Sunday, August 25, 2013

I’LL HAVE WHAT HE’S HAVING

Okay, I’ll say it. Envy is a very bad thing.

But sometimes it just happens. Like when a writer acquaintance I know gets his screenplay produced and directed by Tom Ford. Or when my neighbor’s sunflowers take on Jack and the Beanstalk qualities while mine whither and die in a matter of days. Or when my friend’s pup stops barking with just one look and my manic schnauzer barks on and on at an ominous lamp, all my Dog Whisperer viewing for naught.

Again, envy is bad. Especially for grass-is-always-greener Eeyores like me. I do best putting my head down and blocking out others’ successes, plugging away to achieve my own dreams, hoping that work and a little luck will create my next big break (and crossing my fingers that the new double-paned windows keep the dog’s barking at bay).

Still, there are times when the blinders don’t work and I am blindsided. It happened as I headed to Whistler this week for a work retreat.

There are people who grumble about work retreats. I used to. That changed as I came to view my annual August trip to Whistler as a chance to shop, jog new trails and connect with colleagues in a casual way, chatting for five-minute stretches before work topics creep in. And then there’s the eating. I have a favorite veggie burger stop in Whistler Village. When I lived in Vancouver, I occasionally drove up just for lunch, craving the burger and the sadly-no-longer-on-the-menu crunchy salad. (Guess I didn’t drive up enough.)

Last year I discovered Purebread, a bakery that hooked me with buckwheat sour cherry chocolate scones. I aspire to try everything on the menu and I have made good progress in this regard on return visits. Chitchats and scenic jogs are lovely, but the trek to Whistler is now all about baked goods. Being as I am obsessed about my weight, I prep for Purebread, extending my workouts in the weeks leading up to the trip and I accept the fact that I will have to fit in more intense cardio when the feasting frenzy ends.

It’s well worth it.

An hour away, my mouth began salivating uncontrollably. They say dog owners start to look like their dogs; it’s rather frightful when we start to act like them. I refrained from barking, instead playing a monosyllabic chant in my head: scone, scone, scone. I suppose I lapsed into some meditative state: absolutely nothing was on my mind but pastries and strong coffee. I’ll take scone silence over yoga or some other zen journey any day.

The line was out the door as I pulled up. Naturally. Since people blocked my view of the treats, I had no choice but to notice the people. Ten of them stood between me and sweet satisfaction. At the register, a couple of cyclists with their backs to me paid for an assortment of treats. From behind, one caught my eye. Very attractive as far as all things from a rear view go. The first cyclist—the one I didn’t pay much attention to—passed as I continued to enjoy the sights while stuck in the line.

Then, the second cyclist turned around. The front was better than the back, a Scottish/Irish complexion with piercing blue eyes. This summer, I have worked on establishing eye contact, maintaining cruise control instead of reflexively checking my shoelaces. I stared straight into his baby blues as he looked into my deep greens. He stopped right in front of me.

A rush a fear swept through me. Was he going to punch me in the gut? Spit on me? Call me a faggot? (Why do I always go to the negative?!)

“Hey!” he said.

And that’s when I realized I was cruising my family doctor.

I quickly snapped out of lust mode. We carried on an extended conversation. He pointed out his partner, the other cyclist, but didn’t introduce me. He’d clearly forgotten my name. Understandable. I have one doctor, he has hundreds of patients. Still, it was a wee bit heartbreaking.

It’s such a cliché, but I’ve had a crush on my doctor since my first visit eighteen years ago. I’d silently noticed each time he wore new glass frames and continued to feel tummy flutters even as his closely trimmed curls receded through the years. This is a man who makes freckles sexy.

Back in his office, I’d thrown imaginary darts at his partner in the prominently displayed photo of the happy couple in Prague. I felt a pang of remorse now, seeing the pleasant soul clear a little table for himself and my Doctor McDreamy.

The good doctor and his mate had biked to the bakery from their weekend haven seventeen kilometers outside of Whistler. This was a simple little excursion after which they would bike back.

How lovely.

For them anyway. I wanted to tell the partner that he had stolen my life. I was supposed to be the one with a socially conscious professional as a cycling partner and a world traveling companion. Yes, Good Doc is part of Physicians without Borders, volunteering time in Africa and Haiti. Yes, the pair holiday in Tuscany, Greece and other places as a couple and as part of a larger group of successful gay professionals. Lovely, lovely, lovely.

Here I’d harbored a long-term crush and he only knew me as Hey. Some of us keep living the humiliations of high school.

