Thursday, December 29, 2011

(NOT) SO FAR AWAY



I get the sense that a lot of older single gay men fail to go the distance.

Sure, you can read that as not being fully committed, but I am referring to something more fundamental. They fail to consider that Mr. Right might exist beyond the gay ghetto of their chosen city. In Vancouver, that rather scenic ghetto (save for litter-strewn Davie Street) is the West End.

I realize I am not objective here. I am fortysomething and single. I do not live in the West End. In fact, I am more than an hour (and a ferry) away. I’ve only had a date cross the waters twice in six years...and each occasion only came after we’d had a few promising outings in town. Still, I have had many coffees in recent years with online single guys. I’ve heard the stories. Vancouver is a city of bridges and, if a gay has to traverse a bridge to date you, it rarely happens. Guys in Kitsilano, off Commercial and near Main Street have all shared their frustration that West Enders won’t travel.

Many West End dwellers pride themselves in walking to work, to the gym and to restaurants. They boast about not having to buy a car or pay the insurance, gas and maintenance. Indeed, their lifestyle is environmentally sound and, with all the walking, rather healthy.

There are, of course, drawbacks. There are 44,000 people who live in this downtown area. For better or worse, it only takes a few years to recognize and/or become acquainted with the gay neighbors. If you are going to online dating sites like Plenty of Fish, then chances are the dating pool has dried up. If you are over thirty and single, I believe who have to toss out a larger net if you want to reel in fresh fish. But West Enders are not that adventuresome. At best, they will meet for coffee...in the West End, of course. Many times, my coffee companion has shot me a puzzled gaze and asked, “Why don’t I recognize you?” Sigh. There may be plenty of fish, but they’re all swimming in the same fish bowl. I’m reminded of an old Roseanne Roseannadanna—I miss you, Gilda Radner!—quip: “Jacques Cousteau is swimming in a fish’s toilet.”

This post does not arise from my own dateless existence. Yesterday I received a message from a 59-year-old man on Plenty of Fish. He begged people to overlook the fact he lived beyond the ghetto. His three-sentence message to me included the following: ”I live in the burbs -for the last 2 years - but am considering moving into the city to broaden my social life.” Read: It takes a little extra effort to see me, but don’t hold that against me. The profile explained that he’d retired and moved to White Rock (which is a beautiful beachside community south of Vancouver). He stated he needed to establish a social life and then made his pitch: “I travel into downtown Vancouver fairly regularly by car or public transit. The public transit is actually pretty good out here - I can be in downtown in 50 minutes by bus and Canada Line.” Don’t dismiss me. I’ll come to you.

Less than an hour. Come on, people. This does not constitute a long-distance relationship!

I felt sad after reading this. We did not have anything in common, but that had nothing to do with location. (At this point, I’d date a guy in Portland. Or Pittsburgh.) Here was a guy who settled in a lovely place where he thought he’d live out a happy retirement only to realize that being single in the burbs was not practical.

Okay, here’s the interesting thing about writing. As I wrote the preceding paragraph, I realized I was the same as WhiteRockTim. I too live in a peaceful, scenic area and I feel the isolation. I am desperately waiting for my house to sell. Am I returning to ghetto life? Maybe. If immigration matters work out, I’ll be back in L.A. where I thought nothing of battling freeway traffic and dating a guy in Reseda or Silver Lake. I even fell in love with these guys! But then maybe it was just me. Maybe I am a gas guzzling gay.

Am single. Will travel.

Is that an anomaly?

Monday, December 26, 2011

DIM ALL THE LIGHTS

The microwave clock still displays “0”. I think of that old Chicago song, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” I leave it. There. I can be carefree. It is my vacation after all.

I should be prepared for power outages where I live. There are about a dozen a year, almost all coming during the colder, wetter, drearier months. Yesterday’s may have hit me the hardest. Christmas. No, I didn’t put up lights this year or even get a tree. And, no, I didn’t have a turkey in the oven. I am a vegetarian. No veggies roasting since the grocery stores were all closed after flying in from L.A. on Christmas Eve.

My Christmas for One was supposed to be simple. Michael Bublé, Sarah McLachlan, She and Him and The Carpenters playing on my old boom box. A thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. “A Christmas Story” or “Elf” on TV. A nap. (Apparently I am the only one who gets jetlagged after a flight within the same time zone.)

I’d have never napped had I known the power would go out. Sure, I have candles and a flashlight, but the light isn’t strong enough for reading. I awoke at three in the afternoon and already the light was too dim to return to the puzzle. I went for a jog. It is five kilometers into town and there were no lights the entire way in. As soon as I crossed the town border, I was hit with power envy. Seemingly empty rooms fully lit, Christmas lights aglow before dark, closed boutiques with bulbs working overtime. In my six years living in the area, I can only recall one blackout that extended into town.

