Wednesday, November 30, 2011

WORLD AIDS DAY: BYGONE BUDDIES

Twenty years ago, Stephen dreamed of becoming a successful actor. Like so many such dreamers, he moved to Los Angeles to see if he could make a go of it. He befriended others who were interested in the arts, joined several choirs, tried out for musical productions and even appeared as cast member in a television pilot for NBC. Unfortunately, the network passed on developing the pilot into a series. To pay the bills, he took jobs in catering and eventually started his own catering company.

Stephen lit up every time we talked about television or movies. He was appalled over how few of the oldies I’d seen. When I confessed that black and white footage lulled me to sleep, he was aghast. Still, he felt it was his role to educate me. He made me watch Stephen Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS and helped me realize that Bernadette Peters actually had talent beyond being a lackluster occasional guest on “The Carol Burnett Show”.

We had tea together and enjoyed kosher chocolate macaroons (after I mistakenly picked up a dozen that weren’t kosher). Stephen regularly prodded me for information about my first love. He let me know I deserved to be in love. He listened as I unloaded my insecurities.

Stephen would be 49 years old now.

Nineteen years ago, I met Don. Don lived in a tiny bungalow in Venice with his life partner who had gone blind. Don liked having me over as a distraction from all the needs of his partner. We’d go out to Santa Monica restaurants. Knowing I was a vegetarian, he introduced me to a wonderful Buddhist Chinese restaurant where I later took my parents—I confess to delighting in seeing how awkward my father was in pretending to like eating mock duck but that could be the start of a completely different blog post. Don raised orchids. He talked of them like they were his children. I decided it best not to share that I preferred tulips.

On one evening, I picked up Don to go to our favorite Italian restaurant. I took a shortcut through a neighborhood and we came upon a crowd marching in the street. “Good for them,” I thought. Everyone in the crowd was black and they voiced their anger over the not guilty verdicts announced that day in the Rodney King beating trial. As we idled at a stop sign, a bullet pierced and shattered the backseat window. Had Don not been with me, I might have frozen in panic. I had to protect him. By then, he walked with a cane. If I didn’t get us out of there, if we were swarmed, how would he cope? Only when we pulled up beside the restaurant did my hands begin to shake uncontrollably. Only after I dropped Don off after dinner did I burst into tears to let out the pressure that had built up from the danger I had put us in.

Don probed me to find out how my first love crashed and burned. He offered encouragement, chipping away at the walls I was putting up. Even though I didn’t believe him when he said I was a catch, his words provided a healthy counterbalance as I frequently replayed in my mind all the mistakes I’d made in love. If I wallowed too long, Don would refocus me. “So…it seems soup now gives me diarrhea, too.” He’d put things in perspective.

Don would be 71 today.

Stephen died in 1992, Don the following year. They were my Buddies, PWAs (persons with AIDS) who requested a little extra emotional support from AIDS Project Los Angeles. Stephen the dreamer and Don the pragmatist were both very different from me. Still, we bonded. They empowered me, they helped me feel like I was doing something besides living in fear at a time when AIDS remained a death sentence, when I could walk the streets of West Hollywood and see the gaunt faces of the ones who had only months, perhaps weeks left to live. Most of my friends got quiet as we passed them. Conversation abruptly paused. They looked away. By getting to know Stephen and Don, I learned not to look away. I offered a warm smile and mentally passed on encouraging, albeit naive thoughts. Hang on. Take care of yourself. You are loved.
Being with Stephen and Don, I saw how one family gathered around while another refused to have any connection with their son. I watched as Stephen’s roommate coped with one-liners, while a Don’s lover lost all ability to care for himself much less Don. Don’s partner moved into a hospice in the worst part of Los Angeles, a place that reeked of urine and appeared more depressing than any hospital. Stephen talked as though AIDS was a temporary setback, a nagging condition a little more persistent than the flu. Don recited the names of all his friends who’d already died. He talked about his funeral and relatives who were not welcome.

As both Stephen and Don’s bodies shut down, their inner strength remained strong. While it is true that I only met each of them months after the initial diagnosis, neither one asked “Why me?” They lived in the moment, dealing with the present physical challenges while yearning for an outsider like me to share bits of normalcy.

I learned that a quiet moment holding someone’s hand while hooked up to a morphine drip lingers longer and comforts more than the cheery story I thought of on the drive over. Because of them, I became more compassionate. When my grandmother was ill, I removed myself from the family dinner and sat at her bedside, allowing her to whisper a few thoughts, letting her see my familiar smile. My grandmother, a lifelong worrier, relaxed. Her breathing became easier, her mood brightened a tad. “Where did you learn that?” my bewildered mother asked.