I returned to my car, scone and coffee cup in hand, patted my dear little dog and drove onward to the hotel. The urgency to devour my scone was gone. I took a bite while stopped at a light. Satisfactory, yet not sensational.

Envy leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

THE SWIMSUIT ISSUE

My first choice for exercise is swimming. While my form isn’t great and my flip turn is laughable, it is an easy way for me to complete a decent 3-5 K workout.

But there are patches of time when swimming is not an option. As a gay man with lifelong body image issues, I have to be in the right frame of mind to get in the pool. Well, right frame of body, to be more precise. As everyone knows, the Speedo covers little. Any roll or ripple of flab is in full view. With its clinging waistline, gut imperfections are especially accentuated.

Even in the best of times, I am not one to saunter about the pool deck in that itsy bitsy teeny weeny garment that is first cousins with the thong. Before I can even begin thinking of my workout, all my energy is channeled in getting from changing room to pool as quickly as possible. Must submerge. Stat. I make a dash but those darn lifeguards insist on “No running”. Even a moderate speed walk warrants reproach. Indeed, lifeguards are merciless. I presume this is some for of sicko entertainment for them as this sit poolside, clad in an oversized red t-shirt and sensible shorts. Walk, you fleshy sad-sacks.

This is the true walk of shame.

If I waited to be fully flab-free, I would never swim. And without swimming, the flab would just grow. For me, no other exercise tones and trims as well. So, when the weight congregates a little too much at the belly, I desperately try to diet and do other workouts until I reach a bearable/bare-able state.

In most public pools, my angst is needless. Length swimming times are frequented by seniors who enjoy the side stroke and a dip in the hot tub. It doesn’t dawn on the men to suck in their gut. They flirt shamelessly with the female lifeguards and talk at length about the weather while standing poolside. In a way, I’m in awe of them.

It takes for guts to bare my gut when I am in a gay-freqented zone—Vancouver’s Aquacentre in the West End, for example. (I only dared swim there a couple of times before switching to the pool in the Kerrisdale area, a senior citizen haven.)

The stakes are exponentially higher when swimming in West Hollywood. During my WeHo visit, my natural inclination was to forgo swimming altogether or to drive an hour into the San Fernando Valley to find a pool primarily populated with octogenarians. But I told myself that, on this trip, I would immerse myself in West Hollywood. That meant I would swim in the old outdoor pool smack in the middle of West Hollywood Park.

Getting in the pool wasn’t so bad. I made sure I arrived a few minutes before the length swim time. That way I could get changed and slip into the pool with relatively few witnesses. The real issue came when the hour ended. An adult triathlon team workout followed the lap swim. These men gathered around the end of the pool where I had to make my exit. They stretched and chatted freely, waiting for the pool to clear. They became a human obstacle course that I desperately tried to race through as one arm covered what it could of my stomach. Every single one of these men could stand about in a Speedo with total pride. Every one of them had that V-cut just above the waistline.

Two dozen perfect specimens. My worst nightmare.

For four weeks I went regularly to that pool. I never cut my workout in an attempt to avoid the walk of shame. I would never see these people again. And, clearly, I needed the pool time more than they did. Still, every time I finished showering and drying off, I felt so relieved to get a shirt back on—a merciful shield from total vulnerability.

I am off to Whistler for a conference and I will swim three mornings at the fitness center. I still have five pounds I’d like to shed before squeezing back into my Speedo, but I’ll deal with it. This summer, I’ve had extra training.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

INAPPROPRIATE POKING

Ever since my mother friended me on Facebook I’ve stopped posting. Yep, even though we live in different countries, she still has too much control over my social life.

I’m a Facebook voyeur now. I check out the awesome art that Cassie, my former roommate when I lived in Dallas, is now working on in New Mexico. I find out every notable achievement of friends’ children in Ohio and Florida—aced a spelling test (woo hoo!); made his own grilled cheese (that explains the fireman photo); went a whole week without wetting the bed (apparently there are other mothers who fail to grasp boundaries).

I keep my Facebook “friends” to a minimum, believing that, even in the virtual world, the word has meaning. Yes, there are many people I know whom I don’t confirm as friends. If you could Acquaintance someone on Facebook, I might welcome them. But then again, how many photos of unknown families do I need to see posing awkwardly in front of Brooklyn’s Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant? (The tour got 4.5 stars on Yelp, a compelling reason to question why people rely on online reviews of any sort.)

Last week, I found a different function for Facebook. I used it as a dating tool.