Still no lights when I returned home. December 25th, one of the shortest days of the year. I took the dog for a walk and then, since it was completely dark, we drove into town. I figured I could grab a coffee and write or read at McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s. Aside from a single gas station, everything was closed. Christmas, of course. I pulled up as close as possible to the Starbucks and used their wifi to check for an outage update. Wire down. 1,300 people impacted. Estimated time for power to be restored: 22:00.

That’s when I let Scrooge win. Brr, humbug.

I thought about one of my favorite films, “My Life as a Dog”, wherein the boy, Ingemar, copes with his own life’s challenges by thinking it could be worse. Indeed. I was not attacked in a Nigerian church. I didn’t have the misfortune of spending Christmas in a certain home in Grapevine, Texas. I didn’t suffer in a fire in Connecticut. Still, it was Christmas and I was spending it eating stale Doritos in an empty parking lot with my dog snoring in the back seat. Maybe next year will be better, I thought. Maybe I’ll have moved. Maybe someone will notice me there. Maybe I’ll get to watch someone special opening a gift from me.

After surfing the internet, reading some favorite blogs and downloading some scripts to read, I returned home. Power on! By then I felt deflated. No Christmas nachos. I heated up a can of beans and instant mashed potatoes. Filled me up just fine. I returned to the jigsaw, a wonderful distraction that helped me tune out all thoughts about a holiday that creates expectations that so many of us cannot reach.

I look back at the microwave clock. Zero. Please, at least let there be light on New Year’s Eve.

NOT THEN, NOT NOW

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I stayed with my university friend Susan and her husband of seventeen years, Tim. Back when they were still dating in L.A., they tried to match me up with Tim’s gay work colleague, Matt. It wasn’t as though Matt and I had a lot in common. I was gay, he was gay. We were Susan and Tim only homosexual friends...and conveniently single! I attended a barbecue at their apartment complex, excited to meet the highly regarded gay-mate. Yes, I was so much younger, so much more hopeful. I was no better than Susan and Tim. Every encounter with a gay man brought the possibility of love. Yes, I believed!

Matt and I exchanged five minutes of conversation about our jobs, him a keen architect, me a doe-eyed attorney. After a few follow-up questions, we sipped our wine coolers in awkward silence. Hope can be so fleeting. We had another chance to mix as someone insisted on a game of croquet. I gravitated more to Susan as we shared the same silly sense of humor while Matt felt the game was a chance to show his winning ways. I don’t recall how to score croquet or if he did win...let’s say he did. Matt and I ran into each other during a few other occasions, including their wedding, but we never shared more than a courteous hello after that. No love match, no possibility of friendship. A pair of gays with nothing to show for it. Go Fish.

On my last night in town on this most recent visit, Tim announced that we were heading to a friend’s for cocktails and then going out for dinner. “You remember my friend Matt, don’t you?” Thankfully, he added, “He and his partner Josh have this amazing place just outside of West Hollywood. You’ve got to see it! Josh should be a landscape designer.” Although it went unsaid, Matt and I were still their only gay friends. No, wait! Add Josh.

Hope resurfaced. No, I do not set my sights on breaking up gay couples, happy or otherwise. I have enough challenges with the single gays. Why add complications with the taken? But since I am planning to move back to Los Angeles, I realized it would be nice to have some gay friends to connect with right away. My good friend Ray moved to Boise, Jed returned to Bakersfield (and still hasn’t confirmed me as a Friend on Facebook!) and things are just awkward when I reconnect with best bud Blake and his permanently velcroed partner who constantly comes across as abrasive.

We pulled up to Matt and Josh’s bungalow on a charming, tree-lined street. Large green and red lanterns adorned the coral tree in their front yard, where a stone walkway created an artful maze amongst succulents and sculptures. Oh, god. These guys are too together for me, I thought. Perfect little home and four years of blissful togetherness. Matt had rebounded well after what Tim told me was a dysfunctional relationship with a meth addict. (Okay, I think the word dysfunctional is superfluous.) Hooray, Matt!

If only I didn't use his success as a point of comparison for myself. Twenty years after meeting Matt, I am more aimless than ever. My stomach tensed.

Josh warmly welcomed us inside. “You haven’t changed a bit!” he gushed as he hugged me.

Okay, not Josh. Matt was totally different. His blond hair was now a dark brown, he sported long sideburns and facial hair and he had a thick Southern accent. Sure, I suppose the accent was always there. Either my memory is that bad or he made even less of an impression back then than I recalled. No worries. We could start this friendship thing from scratch.

