thoughts to reestablishing myself in the city.

There’s excitement, but I’m also concerned about settling back in a city that I’d essentially fled. Absence can make the heart grow delusional. What am I heading back to? I have no doubt I will love the amenities, having a choice in pools, in libraries and gyms. That delights the adult-onset ADD in me. There’s also the expanded food options to add variety to my vegetarian lifestyle: Choices, Whole Foods, Vij’s, Annapurna, The Naam. Shopping, parks, tennis courts, caf├ęs,…it’s easy to glamorize the possibilities.

And yet I only need to take a critical look back to the way things were when I left five years ago. I was nurturing a nascent hermit lifestyle. While I often tell myself that friends stopped calling once a ferry ride created a divide, most of my friendships had been downgraded to acquaintance status (if that) during the last five years of an unhealthy relationship and in the time that followed when I was so worn down by one person that I couldn’t pull myself up to deal with any person. The move to a rural area allowed me to heal, but by then time and space had comatized so many other relationships. Is resuscitation possible?

I’ve had countless episodes in life where I’ve cut off a friend or let a relationship decay only to revive it after a heartfelt mea culpa. If there was something strong enough in the beginning, it came back. In truth, any fractures rarely amounted to solely being my doing. By initiating a reconciliation, I allowed the friend to also have a moment of truth.

Why have I had so many of these experiences? Am I an ass who flits about, sucking what I can from a relationship and then moving on? Some days I can portray myself that way. But, no, I don’t think that is the case. Friendships bloom, evolve, fade, destruct as Life Happens. I happen to be an achingly nostalgic person who rarely settles for the dismissive observation that people move on.

I’ve been lucky. Reconnecting has always been positive. Things don’t go back to the way they were, but that person regains a present storyline in my life. It pales to what once was, but I am grateful there is still something.

I do wonder if my luck is about to run out.

My Vancouver friendships have whittled down to two. There are others I see on occasion, but they are no longer people I feel an urge to call when in crisis or when I’m excited about getting a new job. Returning to Vancouver is a chance for a do-over, but I am preparing for the fact that some doors won’t reopen. In some ways, it may not be radically different from if I’d chosen to relocate to Ottawa instead. I’m going to have to be pounding the pavement, making the phone calls, signing up again for gay tennis and gay volleyball, finding a volunteer organization, rebuilding.

Part do-over, part start over. So, yes, I am excited, but I am also scared. At forty-five, I wonder how much I can change in myself and how many second chances remain.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

HOMOPHOBIA ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE…NOT YET

Prejudice against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people continues in Canada. Last’s week’s overheard conversation at the gym only confirms this. “That’s so gay” is a common derogatory putdown still milling about with the equally offensive “Don’t be a retard” (an expression I recently heard my neighbor tell his seven-year-old son). Not enough thought is put into much of what we say. And then I worry that sometimes the thought was there all along.

For the most part, I think in Canada we’ve reached a point where people have learned to be discerning about when and where to honestly disclose lingering feelings of prejudice. I was pleased to see the headline “Underlying resentment of diversity poses challenges” in yesterday’s Vancouver Sun. Obviously not pleased with the continuing resentment, but glad that someone was calling our happy, largely tolerant nation on what lingers. (I wish the article had appeared on the front page rather than being buried on B7. Typically Canadian. Let’s make a point, but not make too big a deal of it.) The article addresses our country’s predicted increase of visible minorities and diverse cultural representations, not gays and lesbians, but the message applies to all who possess a minority status. When hatred and ignorance go underground, they go unchecked and can gain momentum in pockets of society.

Of course, we have it good in Canada, compared to in many other parts of the world. In much of Africa, GLBT people live in fear and continue to face oppression. As outsiders, we can attempt to bring issues to light and to create pressure to change laws and practices, but we can quickly be dismissed as foreign meddlers. That’s why Desmond Tutu’s op-ed piece, “In Africa a step backward on human rights”, in Friday’s Washington Post is so welcome. He outlines some of the hate policies against gays in parts of Africa and rejects the religious veil under which the haters justify themselves. “I would never worship a homophobic God,” he says. Simple. Powerful. Worth a read.