It started when I showed up for the Wednesday night Frontrunners run along the beach in Santa Monica. For the most part, it was the same crew as the previous two weeks, but one regular, Nicholas, suddenly caught my eye. New haircut, I think. I was more than attracted; I was smitten.

That’s the way things work with me. I can recognize attractive men, but most do not do a thing for me. “James always had high standards,” my friend Benny informed his husband as we met for drinks last week. “And he never lowered them.” Sounds like a compliment, but it stung. How much of being single is my own doing?

That is why swooning over Nicholas caught me off guard so much. As we began the run, he took the lead, going solo. My running partner, Josh, and I followed. It is shallow to objectify a man, but as part of a first impression, I was quite happy to ogle the back of his 6’2” frame. The man was clearly in good shape but not in the overly buff West Hollywood way. To me, that’s a very good thing.

Josh started to pick up the pace and I told him to go on. He caught up to Nicholas while I trailed. Sure, it would have been nice to chat with Eye Candy, but the sea breeze had gotten into my nasal passage and, well, things weren’t looking pretty. If I’ve learned anything, it’s never try to woo a man while you have snot smeared all over your face. Call it a hunch.

I ducked into a public washroom to clean up before joining Josh and Nicholas back at the starting point. I figured we had about fifteen minutes to chat before everyone else got back. Naturally, I leaned over the railing and stared at the gorgeous ocean view. Breathtaking scenes of nature are so much easier to behold.

This is what I always do. When I am extremely attracted to a man, I cannot speak. High Standards/Extreme Pickiness + Non-Communication = Chronic Single Status. I know this, I know it’s a guaranteed losing tactic. Still, it’s what I do.

But there was an urgency to the situation. I had two weeks left in L.A. What if this trip was about Finding Nicholas? Isn’t this why I’ve sat through so many romantic comedies? Maybe this was my Meg Moment!

And so I took one more look at the sailboats on the ocean before turning around and facing destiny. Or instant rejection. I don’t know how I did it, but I initiated a conversation. And I am certain I was completely coherent. I am confident I didn’t say anything stupid.

Turns out Nicholas doesn’t live in Los Angeles. He lives out in Palmdale, a good distance from the city. He travels in on Wednesday nights to foster some semblance of a social life. I related immediately. And from my observations, he is about as socially (un)savvy. He drives an hour and a half to join the running group, runs solo for the most part and then passes on dinner due to the long drive home. Sometimes you can’t make lemonade. Sometimes lemons are just lemons.

Like me, he grew up in Texas. He went to high school in the same city where I went to university. He too avoids returning to Texas. I didn’t need to ask why. Like me, he is entertained at home by his dog and he is a professional, an aerospace engineer in fact. (Take that, all you Los Angeles models/actors/waiters!)

Our conversation wound down as the group rejoined us and I headed for dinner while he headed for his home far, far away. Whatever the term is for “beyond smitten”, that’s what I was. (Űber smitten?) Was it mutual? Well, he certainly did not send any overt signals. He seemed reserved, socially awkward. But then again, he could simply have been disinterested.

That night I went on Facebook. I recalled he had been at a Hollywood Bowl event, the campy, entertaining Brooke Shields-directed performance of “Chicago” that I’d been invited to by another Frontrunner whose friendship I’d accepted on FB. (This trip is all about going beyond my comfort zone.)

Sure enough, I found Nicholas, tagged in some of the Hollywood Bowl photos our mutual friend posted. And that led me straight to Nicholas’ home page.

Stalking is so simple.

It is also fascinatingly creepy. I learned that his birthday was the next day and I calculated that he was three years younger than me. Our musical tastes differed, but I was undeterred. He’d posted several adorable shots of his dog and, yes, of himself. Triathlons, marathons, a dedication to fitness that I found enticing. Of course, if he’d posted pictures posing with his porcelain doll collection, I’d have still found it endearing. Love is blind. So is infatuation.

Gawking was not enough. I messaged him, apologizing for the apparent stalking and asking if he wanted to meet for dinner.

And then I waited.

According to my FB message board, he’d read my note at 4:25 the next morning. His birthday. Well, of course he’d be too busy on that special day to reply.

I waited more. What else could I do?

But then there comes a point when even the most optimistic/desperate person realizes the waiting is over.

Before going to Frontrunners this week, I bought a new jogging outfit. Not for him, for me. Well, mostly for me. At least 60% for me. I’d considered not showing up, but I needed to be a big boy and smile on. I needed the new outfit to look my best, to feel confident.

By the time I arrived, everyone was already gathered in a circle for pre-run announcements. I squeezed in, smile glued to my face, and slowly dared to make an eye tour of the group.