Everything inside was perfect, from the ninety-song Christmas playlist to the glasses of Pinot noir Josh handed us immediately upon entry. The scent of pine emanated from the garlands draped from the chandelier to the four corners of the living room. The den had four new antiquities they got for a steal when the elder member of a California tycoon (whose name only I did not know) died and the family started dumping possessions, not interested in an estate sale. (No, Josh and Matt did not call attention to their new acquisitions. They were the perfectly modest hosts. It was Tim who inquired about them.)

I could keep using perfect to describe Josh and Matt’s home—I haven’t even gotten to the backyard!—but you get the idea. That is not my main point. Just as I realized five minutes into a conversation two decades ago that nothing clicked between Matt and me, I got the same non-vibe as to the friendship track after five minutes this time around. Did the setting and the relationship intimidate me? Sure...at first. But we had four hours of conversation at the home and at the restaurant and there was no common ground despite the clear fact that Matt and Josh were outstanding hosts and often animated individuals. Sometimes people just don’t mesh.

On the ride back to Susan and Tim’s, Susan noted that I was particularly quiet. “I’m just taking in the places we pass,” I said. “I like looking at what is familiar and what’s changed.” Actually, I just needed time to think. So much of my thoughts about moving have focused on establishing a writing career and the humiliations that will come as I take on peon gigs, making coffee for up and coming writers half my age. The social challenges will be just as great. Guys my age will be just as settled as they are in Vancouver.

Second thoughts? No. Just necessary thoughts. The resolve remains. Change always brings discomfort. I will simply have to rise to the challenges. And create my own pathways.

Friday, December 23, 2011

LOOKING BACKWARD, FORWARD, DOWNWARD & UPWARD

I fight back the tears as soon as I leave my friends’ house. Not an emotional wreck but something is bubbling up. I need to keep some semblance of control. I don’t want the person on the other side of the gas pump island to freak out. What’s his problem? Not that she notices me at all. It’s a quick pit stop. She’s on her way to work or to fight for a parking spot while doing last-minute Christmas shopping.

I restart the car. Colbie Caillat, that hippy chick from Malibu sings “Realize”, adding to the Southern California ambience. They really like her here. She sang “Brighter Than the Sun” as I parked under a palm tree on a quick grocery run after my plane landed at LAX three days ago.

My eyes well up again as I merge onto the 405, heading toward Santa Monica. It’s fatigue, I tell myself. A college bowl game, a day at Disneyland, sleeps in strange beds,...so many excuses. Except on this morning I feel more rested than I have in months. Apparently that smoggy L.A. air is good for my soul. I drive down windy Sunset Boulevard towards Pacific Palisades, the chic village between Santa Monica and Malibu where I used to live in a bright pink multi-unit building now blanched white. At least the ever-blooming bougainvilleas remain to cover most of the lower facade.

For a year, this was my haven. I could access all that Los Angeles had to offer and then retreat to this sleepy neighborhood where nannies chauffeured impeccably dressed toddlers in the newest Mercedes models. I cannot spot any caregivers today. Maybe they’ve been given a few days off for Christmas. Maybe they are the ones tasked with scouring The Beverly Center to pick up an extra something now that Uncle Lloyd is bringing his new girlfriend to the turkey dinner. I do not see any children at all. The sidewalk is stroller free. Maybe there are Christmas and Hanukkah camps tucked away in one of the canyons to entertain the kiddies.

I am composed now as I type on my laptop in a Starbucks that didn’t exist in this space twenty years ago. What was it? A restaurant? Doesn’t really matter. Gone, forgotten. I am sandwiched between two other laptop users. As I gaze at toward Sunset two other men punch keys on their laptops. They’re all writers, aren’t they? This is Greater Los Angeles where everyone is working on a screenplay.

My competition.

I peek to my left. They white guy with the ‘60s afro isn’t typing a thing. He’s surfing a police website after two officers approached him and directed him to stop smoking his tobacco pipe outside the neighboring retail space. He still simmers with anger. If he is a writer, his day is shot. One of the fellows across from me has stopped typing. He plays with the cursor, sips from an empty coffee cup. Writer’s block.

Maybe I have a shot. I must focus on my own work instead of (literally) looking over my shoulder. Do I want to return here? As evidenced only an hour earlier, I can be a little too fragile. I will face a lot of rejection. I will be summarily dismissed as the gray pokes through my dyed sideburns. My ego will be bruised and abused.

But I want this. My heart beats loud and fast. It may be the caffeine kicking in, but I prefer to attribute it to desire. Yes, I want this. I want my chance.