I think of Stephen and Don often, particularly Stephen. I think about the contributions to the lives of others that they made and the greater contributions they could have made. I honor Stephen on every bike ride, letting the water from in the Strait of Georgia lap over my front tire at the far end of my journey, much like we dipped the wheels of his wheelchair in the Pacific during a trip to Santa Barbara during the final month of his life. That little ritual keeps me connected.

I remember Stephen and Don. I miss them. I think of all the others who died from AIDS, gone too soon, missed by too many.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

THANK YOU, HARVEY MILK

Long before Ellen Degeneres graced that magazine cover and Dan Savage inspired youth with the "It Gets Better" campaign, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. He told us we didn't have to hide, he encouraged us to come out...in our hometowns or to San Francisco.



On this day in 1978, he was assassinated by Twinkie-eating Dan White. With thanks to the incredibly detailed writing of Randy Shilts and the Oscar-winning movie penned by Dustin Lance Black and starring Sean Penn, Harvey Milk lives on as a martyr and as a figure who represents the need to fight for change and full acceptance.




Let's march on, inspired by Milk's speech about hope.


Thank you, Harvey.

Monday, November 21, 2011

THE DEEJAY FROM DUBAI IS RUINING MY LIFE!

No, this is not about being overexposed to songs by Britney or LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” (but if you ask me, Right Said Fred had a lot more fun with the subject of egomania).
You can, however, surmise that this is one of my shallow posts. You’ve been warned.

I suppose it’s even shallower when you realize this isn’t the first time I’ve written about my hair. But then you—or some other reader—may be equally fixated on follicle follies. HIGHLIGHTS OF SUMMER remains my most-read post. (I’m sure it has nothing to do with the shirtless shot of David Beckham. Sometimes the writing just crackles, right?)

Here’s the “problem”: I’m overdue for a haircut. Three weeks overdue! Every morning I awaken to a nightmare. Something like this. At 47, one might think I am flaunting the fact that I still have a full head of hair. But this goes beyond fullness.

I have clown hair.

All I need to do is spray the rainbow colors into my curly mop and put on a pair of who-knows-how-many-feet-have-been-in-‘em bowling shoes. It’s enough to make Mary Richards cry that I’m not dead.

So how did I become an afro-topped, mullet-backed tragedy? It’s all about stylist loyalty. I can’t cheat on her. I should. I am entitled to. She had the nerve to get chummy online with a deejay from Dubai. Skype chats, text messages,...who knows what else? And he had the nerve to break the virtual barrier and fly here for a visit. They have two weeks to turn a techno-crush into true love. My stylist took no bookings for the first half of November.

Now I’m all for people finding love. Unless, that is, my hair has to suffer. It can’t work. What if she moves to Dubai? How can she leave me?

Is this what it’s come to? As a chronically single man, I am now reading more into casual service relationships. Oh, no! What next? What if Tara quits her job as barista at the Starbucks on Hastings? What if Mabel—or is it Mavis?—walks away from her job (and me) as the weekend librarian?

Egad! I’m not so monogamous! Okay,...easy. One possible breakup at a time. Back to Carrie. We’ve been seeing each other for five years. Initially, she was just my rebound hair stylist after Christine up and moved with her husband and child to the B.C. Interior. (She had the audacity to want an affordable family home!) Surprisingly, Carrie and I clicked. Yes, opposites do attract. I’m a guy. She’s not. She’s a big-dog gal. I’m a small pup dude. (Though, really, I must cringe at calling myself a “dude”. I’ll never be a surfer—don’t like all that sand getting in my swimsuit.) She has ink art expanding across her shoulders, arms and legs while I can’t even handle temporary tattoos for the Terry Fox Run. She always fits in crass remarks about her vagina—or someone else’s? I try not to listen too closely. I joke about how six-year-olds relate to the world. Somehow it all works. Except, of course when she’s not working.

I won’t try a haircut from the lady two streets down from me. She can’t even prune her hedge right. Who knows what horrors will happen in the darkness of her makeshift basement salon?! I confess that I have gone online at looked up other hairdressers. City folks. A ferry ride away. Carrie will never know. Except she will. She will recognize the uneven line in the back. She’ll notice that someone got lazy and finished up with a razor instead of shears.

