Monday, December 28, 2015

BEYOND "FRIENDS"

My first reaction: I hate Facebook.

It is responsible for a culture that waters down the term Friend. How does someone have 842 Friends? Or 216? Or 167?

I have gone out of my way to limit who I invite or accept as a Friend on this beast. I have resisted the temptation to “recruit” more so drive up my Likes for my goofy and scenic photos. Whenever something I post has more than ten Likes, it’s a monster hit.

My world is small. And, sadly, through Facebook, I learned that it just became smaller.

Dear, sweet Cory has died.

I opened Facebook this morning, delaying the start to my writing, expecting to see photos from the weird weather my family and friends are experiencing in Texas. I got the update. Massive tumbleweeds blowing across highways, shared news links of tornado devastation, shots of the snow dump in the Panhandle. I also expected to see belated Christmas and Boxing Day posts of people in dreadful sweaters and poor dogs looking sheepish sporting felt reindeer antlers. Ho ho hum.

But then the shocker: “RIP my brother Cory.”

Please, no.

Another post and another. I felt a surge of pain, deep sorrow and regret. Truth is, I’d been a terrible Friend.

For years, I Googled Cory and followed his career from afar. Only a couple of years ago did I finally invite him as a Facebook Friend. He accepted and that was that. No personal messages. His posts rarely included him in the photos but I always looked, always read, always smiled. Dear, sweet Cory.

I met Cory in 1991 at a weekend training session for volunteers who wanted to be part of the Buddy Program at AIDS Project Los Angeles. Cory was going through the two-weekend training with his then-partner. At the time, I was a Pepperdine law student, looking for something more meaningful than the contrived stresses that came from studying and discussing already-adjudicated legal cases on a pristine Malibu campus. I often escaped with my textbooks to El Matador State Beach, a less frequented slice of heaven north of the popular Zuma Beach. Increasingly on weekends, I found myself driving from the Pacific Palisades along the winding Sunset Boulevard into West Hollywood, doing “laps” in gay bars, rarely getting noticed. Life was all fluff and yet I could see how AIDS was destroying so many men around me. I needed APLA more than the Buddy Program ever needed me.

After the training ended, the volunteers were split into two ongoing groups which were required to meet monthly with a facilitator. I was part of the West Side group. Cory was too. There were about fifteen of us in all. Eventually, our facilitator introduced me to a new Buddy Program coordinator who became my first love. I was too inexperienced and insecure for it to last. Members volunteered to host the monthly meetings which often included potluck feasts and lasted for hours. Supporting Persons with AIDS was intense and draining. We leaned on each other. We laughed and cried together. We formed a special bond, a motley group of over-our-heads do-gooders, attempting to help the terminally ill navigate the cruelties of AIDS, the agonizing side effects of the drugs of the time and the discrimination and dissociation from agencies and families.

Somewhere around the time when my first love crashed and burned, Cory and his partner broke up. There was always special between Cory and me. I was in awe of him. He was a gentle, loving soul with a master’s from Harvard, working as a top executive position in an entertainment network. In time, a small group from our group met more often socially. The hugs and warmth were something I’d never experienced. I knew that Cory liked me and I desperately wanted to like him in the same way. He invited me out to dinner, just the two of us without the others. I called another group member, fretting over whether it was a date, hoping it wasn’t. I didn’t want what we had to change.

As he drove me home and pulled up to my Palisades apartment, Cory leaned in and kissed me. I pulled back and awkwardly retreated to my place. I cried. I wanted so much to want him. And yet I knew it could never be. Cory would do everything to take care of me. I knew I would too easily let that happen and I still had too much growing to do. On my own.

Cory has always been the one I wish I could have loved. The shallow me of the time concluded I just wasn’t attracted to him. In reality, I knew I was not good enough.

I last saw Cory in November 1994. I took him to lunch the week before I left my L.A. dreams and moved to Vancouver. As so many people who find their way to Southern California, I had Hollywood dreams. Writer. Programmer. Agent. Cory had met with me on a few occasions as I talked excitedly about insights that I’m sure came off as naïve. He always acknowledged my ideas and offered encouragement. If you want it, you can have it. Even during that last lunch, the invitation was still there. He would be there in whatever capacity. As a mentor, a booster, a friend.