All of this feels right. It is home. I cannot move yet. The INS and the gloomy real estate market back home control the timing of my relocation. Still, this brief visit gives me resolve. In the meantime, I can write anywhere. As my own coffee is done, I am off to the other side of Sunset to settle in for a chopped salad at my old deli hangout. It used to be my Wednesday morning stop where I would load up on bottomless passion fruit iced tea and cheap buttermilk pancakes. The old awning is gone. The name has changed from Mort’s to Lenny’s. It is more upscale. Still, it remains a deli and there is just enough that is familiar to help me settle in. I have to rewrite the ending to my latest screenplay project. Having worked through the mixed emotions of returning here, it will be a productive day.

Monday, December 19, 2011

YEP,..."RUDOLPH" IS GAY

The rumors are out there. Bert and Ernie. Tinky Winky. Waylon Smithers from “The Simpsons”.

I want them all to be gay. (Somewhere in a red state, an aide for a Republican Congressman is citing my blog as proof that the gays recruit. A clear distortion. I have no affinity for Teletubbies, but if one of them is gay, I welcome him/it.)

Young or old(er), we all like to have people/creatures with whom we can identify. Some celebrities are openly gay, but I cannot relate to this one or that one . (Heck, maybe it's just the name. I cannot relate to this guy or that guy either.) Sometimes I have to settle for making glorified sock puppets my role models.

And stop-motion animated Christmas characters.

Yes, Rudolph. To me, the Rankin/Bass television classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has so much to say about being gay. I watch it every December and find myself referring to characters, scenes and songs even in August. Usually, I have the sense to think in my head rather than out loud. Seems it’s more socially acceptable to constantly quote from “The Wizard of Oz”. I am one of the friends of Dorothy, but there is room for a reindeer as well.

“Rudolph” is all about being different, feeling different and being misunderstood. And it’s not just our now-beloved reindeer. Early on, Hermey, the only elf at the Pole with thick wavy blond hair, knows the standard elfin life is not for him. (Hermey’s odd name could be a tribute to the ancient god Hermes or to the venerable Hermès fashion house.) He wants to be a dentist, but is told in no uncertain terms that such a path is unacceptable. Elves make toys. He must conform. No break for him. While the other elves presumably drink cocoa and eat Keebler cookies, Hermey is forced to suppress his true self and bang out more toy trains. Hermey can’t do it. Hermey won’t do it! Instead, he sings melodic lines penned by Johnny Marks: “Why am I such a misfit? I am not just a nitwit. You can’t fire me, I quit. Seems I don’t fit in.”

Oh, Hermey, I feel your pain. And, please, I have nothing against elves. Tangential confession: When I was in grade three, I planned to leave home. Nothing against my family (then, at least); I had a higher calling. I decided to stay awake on Christmas Eve until not a creature was stirring and then scurry over to the fireplace to wait for Santa. I had to make my plea for the jolly guy to take me back to the Pole. I wanted to be an elf. No joke. Making toys for nice kids seemed like a noble profession.

Okay, so back to “Rudolph”, Hermey in my mind is clearly gay...and strong enough to break free from conventional expectations. While others admired Superman, Ironman and Batman, Hermey the elf was my hero. I suppose Hermey may be part of the reason I travel sixty kilometers each way to see my gay dentist.

So we’ve got Hermey figured out. How about Rudolph? True, he crushes on that young doe, Clarice. And he becomes gay in the “happy” sense at the very least. Rudy may not be gay, but he would certainly join a gay-straight alliance if they had one at reindeer school. Accustomed to rejection and ridicule, Hermey and Rudy are initially tentative. “You don’t mind my nose?” asks Rudolph, to which the elf responds, “Not if you don’t mind that I’m a—“ wait for it—“dentist.” In a precious part of the script, Hermey and Rudy agree to become independent...together. Rudolph also represents being different and being shunned. He questions himself, singing the same tune as Hermey with a different final line: “Why don’t I fit in?”

Poor Rudolph. Growing up is tough when you don’t feel “normal”. The name calling. The shame that his own parents project. My gosh, they insist that he cover up the part of him that makes him different.

Intolerance comes to a head when Rudolph’s true nose is uncovered at the testosterone-heavy reindeer school, a place where Coach Comet states, “My job is to make bucks out of you.” The coach, in fact, takes the lead in shunning the different pupil, telling his other students, “We won’t let him play in our games.” Even the supposedly benevolent Santa condemns the red-nosed reindeer upon discovery of his uniqueness, saying to the father, “Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself.” As I watch the show now, the behaviors of the elf supervisor, Santa, Donner and Coach Comet are far scarier than those of The Abominable Snow Monster.