Why am I fretting? She gave me permission to cheat. Still, I can’t do it. I have this mole that new folks always nick. I don’t like it when a stylist massages my temples during the shampooing. Certain smocks make me look fat. And what if I have to spend forty-five minutes in a chair listening to a Susan Boyle CD?

There are too many risks that come with cheating.

So here I am, the eternally loyal, risk-averse schmuck who has to avoid glancing at myself in mirrors until The Return of Carrie. Sound like a horror movie? Let me reiterate: clown hair. There are many who get wigged out by the imagery.

So I wait things out. In a fortnight, peace will be restored. In the meantime, I’m going hat shopping...even though I hate anything on my head. Do hats come in XXL? At least ‘tis the season for toques.

Thank you for reading. I promise to spare you any more fretful reflections of my bad hair days in the near future.

Unless, of course, Carrie is Dubai bound. Then I’ll be looking for a support group. And, of course, another salon chair where I can plop down, clench-grip the arms and sweat profusely as I begin a whole new relationship.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

CHILDISH EXPECTATIONS

I think of myself as an avid swimmer, but somehow I let sixteen months lapse between laps. When the pool in town closed for summer maintenance in July 2010, I filled the void with jogging and cycling. Then I got consumed with work and comforted myself with a few too many Starbucks scones. You think horizontal stripes make you look fat? Try strutting by the pool in a Speedo. I stayed away.

I’m back down to my ideal weight and decided to get back in the pool today. As I drove into town, I prepped myself with positive self talk. You’re gonna suck. But you’re supposed to suck. That’s what happens when you lounge for a year and a half. Those scones aren’t even tasty! Okay, well, that’s as cheery as I could muster. I fell back into every sports scenario of my childhood.

Long before the confusion over my sexual identity chipped away at my self-esteem, my athletic shortcomings tormented me. (For many of us, there seems to be a link.) Dreams of becoming an NHL hockey star were put on ice after two seasons in which I scored a single goal—one of those flukes for which we berate Luongo—and had learned nothing other than remembering to take off my skate guards before stepping onto the rink.

My father tried to teach me how to throw a football, but I whined too much. “Why do they make it so hard to hold? Did they really kill a pig for this?”

Baseball was okay, I suppose, until they took away the t-ball stand and got a harder ball. You’re throwing that awfully close to where I’m standing. I’m going to duck. I did learn to hit the ball over the fence, but I had the wrong sport...tennis, not baseball. (I loved running off to search for the tennis ball, getting sidetracked by chestnuts and clover patches. Heck, if I ever found a four-leafer, all my luck would turn around.)

In P.E., we always lined up against the wall for picking teams. Even though I knew the drill, I wilted a little more each time the final picks came down to me and Mary Novakovich. I’m not religious, but I feel compelled to say God bless Mary. Without her, there wouldn’t have been any suspense. Or hope.

I tried to rationalize my athletic ineptitude. I skipped a grade and, due to a late birthday, was nearly two years younger than many classmates. Of course, the argument proved faulty when we stuck around after school to play soccer with the younger kids. I was picked dead last every time. I don’t remember, but I’m guessing Mary had piano lessons...or a macramé project to finish.

Eventually, my sports deficiencies collided with my awkwardness toward the same sex and locker rooms and gyms became my personal hell. Moving to Texas, where every school had an athletic director and a sizable stadium with lights, things only got worse. There was a hierarchy: football, basketball, baseball, track,...and, not that it mattered but, everything else. I spent two weeks in regular P.E. with guys who’d failed a few grades and didn’t own sneakers. Escaped by signing up for the swim team. I sucked, but it was an individual sport so, as long as the coach kept me off the relays—and, yes, she did—I didn’t have to worry about letting other people down.

Still, I get anxious whenever I walk into a new gym and even when I sign up for a gay sports program. The past is hard to shake. Jumping back in the pool today was important. There were three fit men my age and we had two lanes to share. When I used to swim regularly, I often had a lane to myself. I certainly didn’t want company as I struggled with my form and endurance.

Fortunately, the other cardio work I’ve been doing helped. I took a few extra breaks, but I swam three kilometers and lapped the other swimmers many times. The stranger part was that one of the men chatted with me after the swim. Oh, he’s one of those talkers who probably converses with the microwave when his wife heads out for groceries. But the topic of conversation threw me. He talked to me like I was a jock. He thought I should be doing triathlons, asked me about running distances and then recommended that I try a cycling track in Burnaby.