No Nicholas.

When you live an hour and a half away and you are a freakin’ aerospace engineer, there are umpteen reasons why you might not make it for the weekly run. Still, I felt awful, not about the rejection—I’ve been getting plenty of that in writing and in dating—but about the possibility that I had interfered with Nicholas’ main social outlet of the week. I had intruded on Facebook and kept him away. All temporary, of course, with my imminent return to Vancouver, but still, a highly unwelcome poke. Yes, I still retain some of that junior high brain whereby other people’s actions are entirely based on me.

Sorry, Nicholas. As indirect as I may have been, there wasn’t time to let things play out naturally. The internet provides us a false space. If people can have 900 friends on Facebook, why can’t they hope for more?

Alas. Wasn’t meant to be.

Regrets? No. I tried as best I could under the circumstances. On Wednesday, I’ll arrive home and, with luck, I will fit in a run along the deserted road that leads to the pulp mill. At roughly the same time, Nicholas will venture back in Santa Monica, getting his social fix, running alone on the beach. Parallel lives, a thousand miles apart.

I think I’ll steer clear of Facebook for awhile. No big loss. I don’t need to know what my mom cooked my dad for dinner. I don’t need to see the jumbo binder somebody bought her kid for the new school year. And I don’t need to get any more crazy ideas about finding a shortcut to love.

Friday, August 9, 2013

IF THE SHOE FITS

A friend of mine once pointed out the inconsistency in my vegetarianism and the fact I was wearing a pricey pair of leather shoes. I ignored this point for awhile. One man can only do so much, right? Wrong. Eventually, I gave up all things leather—watchbands, belts, shoes.

That friend and I are no longer speaking.

I have ordered shoes online for years now. The selection is dreary. The joy of a great shoe find is gone. And so when I ventured into the Nike Running store at The Grove in L.A. to buy a new jogging outfit, my eyes drifted toward the shoe section. I looked away, but then returned to blatant, lustful ogling. I eyed one pair, knowing it would go perfectly with a lot of my gym gear. I touched it. I picked it up. I could not detect any trace of leather, suede or whatever other cow residue goes into footwear.

I had to ask. Sure enough, all synthetic mesh stuff. No. Animal. Product.

I asked the employee if she had it in a size ten. “Uh, I just work the register.” Yes, in my urgent need to know, I had taken the shoe far from the shoe section, too impatient to wait for someone to reappear from the back.

I returned to the designated area and dutifully sat as a high maintenance woman questioned Shoe Guy. In retrospect, she probably wasn’t high maintenance at all. But she stood between me and shoe freedom.

When I finally had Shoe Guy’s attention, I blurted, “Do you have this in a 10?”

His response startled me. “Let me give you the gay test so I can make sure you’ve got the right shoe.”

A flurry of thoughts converged in my brain within the next split second. Is this allowed? Can they discriminate based on sexual orientation? California just got gay marriage back. Is shoe equality still on the agenda? Is my desired shoe too masculine? Am I not masculine enough?

“It just takes a few moments. Step on the treadmill.”

I remained speechless, the thoughts still racing. What business is it for him if I walk a certain way:? I’ve been wearing shoes for most of my forty-eight years and worked through my blister moments just fine. Didn’t I pass the gay test years ago?

Detecting my resistance, Shoe Guy said, “Let’s measure your foot first.”

“I’m a 10.” The shoe department is the only place in the world I’m allowed to say that. He insisted on measuring. Suddenly, my perfect number was in doubt.

10. Yep, still got it.

Again, I held up my shoe. Still, he doubted me. “The gay test is the best way to make sure you get the right shoe.”

I could no longer hide my frown or my exasperation. “I just want to try this on. I’m a 10.” As we’d clearly established. The shoe area was drawing a crowd of back-to-school shoppers so Shoe Guy stopped his invasive quest. The shoes fit, I paid and I left, my great shoe discovery slightly tainted by the odd ordeal I underwent.

It was only as I paid for my parking that I realized there had been a simple miscommunication. Gay test. Gait test.

I
felt like Emily Litella, that classic Gilda Radner character who got all rattled about a push for Violence in Schools when the issue was actually Violins in Schools and questioned the fairness of the deaf penalty when talk had been about the death penalty. What’s all this fuss about a gay test just to buy a pair of shoes. It’s terrible. Haven’t gay people had enough discrimination? ... Gait test?! Oh, that’s different. Never mind.