I so empathized with the rejected reindeer.

But writer Romeo Muller (adapting the short story by Robert May) drives the theme of being different home with more examples. As a team, Hermey and Rudy set off on their own. They encounter an eccentric by the name of Yukon Cornelius who seeks his fortune in silver and gold. Though rough around the edges, Cornelius does not hesitate to befriend and assist Rudy and Hermey. “Climb aboard, mateys.” Full acceptance. You are who you are.

And to drive home the point about differences, the trio drift onto The Island of Misfit Toys. They meet the unwanted, the unloved, the banished: Charlie-in-the-box, a spotted elephant, a “choo choo with square wheels”, a cowboy who rides an ostrich, and a water pistol that shoots jelly. Rudy and Hermey think they have found a refuge, but they cannot stay. The island is for toys, not living creatures (a seemingly technical distinction since the toys talk, sing, dance and express feelings). They do not even belong among other misfits.

Rudolph sets off on his own in the night, fearing his unique trait will continue to bring detection and danger from the fierce Abominable Snow Monster. Eventually Rudolph reunites with family but he fails to fend the monster from Clarice and Rudolph’s parents. Cornelius and Hermey (yes, my childhood hero!) save the day. Hermey’s dental skills prove essential in reforming the formerly beastly “bumble”.

And because this is one of those happily ever after tales, Rudolph, Hermey and even The Abominable Snow Monster are welcomed back at Christmastown. The adults finally show acceptance (though Coach Comet is silent). Hermey can be a dentist. Rudolph need not cover that distinct nose. The Not-So-Abominable creature can put the star atop the tree. Even the misfit toys are rounded up and delivered to homes where they will be welcomed and loved. Each is needed. Each is valued.

Produced forty-seven years ago, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was my annual dose of acceptance at a time when there were no openly gay role models. Am I being too egocentric in thinking that Hermey and Rudolph are all about the gays? Other minorities, others who feel they don’t fit in are most welcome to identify with the show and the characters. But I make no apologies for my own interpretation. “Rudolph” continues to entertain while also nudging society to be more open, more tolerant, more loving.

Watch it again. Sing along to the timeless tunes. Most importantly, think about the message.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

QUESTIONS

Nothing new in this post. It’s just me spinning in the same old spot.

In my twenties, I thought I knew it all. Even though, deep down, I knew I didn’t. There were many adult things I did not want to grasp. Stocks. Home ownership. “Murder, She Wrote.” Still, I had a clear sense of how to foster a loving relationship. Even if said relationship was only a hypothetical. I did not date ANYONE until I was twenty-five.

In my thirties, I may have actually known it all. Seriously. Everything clicked. Real relationship with a seemingly perfect partner. Heritage house. Pet. Job with growing leadership responsibilities. Potential everywhere! I was set for life.

Or at least until my forties. Relationship? Gone. Not a single hopeful sign in that area. House? Got one, but it’s a dead weight that I cannot seem to shake. It’s like the Hotel California: You can check-in anytime you’d like, but you can never leave. Job? It’s gruelling and utterly thankless. There is no time to savor a moment of success as more crises demand URGENT attention. Crises that began from the actions of others. I am the professional sanitation worker, expected to clean up everyone else’s mess. Pet? One of my beloved dogs died in March and I still miss him terribly, but at least I have my other one to be nonjudgmental, to pretend I am the greatest thing since sliced bananas, to get upset when any other dog seeks my attention. (Yes, dogs dig me. Gay men? Not so much.)

Life is now as much a puzzle as it was in my teen years. I am left with a long list of questions, but at the top of the list is, What happened?!

I know I have many changes to make, but the waiting is maddening. When will my house sell (if it sells)? When will I be approved to return to the U.S. (if at all)? What kind of peon job will I get while I strive to make it as a writer? And will I make it? Will all the changes turn out to be foolish in retrospect?

If there is someone for everyone, where is my guy? What if he has lost his way due to the ex-gay movement? What if I leave Vancouver when he was here all along, always walking the seawall ten minutes before or after me? What if he’s in L.A. and settles for someone else before I get here? How long will I have to sigh longingly as moviemakers lead me to believe Mr. Right is a fender bender away?

What if there really isn’t someone for everyone? Why shouldn’t I be one of the have nots?

No more questions, please. I have enough uncertainty despite decades of experience. To modify a common expression, the more I live, the less I know.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

DRIFTING AWAY FROM DOCTOR DREAD

I am the squeamish sort. I have fainted twice at doctors’ offices. I also passed out watching a film about the heart in high school biology. I have had to lie on the cold tiled floor of the bathroom outside a medical office after having a couple of moles removed. I have had ear and eye exams interrupted as the light-headed, cold, clammy symptoms surfaced. Yes, I am not just squeamish. I am a medical anomaly.