One part of the above bears repeating: He talked to me like I was a jock. Me?! There was no sarcasm in his voice, no audience in the background to snicker. I flashed back to fourth grade, Mary folding her arms, glaring at the captains through her thick glasses. On that day, she was second to last. I glanced down at my untied shoelace, waiting that infinite second before Steven Miller begrudgingly called my name. Yes, I’d be the clear weak spot for Red Rover. The memory sticks even when circumstances change.

Friday, November 11, 2011

LOSING IT

I used to dress well. I had a look. Clean, conservative, but with splashy accessories. What happened?

Should I blame Vancouver? The city is not known for fashion. Plaid is always in style. People dress for hiking even when headed to work or dinner. No, it can’t be Vancouver’s fault. I never bought into the outdoorsy look. I can’t fake it as a hiker. I don’t like mud. Hiking boots are too bulky. And I still don’t know if I’m supposed make some noise or play dead if I stumble upon a bear.

So then my rural home setting of the past six years must be a factor in my fashion slide. Last weekend I went on another quest for the latest issue of GQ. The guy at the gas station stared back blankly. Seems I was spouting random letters. GQ, SB, LMNOP. I didn’t even bother to ask at the drug store. I’m still peeved that they only get a shipment of Entertainment Weekly every other week. Read the cover—it’s not Entertainment Biweekly! But I digress. Must stop scratching old wounds. I suppose local retailers are just being practical. Retirees and mill workers aren’t seeking out an article about “how to brave the cold in style”. The John Deere cap and hockey jersey are all-season wear.

Fashion has no place here. Case in point. On Saturday, I saw two people nonchalantly walk into cafés in town wearing flannel pajama bottoms. Where’s the sign?! No real pants, no service. I will never step foot in Mark’s Wearhouse, the only men’s clothing retailer, but I am guessing they had a 50% off sale of loungewear. Irresistible, eh? Why wait for bedtime?

But no. I am certain that the blue collar, multi-paint-stained jean look has not influenced my wardrobe. Basically, my fall from fashion can be attributed to shingles and logs. As a homeowner, anything I had in savings—and then some—rests on the new roof that I have to climb up a hill to even see. Okay, it’s not just the roof. There’s the new flooring, new lighting, new ceilings, new heating, new drywall, new paint. The NEW IMPROVED house is most impressive…even if my dog fails to comment. The “For Sale” sign still isn’t on the front lawn as more fix-ups arise. Sadly, I won’t recoup any of the expenditures. I’m just trying to minimize my losses.

And then there are the logs. I’ve walked by them countless times and they never seem to notice my $120 designer hoodie, my Michael Kors jeans and my perfectly matched belt, socks and shoes. Those damn logs just sit there like, well, logs. I can’t think of anyone or anything else to try to impress. Here’s the hard truth—oh, I can’t believe I am saying this: Fashion doesn’t matter. Not here, not now. Maybe I really have hit rock bottom!

At work today, I dressed up. I reached into the back of my closet and pulled out a classic suit. I found the shirt and tie I’d bought specifically for the suit. I polished my shoes and put on my ultrasoft olive Hugo Boss topcoat. And the kids loved it! Especially the coat. “I like your cape,” one of them said. Sigh. He meant well. Another commented, “You look like a mystery solver.” Yes, she likened me to Sherlock Holmes, that incredibly popular fictional dude from the nineteenth century. Not sure how to take that.

I’m weeding my collection, bidding sad adieus to Armani sweaters that belong on “The Cosby Show” and faded Ralph Lauren dress shirts and frayed Hilfiger slacks. I am sure there are designers and styles to replace my old favorites, but I would need to consult a current issue of GQ. Something tells me I’m not going to learn the right things watching “The Big Bang Theory.”

If I ever do move, here’s hoping I can regain some fashion flair. I fear that beer tees, knee-high black socks and Dockers khaki shorts are hovering above, ready to swoop down and curse me for life in fashion hell. Makes me want to don my ripped, balsamic-vinegar-stained, too short pajama bottoms and curl up in bed. Damn, I need new sheets too.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

UNTITLED

There are moments of writing when I discover something fresh and exciting. One such occasion hit me this morning while I sat on the ferry at 6:45, reviewing my chapter notes and beginning to draft a query letter for my untitled novel.