As an adolescent, I did not know anything other than a homophobic God existed. I grew up very connected to church. When my family moved to Texas, routines had to be reestablished and I was the one who insisted that we attend Sunday services each week. My mother and our minister were convinced I’d study theology and become a minister as well. As Episcopalians, we were in the tiny minority in our town, smothered by Southern Baptist dominance, their churches being the only public structures to outnumber Dairy Queens. In my teen years, I witnessed hypocrisy and life changing imperatives when it came to issues of sex— so many tales of sexual awakening stemming from church camps, so many risky abortions and doomed early marriages.

In university, my religious affiliation came unwound. Funny how being exposed to diverse thought put such clear beliefs into question. Morality without compassion felt hollow, self-righteous and, yes, hateful. I cannot count the number of times I heard people limit their own thought processes as they donned holier-than-thou expressions and stated that trite phrase, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I knew that “love” could not truly exist in the same sentence with hate.

Nonetheless, my favorite course in university was a study of world religions. In a place where I got the impression that all non-Baptists were going to hell—more than once I was befriended by a seemingly nice person who suddenly turned and grilled me on being “Saved” and “Born Again”—I was fascinated with the different views of divinity and the purpose of life.

Gradually, I pulled away from religion, in part due to feeling unwelcome as a gay man, but also on account of the troubling concept of a “moral war” and the guilt-ridden preoccupation with sin. More than anything, I felt religion impeded independent thinking. I could share a belief, but I wanted to reach it through logic and through consideration of practical implications rather than by way of “Thou shalt”.

Many people find comfort in religion. Wonderful. But religion continues to divide, to foster hatred under the umbrella of “freedom” and to justify inhumane treatment of people who are different. I am thankful that leaders like Desmond Tutu examine their religious views to ensure they are governed by love, without any trace of hate.

Homophobia continues in various degrees in Canada and throughout the world. I have become too quiet, too complacent tucked away in the boonies. An alarming gym conversation, combined with the brave, powerful words of a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, may provide a much needed wakeup call.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

HARMLESS BANTER AMONG FRIENDS?

My midday gym workout was more painful than usual. True, I was still sore from Saturday’s bicep sets, not to mention my 5K Sunday swim and yesterday’s chest routine. But it was the company that bothered me more than anything.

Due to my year of writing, I have the luxury of going to the gym at any point in the day that I like. (Mornings, however, are never an option. The body is simply not awake enough. Serious injury could occur.) The gym is usually close to empty midday and that’s perfect for me. I don’t go to socialize. Do the drills and get out.

As I pulled into the parking, I was dismayed to see so many pickup trucks. The gym was fairly crowded—packed, considering the time of day—and most of the people were congregated in the weights area, right where I intended to be. Four twentysomething guys talked loudly, liberally throwing in “fuck” and “fuckin’” to prove their masculinity (aka stupidity) to one another. I was not impressed, but I found a free bench, altered my routine based on the weights that were available and tried to tune them out.

That proved fruitless. They talked with an intention of being heard and, worse, they were not content to have a millisecond of dead air. Maybe it’s because I work in solitude at home, interrupted only by the occasional bark as a robin gets too close to the patio door, but the banter was grating.

And then it became more than that. While I did a set on the calf machine, I heard one of them mention AIDS and the guys started laughing so hard they had to stop the sets they were doing. I assumed I’d misheard since the subject seemed far removed from the previous conversation about diminished volleyball skills from drinking beer and a flatulence issue due to a pre-workout coffee stop. I moved to another machine and one of the guys, still laughing, said, “HIV isn’t funny, man.” Another replied, “Especially if you’ve got it.” More hooting.

I frowned but they were too busy enjoying the joke to notice. What decade was this? How had I ended up here?

I said nothing. The moment passed.

A few minutes later, one of the guys complained that the weight they were using was too heavy and his buddy said, “Don’t be a fuckin’ homo, man.”