Any doctor’s visit brings uncertainty and anxiety. When I had my wisdom teeth removed, the specialist refused to put me under because I didn’t have anyone to drive me home. (I felt a cab would be fine.) He had barely begun when my semi-controlled moaning noises became too much for him. He screamed at me and then said, “I don’t care. You’re going under!” Fine by me.

Another doctor who seemed homophobic in the first place did not take kindly to my skittishness and went out of his way to make the examination unpleasant. In the end, he stated that he did not want to see me again. Again, fine by me.

I carefully selected my current doctor, putting out feelers among friends. Wanted: doctor with amazing patience for nervous patients. Thankfully, I found just the right person. He is a gay doctor who matter-of-factly asks the relevant questions about sexual health and seems genuinely amused by my nervous, fast-paced banter and by the bottle of O.J. that I bring along in case I feel faint. He takes his time. I get the impression that he extends the chat during the examination, viewing my behaviours as a quirky change of pace. At the very least, it must provide for interesting banter in the break room.

Today was my first appointment in three years. Yes, even though I have found the right doctor, I don’t go out of my way to visit. The office is one of my few exposures to the gay world as the other doctors are also gay and the waiting room is always filled with gay patients who intently eye the entrance door every time a new person walks in. Never thought of going to the doctor as an opportunity for cruising.

Beside the coat rack was a stack of the local gay newspaper, Xtra West, which I haven’t come across since moving out of Vancouver’s West End in June. As I waited forty-five minutes—okay, it seems my doctor dawdles with all his patients—I noticed a couple of assistants retrieving files and calling patients’ names. The assistants were both hunky, buff eye candy in tight shirts. My gosh, my doctor’s office is the gay equivalent to Hooters!

It’s all a bit surreal, but I suppose the übergay atmosphere provides enough distraction to take the edge off. I passed my physical by not fainting. The doctor did have to say, “Just relax” nine times—yes, I counted as a way to amuse myself. Still, I didn’t even reach for the orange juice and this is the first time that I can recall that the tin paper sheet on the examining table wasn’t soaked through when I got up. Progress! A phone number might have been a nice bonus, but that would have been pushing it.

Medical breakthrough? Sure. Medical miracle? Forget about it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

WHAT TO DO ABOUT BULLYING—PART TWO

UNDERSTANDING THE MINDSET OF THE “VICTIM”

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. Has there ever been a more inane commonly quoted expression? Few of us can definitively point to the spot where Joey Biagetti bruised an arm after we dropped the easy-out pop fly that gave the other team the winning run. We may, however, remember his brother Lenny calling us “uglier than dog shit”. Whether it’s five or fifty years after our escaping from school, we recall the most menacing putdowns. We’ve all had our names made fun of. Weight, degree of attractiveness and intelligence are all common sore spots as we navigate our way through childhood and adolescence. Often, it’s not so much about what was said, but who said it and where it was said.

Back then, we could all point to the easy targets. They were the ones who would wither and weep. The reaction was the payoff. When I was growing up, parents offered children two common “strategies” to react to those who taunted, teased, pinched, punched and bullied: (1) Just ignore it; or (2) Fight back. From what I observed and from my own experiences, neither tactic proved effective. Ignoring had the effect of internalizing the growing anguish and fighting back invited an even stronger physical response from the adversary.

Somehow, most of us made it through. When I read the comment sections related to online articles about teens who commit suicide after being bullied, some of the reactions perplex and sadden me. The line of thinking goes like this: I got teased, I didn’t take my life; people can’t be so sensitive. If most of us have gone through some degree of harassment, shouldn’t that foster a greater empathy rather than a dismissive judgment?

There is a term I learned during my first year of law school: the eggshell plaintiff. Some people crack more easily than others. If we are already aware of one person’s greater vulnerability, then our behavior is expected to change. If not, we are liable for our actions. You handle a box marked FRAGILE more carefully. Greater care is required with certain people as well. Children understand this at a fairly young age. They know who is more sensitive. They know that a joke made to one peer will be viewed as a putdown to another. It is clear from who the taunter/teaser/pincher/puncher targets that he is also highly aware of these differences in people.

Aside from the common subjects that irk us, there are certain topics that generate even greater sensitivity. An ESL student will be more sensitive if people make fun of his accent or his cultural background. A child of a different race is rightfully offended by comments about skin color, particularly if he is in the minority in that particular environment. The same goes for someone struggling with his sexual orientation.