I have a file on my laptop with a list of a dozen possible titles and thought I’d committed to one, but tellingly I never put that name atop the manuscript. I began this project two years ago during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and I simply saved it each draft as “NANOWRIMO” for lack of anything more inspiring. The name came during a five-minute brainstorm where I typed a stream of titles on the same theme. Then, The One hit. So clear! (Aside: If only searching for a guy brought a similar moment of clarity and exhilaration.) I typed it and then jotted down my rationale and the multiple meanings. My feet began contorting, rocking and shooting outward as I sat in the snack bar area amongst a cluster of way too chatty early morning commuters. A leap or a happy dance might have effectively let out all the energy, but I am too reserved.

I have struggled with titles since elementary school. I had no tolerance for the standard teacher directions at the outset of writing activities. “Put your name on your paper and then write your title.” Just because the title appears at the top, why should it be written first?

Oh, you can change it later.

Sure. Go into an elementary classroom and watch how much changing young writers do. They don’t! Nobody teaches revising. Sad, but true. The title gets scrawled in pencil, but it might as well be in permanent marker. A quickly determined title limits the writer’s creativity or becomes a mismatch to the subsequent story. Young writers learn to write safe headlines. “The Dog”. “My Thanksgiving”. “The Scariest Moment of My Life”. Ho hum. Is it recess yet?

My wise editor for my first novel knew I was not committed to the title I’d attributed to the manuscript at the time the publisher accepted it for publication. She didn’t fret. “It will come to you at the right time. You’ll know it when it comes.”

And, yes, for this second novel, I do know it! Hooray. Except, I’m not sharing it. Not just yet. Nobody has green-lit the work yet. I reserve the right to change my mind. What if a fresher, more exciting idea pops in my head? Heck, that happy dance may happen after all.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

BOY MEETS BOY: A NOVEL FOR GAY TEENS (and the rest of us)




The first couple of chapters of David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (Knopf, 2003) take some getting used to. I had to keep rereading lines.

What is this...a fantasy?

Paul is a sophomore in high school. He is also a happily adjusted, fully out gay adolescent. His kindergarten teacher outed him by writing on his report card, “PAUL IS DEFINITELY GAY AND HAS A VERY GOOD SENSE OF SELF.” (Paul eyeballed the document on his teacher’s desk. Apparently, Paul was also an advanced reader. Alphabet, schmalphbet.) In third grade, he campaigned for class president with the slogan, “VOTE FOR ME...I’M GAY!” And, yes, he won. He had a boy date for the fifth grade dance and formed a gay-straight alliance in sixth grade along with a fourth-grade lesbian.

Is this an alternate universe? Is this set in 2211?!

The backstory isn’t all rosy. Paul was beat up in eighth grade as the two perpetrators grunted gay slurs, but a group of friends from the fencing team come to the rescue instead of being the passive bystanders we often read about in news articles. Another student regularly refers to him as Gay Boy, but it is almost a term of endearment. This is, after all, a high school where the quarterback of the football team is a drag queen with the moniker Infinite Darlene.

Oh, why couldn’t I have gone to this high school? Why couldn’t we all?

Paul’s self-acceptance and the matter-of-fact manner in which his family and peers regard his gayness make him a fictional gay hero. Perhaps even a superhero whose superpower is self-confidence, a mighty elusive trait among many gays, young and old.

Once the groundwork is laid and the surprise passes, Boy Meets Boy reads like a typical young adult novel. Paul is the centerpiece of a love triangle, the other players being Kyle, a former boyfriend who freaked out and dumped Paul but wants him back, and Noah, the new kid in town who is recovering from his own bad breakup with another guy. Guys openly dating guys—okay, it’s an atypical typical young adult novel.

I have to admit that there were times when I was awed by Paul, even envious. At other times, I wondered why Levithan took such a leap beyond reality. How common are these love triangles? I can’t stumble across a love line, let alone a triangle. Sheesh.

Thank goodness the author adds ANOTHER gay character, Tony. He’s a quiet thinker, living in a household where religion guides the family’s lifestyle and his parents’ response to the fact he is gay. I suspect gay readers will relate more to Tony than Paul. We may strive to evolve into a persona like Paul’s, but we face fears and obstacles as does Tony. The difference between Tony and many teens struggling with their sexuality is that Tony has a friend who is a supporter, a role model, even a nudge-nik. Tony is not alone.

This is a refreshing work of gay fiction. Aside from a little kissing, there is no sex. There is no gay hustler. There is no drug usage. While Infinite Darlene may be overly dramatic, the shock value arises from the normalcy of the characters and their interactions. Boy Meets Boy is a quick read that will surely help struggling gays to envision a better reality. It may get better sooner rather than later. If not, Paul and Tony may be the fictional friends needed to get through the now.