For so long, I liked to say I lived with no regrets. Regrets are rueful steps backward. Missteps are part of the journey. Keep moving forward. In time, I allowed myself to admit that leaving L.A. was a mistake. That last lunch with Cory provided one last opening that I walked away from.

Maybe things were better in the era before the internet and social media. I'd have always wondered about whatever became of Cory, the fond memories continuing to mix with the rueful what-ifs. I certainly wouldn't have to face this day of aching and further regret. How I should've reached out. Could've. Would've. Facebook continues to give us an open window to Friends who may best be left in those nostalgic chambers of the brain.

Aside from the Facebook invitation, I never contacted Cory again. He was too good, too important. He was an infinitely better man. Two months ago, his students at the university where he came to work as a professor started posting “Thinking of you” messages. I Googled and found a posting on the university website, indicating Cory was taking a medical leave of absence. I wanted to know more. I wanted to send Cory my love and support. But I didn’t. We were Facebook Friends based on a last contact from two decades ago. I didn’t want to insert myself at a time when he needed to focus on the love of those closest to him as he fought whatever the health issues were. More messages of support popped up over the past two months and each time I searched the internet for information. I wanted to know, but I knew not to insert myself in a clearly difficult time.

And now he is gone. The Facebook posts of love and memories continue to pour in.  “Numb.” “Devastated.” “Heartbroken.” Every post provides anecdotes of Cory’s love, laughter and unwavering support. Perhaps this is one of those rare individuals who can never have too many Friends. He was that giving. What was he…55, 56? Too soon, for sure. And yet I was too late.

Dear, sweet Cory. I miss you so.

     

Thursday, December 24, 2015

'RUDOLPH" REDUX

I make sure I watch my favorite TV show in the whole wide world at least once a year. Being as it's "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer", it makes sense to view it now rather than in July. But that doesn't mean it's off my mind in summer. Of course not. I'm not kidding about that Favorite-Show-In-The-Whole-Wide-World designation. (For the record, the runners up are "The Brady Bunch" episode where "something suddenly came up" after Marcia takes a football to the nose, the "Newhart" finale, the "Friends" show where Joey explains what is a "moo point" and the "Seinfeld"—oh, there are so many worthy candidates!—where Elaine hates on "The English Patient".)

I’ve extolled the virtues of my FSITWWW previously and it’s one of my most-read blog posts. (Interestingly, no one has ever left a comment. Perhaps I’ve disturbed my readers.) I’ve decided to add another post after one of the guys I’m dating made some disparaging comments about the show.

What?! Did I just write “one of the guys I’m dating”? As in more than one living and breathing man? Yes. The total is two. And there is a third date in the works with each of them. This would be the time for me to run out and buy a lottery ticket, too.

And a second What?! I’m still dating a guy who spoke negatively of my FSITWWW? Yes. Even with another man on deck, I know how rare encore dates are for me. Clearly, I’m cutting him a great deal of slack.

To be honest, his comments were on point. He is, after all,--oh, what’s the sophisticated term?—a smartypants. Ph.D and all that.

And let’s go on one more tangent, shall we? No, I did not bring up my FSITWWW. Not directly. We were simply sitting in the movie theatre, waiting for the onslaught of advertising to cease before seeing the achingly wonderful “Carol”, when I asked, “Do you have a favorite Christmas movie or TV show?”

“Interesting question,” he said while pensively scratching his chin as smartypants are prone to doing. “Well, not ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and not ‘Miracle on 34th Street’. Those Claymation TV shows are interesting…”

Ooh, I tried not to squirm in my seat.

“…Like Rudolph—”

Yes!

“—although it’s so American.”

Saying something is so American is an easy way for a Canadian to toss out a putdown. As in Having a gun in every drawer of your house is so American or Treating the Kardashians as royalty is so American. (Never mind that we’re the country that gave the world Alan Thicke, Pamela Anderson and Justin Bieber. Sorry, sorry and Sorry. I have to admit the Biebs has some catchy tunes out now.)

But smartypants explained himself. “It’s the way the characters talk.” Uh,…okay. I just nodded. His Ph.D is in linguistics, after all. “And it’s all so heterosexist.”

I could not let that go with a nod. I piped up, “Sure Santa is. His chosen reindeer have to be of a certain caliber. And the adult bucks, Donner and Comet, are both intolerant of Rudolph. Furthermore, Donner refuses Mrs. Donner’s offer to help search for the runaway Rudolph with a curt, ‘No. This is man’s work.’”