I have worked with children for many years and, while having friends is important at any age, the need to belong becomes even greater when they reach twelve or thirteen. They become aware of whether they are popular or unpopular. The group way of being is more important than the individuality that adolescents are simultaneously trying to achieve. Walk through a mall or down a school hallway and watch how teens form packs that are seemingly unaware of others trying to pass by. Listen to how they talk louder than necessary. It is, in part, to impress their group but also to let others know that their commentary, however trivial, is more meaningful and more animated than anything happening on The Outside.

The dynamics of adolescence create the perfect storm for a person trying to understand his sexual identity. Just as the young teen boy grapples with the fact he may like boys in a different way from just being friends, he also feels that need to belong to the dominant group. Of course, the easiest way to belong to the dominant group is to be like the dominant group. Gayness is an obstacle, even a burden. While we all can identify teens who confidently, even defiantly, break free from social expectations, they stand out because they are the exception. The rest of the teens who know deep down that they are different struggle with the angst. Why me? Why can’t I be like everyone else? For a teenager who thinks he may be gay, each option brings its own problems. To come out presents the significant risk of external turmoil in the form of rejection, ridicule and physical harm. To suppress one’s identity deprives the individual of the rites of passage that come with teen dating. Moreover, the person faces internal turmoil from lying to oneself, to one’s family and friends. The gayness becomes something that is hated and resented. Either path brings long-term implications.

I do not mean to dismiss the challenges of other minorities, but a black teen has a black family that has (hopefully) instilled a sense of pride about his race. This teen can talk to his family when someone makes a racist comment. Beyond family support, there are also resources at school. He can get the support of a teacher and/or principal. He has observed the dominant white society make at least passing positive mention of his race on Martin Luther King Day and during Black History Month. Yes, racism still exists but there are opportunities for redress or, at least, a sympathetic ear.

A gay teen typically does not have gay family members in his household. His family has not modeled a sense of gay pride. He is unsure of who to talk to at school for support. How does he even raise the subject? What good will it do? Conversely, what harm will it do? Most likely, he has observed many incidents in which “gay” has been used in a derogatory manner.

“That’s so gay.”
“Don’t be gay.”
“Shut up, gay boy.”
“Ew, how gay!”

Rarely would a student correct the person making the comment. Teachers and administrators are often selectively deaf.

The putdown, no matter how indirect or seemingly disconnected to sexuality, means little to anyone who is not gay. Whatever. Shrug it off. Easy to do when the comment has no relevance to one’s true identity.

One’s homosexuality is a not something clearly known at birth, at five or ten years of age. Understanding, accepting and loving oneself as a gay person is further muddled by the frequency of the gay putdowns and jokes. Peers are not the only ones who exhibit homophobia. A gay kiss on television continues to draw criticism from groups that purport to advocate for family values. Many religions and denominations denounce homosexuality. Politicians still use homophobic stances to gain votes and to deepen campaign coffers. Homosexuality is portrayed as sinful, sick and a danger to the ideals of society. How does an isolated gay teen tune out the hateful rhetoric? How does he find vindication when homosexuality remains fodder for scathing “humor” and much-publicized slurs from celebrities who later retract their remarks as if they were mere slips of the tongue, on a par with an unexpected belch at the dinner table?

There are many who wonder why an apology is not enough. They wonder why gay teens and twentysomethings can’t be more resilient. Just ignore them. Show your inner strength. These people are naive. They do not understand the long-term process most gays and lesbians have to work through in coming to terms with coming out. Am I gay? is a question that can take years to figure out. It is a question the person usually has to figure out while alone and isolated. Once a person gets to “yes”, the Now what? takes at least as long to figure out.

The vulnerability remains during the entire process. This is why even the most confident, out gay teens suffer setbacks. External ridicule and hatred can reignite self-hatred and despair. In those moments, an “It Gets Better” video may only frustrate the teen. You don’t understand! This is different. This is worse! How does an inconsolable individual find comfort in heartfelt testimonials of hope that may not come until five or ten years later? How does he hold on?

NEXT UP: HOW TO MAKE IT BETTER SOONER RATHER THAN LATER

Thursday, December 8, 2011

WHAT TO DO ABOUT BULLYING—PART ONE

A “VICTIM” IMPACT STATEMENT

I don’t think I ever used the word bully while I was in school. I had conflicts. There were people I avoided, even dreaded, especially when I was by myself. I was a perfect target, younger, scrawnier and more timid than my classmates. I was the type who would quietly “take it”, wise enough to know fighting back wouldn’t turn out so well and dim enough to only think of a decent retort hours later. I did get into a physical fight once in sixth grade and, gasp, “won”...if anyone really wins when a dispute comes to blows. I felt shame after the scrap. It was a completely out of character. I could not watch animals catch prey on Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom”. I turned away from boxing bouts, even if a Canadian was in contention for an Olympic medal. Pacifism trumped patriotism. Crime shows gave me nightmares. I even took detours in our living room to distance myself from my father’s display of antique rifles.