Homo. The standard putdown. (Funny but I was using heavier weights than them.) This time I couldn’t frown. I turned away, utterly repulsed and opted to further switch up my workout order, doing my ab crunches in another area of the gym. I wasn’t far enough away to completely block out the noise, but I couldn’t make out the conversation.

Fifteen minutes later, the gym was quiet, the guys onto other endeavors. Perhaps a trip to the library. Maybe a quick tour of the latest exhibit at the town’s fledgling art gallery. Surely it was too early to hit one of the area’s half dozen pubs or the liquor store.

With the peace restored, I had plenty of time to think about my inaction. Should I have spoken up? Would it have changed anything? Would I have become the new object of their bond-strengthening homophobia?

I suppose I’ll never know. Cherishing my world of silence, I said nothing.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

LEFT IN A TENDER MOMENT ALONE

CAUTION: Some sensitive readers may find the incident related in this post too disturbing. As the person who witnessed it, I remain deeply shaken.

I can sometimes embrace being single. Despite occasionally obsessing over finding a guy, I am independent by nature. Even in a relationship, I require significant time alone. And yet there are critical times in life when being on my own totally blows. I had one of those occasions today.

For the second day in a row, I got stuck behind a school bus as I headed home after doing some business in town. I can be an impatient (aggressive?) driver, but I told myself to chill. The bus would have to make several stops to let high school students out and, since passing is not permitted, I could spend the idle seconds petting the dogs.

After the first delay, the bus continued along the road as I followed. Then a deer appeared from the right side of the road in front of the bus. I know there was no time or space for the bus driver to react. And yet I hoped. I watched in horror as the animal was flattened beyond recognition. I pulled over (as did the bus) and shrieked, bawled and shook as my entire body broke out in a cold sweat. The wailing continued as my dogs frantically moved about trying to console me.

I have no doubt I was in shock. Somehow I pulled myself together enough to turn the car around—I couldn’t drive by That Spot—and returned to where I’d been in town, in desperate need to connect with another human being. I patted myself dry (no use, really) with the doggy towel I keep in the car and walked in the building. Ghostly white, hands shaking uncontrollably, tears streaming down my face, I collapsed in a chair and babbled something as people got me a glass of water and an “ice pack” to cool my body down. I remained there for half an hour, chanting “Oh, my God” incessantly until I started to feel faint. The image of what happened replayed over and over, in slow motion. (In truth, the incident, while I witnessed it, played out in slow motion.) I switched from sitting with my head between my knees and a package of frozen perogies resting on my shoulder to kneeling on the carpet, head down as if in prayer.

Finally, I got up, returned the perogies to the freezer and, still stunned, made it to the car. I worried that my dogs would be freaked from observing my hysteria, but they had resumed their naps. Oh, to be a pooch. I sat in the car and patted the dogs, calmly repeating their names as I tried to comfort myself and while waiting for my hands to shake a little less.

To be sure, what I observed would be upsetting to anybody. I just happen to be ultra sensitive when it comes to animals. As a child, I would leave the family room crying uncontrollably on Sunday evenings as a cheetah on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom captured its prey. My parents would sit on either side of me in my bedroom as I wept, utterly inconsolable. I still cannot watch most animal documentaries. While I understand the food chain and the laws of nature, I chose not to watch as a life is taken. (I had to stop watching that penguin documentary when it was on TV a year ago, the mere mention of predatory birds creating too much tension.) I have been a vegetarian for twenty-five years. I capture and release not only spiders and moths in my house, but mosquitoes. That should provide more than enough context to explain how upsetting today’s incident has been for me.

Eventually, I drove home. There was no one there to hold me tightly, to let me break down again. There was no one I felt I could call and bawl. I changed my clothes and crawled into bed. Although one dog joined me and nestled up close to me, it wasn’t the same as having a partner to provide comfort and to let me release all the lingering trauma from the most gruesome scene I have ever witnessed.

I saw a life brutally taken in a few agonizing seconds. It pains me that I can’t change that. And I ache as I work through the experience on my own.