What I really need is a hearing test.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

CASTE-ING CALL

To my left sits a man, a few years older than me, with premature lines on his face, a likely side effect of a life in the sun. Some would immediately dismiss him. Not me. He is striking. Not once does he look my way. He’s in charge of the dismissal. Why? Pick a flaw.

An absolutely gorgeous tall man in a perfectly form fitting t-shirt approaches with his dog. I smile as our dogs eye one another. The stud (human version) doesn’t break his stoic facial expression and he doesn’t dare let the dogs have a sniff. He goes in, comes out with his oatmeal and coffee, pulls up a seat and turns his back to me. Ouch.

It feels like the old gay bar rejections but this is 8 a.m. and I’m trying to concentrate on kickstarting my writing for the day. There just happen to be a few menacing distractions. Maybe the Starbucks at Santa Monica Boulevard and Robertson is not the right venue. Sometimes being smack in the middle of West Hollywood is the worst place for a gay man to be.

So now I am sandwiched between two beautiful men, feeling like the subject of a No Contact clause.

Two women walk by and tell T-shirt Guy, “Your dog is so cute!” I can see the side of his face. He says nothing and again fails to register a facial expression.

So it’s nothing personal. He’s a de facto mannequin. But I still feel it.

I’d forgotten this part of L.A. The attitude. The you’re-not-worth-a-split-second-of-my-time crowd. They plant themselves at all places hip or even quasi-hip. Their mission is to make the rest of us feel bad, to chip away at our egos, to remind us that, even though we ran 12K last night and are chipping away at that muffin top above the waistline, we’ll never ever be worth even the faintest smile.

And, not that I have the looks to begin with, but my goofy grin is the dead giveaway that I am not one of them. “You’re always smiling.” I used to hear the comment all the time when I lived in L.A. I couldn’t help it. I was under the mistaken belief that one should express happiness, an unfortunate brainwashing brought on by too many listenings of that Bobby McFerrin ditty that every loved for all of five minutes before loathing it became the only acceptable response. (Despite my pessimism (realism?) over dating, I’m just a happy guy. I still like this song and this one too.)

For many Hollywood wannabes, I’ll assume that smiling is a wrinkle hazard, an early call to a lifetime of Botox dependency. Maybe I never even smiled that much. Two, three times a day? That would be enough to stand out. I was hopelessly attitude free.

I am well aware that the WeHo attitude masters are models/actors who primarily work as caterers. I know the Better than You vibe is hollow, but in a shallow town, it cuts deep.

That’s why I never ventured into the core of West Hollywood alone. I never knew how to respond to the silent but potent attitude smackdown:  that catwalk strut, eyes focused forward, never making eye contact with any animate object; that cluster of forever-junior high girls (posing as grown men), congregating in closer circles and talking loudly, punctuating every utterance with laughter to show EVERYONE how much fun they are having.

I’ve studied some of The Attitude Brood in the last few days. After twenty years, their walk has not changed. I wonder if someone takes the pretty newbies under their wing to give them pointers or maybe it’s a genetic thing, a more distinguished hypothalamus than my own. How much effort does it take to suppress a smile, to never blink? I wonder if they’re all playing that parlor game where, if someone blinks at you you’re dead. Why is it that the players seem like the dead ones?

The danger, of course, is how easy it is to let WeHo attitude influence my own interactions—and non-interactions. It’s all part of the pecking order. No one has ever mistaken me for a model/actor/caterer, but, in the WeHo caste system, there are still others “beneath” me. For now, there are still gay men who are older than me who have the gall to embrace their middle-aged bellies. There are others who have failed to learn the art of manscaping, letting thick tufts of hair sprout unchecked from ears and backs. And there are those who abhor clothes shopping and delude themselves into thinking that wearing a poncho-like Packers jersey in the off season is a fashion statement about one’s masculinity. I’ve caught myself falling into that Look Away strut. Yes, for now I self-correct. But that’s only because I’m still in my second week here. What will I become by the time the month’s stay ends? And what if U.S. Immigration dusts off my papers and allows me to move back here permanently? Will I turn on "RuPaul’s Drag Race" and fail to see the spectacle in it? Will I remove “Walking on Sunshine” from my iPod? Pathological fear of needles notwithstanding, will I add my Botox administrators to my Christmas card list?

I suppose being aware of what is not real in West Hollywood keeps me from succumbing. As soon as I say, “What attitude?”, I’m a goner. Still, I need to take precautionary measures. Before I head out for coffee tomorrow morning, I shall force myself to stand in the mirror for five minutes, blinking and smiling. (Work those wrinkles!) I shall say hello to strangers with dogs. And, just to be perfectly safe, I shall walk to another Starbucks.