As a person trying to figure out my sexual identity, the years from twelve to twenty-four were the worst. I didn’t have to face one bully or a clear succession of bullies. Instead, I dealt with a culturally condoned mindset of hating gays. It seemed to be everywhere. In my high school in Texas, “fag” was the more common putdown than today’s automatic “gay” utterance. Common sense told me that the word was tossed around regularly, but anytime the slur hit me, I reddened and wanted to quit school, even quit life. “Fag?” Who me? No, it can’t be. I go to church. I hold doors open. How could I be a societal pariah?!

I couldn’t talk to my parents about the “fag” taunts. It’s okay when it’s not true, but as much as I tried to deny my feelings, I knew the word might have some validity. Fred was hotter than Daphne on “Scooby Doo”. I lingered too long on the wrong underwear ads. I marveled at Peter Frampton’s hair, not Farrah’s. Faggot. What if this hateful, belittling word truly defined me? How could I open up to my parents about something I hadn’t figured out myself? How could I tell them about something that made me feel such shame? I couldn’t talk to a counsellor or teacher. Compassion? Hell, no. Ninety percent of the town was Baptist. Church and Republican leaders made it clear: To be gay was to be a product of the devil.

I NEVER heard an adult address the constant “fag” remarks. I hypothesized that adults sanctioned the taunt as part of a survival of the fittest process. Let the real fags die out. Gays were the modern witches,...that was how I identified with Hester Prynne in our class novel, The Scarlet Letter.



Instead of fighting others, I fought with myself. How could I like boys? The inner conflict continued into university. I wrote suicide notes and dramatically held handfuls of pills in the palm of my shaky hand. I latched onto the common hypothesis that homosexuals were the product of domineering mothers and absent father figures. It was true! My father had played little part in my growing up, after all. I tried to cure myself, thinking a strong male best friend would satisfy the need to connect with a guy and quell the sexual urges. I put unrealistic expectations on my guy friends. They constantly let me down. I blamed them.

If they were better friends, the urge would go away.

I battled anorexia during my sophomore year of university. Everything seemed beyond my control and I found satisfaction in having power over my body. The routine was simple: diet sodas as meal replacements all day and then a big meal around four in the afternoon. Already thin, I lost fifty pounds in three months. Still, I viewed the wrinkles on my shirt as tufts of lard. I felt fat. No matter how much weight I lost, the plan stayed the same: Just five more pounds…

My friends held an intervention. Despite the fact I still failed the Special K Pinch (Kellogg’s should have been sued for this outrageous pitch), they insisted my face was gaunt. “You look sick,” they insisted. “You look awful.” And, as always, the external judgment hit me hard. I twisted “awful” into “ugly”.

I could very well have killed myself twenty-five years ago during one of those nights when I sat and wept on the bathroom floor. Stabbing, shooting, jumping from high places all presented too violent scenarios. Being a lifelong wuss saved me. I’d never be able to pull off an overdose. I’d mess up and then go through stomach-pumping torture in a hospital. Maybe they’d hook me up to tubes and jab me with needles. Maybe there would be an obstruction and they’d cut me open. Thankfully, I feared all things medical.

Somehow I made it through. The best decision I made was moving from Texas to California to soften the stifling religious judgment. While I survived, I have battled with my body image for four decades. Calories and fat weigh on my mind during every meal, every snack. I am currently trim, having implemented a six-day a week workout regimen over the summer. I have a four-pack in the abdominal area, a six-pack on particularly good mornings. My ribs show. And yet I still can pinch more than an inch from my sides. Damn Special K.

Over time, I turned self-hate into self-deprecation. I mock myself before anyone has a chance. There was once an edge to it, but now it’s pure humor. I think the comments even when there isn’t an audience. I react with a smile, even a chuckle. What once scratched off old scabs now serves as a reminder to not take myself so seriously.

I don’t wallow in my past, but the impact shaped who I am. There is greater acceptance in areas where I choose to live. Some instances of intolerance are harder to identify as overt homophobia has gone underground. I remain guarded during any interaction with any seemingly straight male. My voice and my gestures may instantly expose my gayness. I’m fine with it, but is he? Yes, there is a fear of the unknown. That fear exists on both sides of a fence that still divides. That fence may be lower than I perceive it to be. Like it or not, my past experiences help define my present outlook.

NEXT UP: UNDERSTANDING THE MINDSET OF A GAY TEEN