If I’d had my wits about me, I would have paraphrased instead of offering the exact quote. There is such a thing as Too Much Information on a second date. And then I went on to explain how Santa and the adult male reindeer are subordinate characters, foils even, along with those you-can’t-join-in-any-reindeer-games young ’uns.

“Rudolph” is about the acceptance and triumph of the odd ducks. It’s that classic theme about being special just the way you are. Rudolph. Hermey. Yukon Cornelius. The Jack-in-the-box named Charlie. Even the woefully misunderstood and nightmare-inducing Abominable Snow Monster. (Well, he caused me many a bad sleep.)

The one character that confuses me is Burl Ives’ Sam the Snowman, a solitary figure, a dapper gent—a mature bachelor!—with a well-groomed mustache and goatee and a snazzy plaid vest that sports a chain from which dangles a stylish pocket watch. I had him pegged for gay, but maybe he’s still more closeted than the younger generation of misfits. Sam isn’t very sympathetic of Hermey the Elf and his aspirations of being a dentist. Hermey is ridiculed by the other elves and quits. Sam dismissively says, “Ah, well, such is the life of an elf.”

Donner may be the worst. From the beginning, he is insistent that his son Rudolph will be a normal reindeer, immediately deciding to hide the illicit red nose. Even Sam the Snowman refers to the Donners hiding “Rudolph’s, um…nonconformity.” If Donner is intolerant, Santa isn’t much better. Truth is, Santa comes off badly in the production. The elves seem to irritate him with their singing. When Rudolph outshines the other young bucks, flying through the air, Rudolph’s talent becomes irrelevant when his red nose is exposed. This glaring difference is unacceptable. Santa’s intolerance is clear when he admonishes Rudolph’s father: “Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself. What a pity. He had a nice takeoff, too.”

And, after my command viewing this year, the heterosexism is more evident. (I was always more drawn to all the misfits.) Why, it’s Comet, the adult buck, who takes the lead in excluding Rudolph! “From now on, gang,” he tells the young bucks, “we won’t let Rudolph join in any reindeer games.” And then there’s Sam’s flippant response as narrator after it seems that Yukon (and his dogs which never even get a mention) died going over a cliff: “Well, they are all very sad at the loss of their friend, but they realize that the best thing to do is to get the women back to Christmas Town.” Ugh. Yes, my smartypants date has reason for reticence over “Rudolph”.

1964. The show is a reflection of its time. (I love that it premiered the year I was born!) It’s not that Donner, Comet and Santa are admirable. They represent straight men from fifty-one years ago. Considering the times, it’s even more glorious that Rudolph, Hermey and Yukon stand out. They are special, even as regarded as misfits. These are the characters that outshine the all-too-conventional others. Their “nonconformities” are what help to save Christmas. And again, in an era before all that “It gets better”, gay marriage and magazine covers with Ellen and Caitlyn, these stop-motion misfits helped me through many of my darkest days, whenever they came in the year.

Favorite show, indeed!

Monday, December 21, 2015

FOOL ME TWICE...

Okay, so two months ago I mentioned a guy named Clive. Again. Back from the dead. We’d had a first date at a local Starbucks two years ago, ending in the best hug I’ve ever experienced followed by…nothing. Clive dropped the ball. Lesson learned. Not all promising beginnings go somewhere. And so I continued to drink coffee with strangers, most of the time feeling like I was going through the motions. Lots of smiling, lots of pleasant enough chitchat, a cordial hug and a goodbye. See you never again.

Clive, of course, resurfaced on a hookup website. I’d joined the site at the urging of a couple of friends who couldn’t understand how I’d gone sixteen years without sex. It’s out there for the taking, they said. Standards are overrated.

So, yes, Clive and I hooked up. Once. Twice. Neither occasion was the mindless wham-bam I’d imagined. I was determined to keep things light but Clive went beyond. He showed up when I went to Emergency for a minor mishap. Took me to dinner. Shared a long story about his readiness for commitment. Cooked a vegetarian dinner for me. Talked of taking me to Palm Springs for Christmas. Insisted I spend the night so he could wake up with me by his side.

And just like that, I could see myself falling for this guy. Again. The chemistry seemed explosive.

But then just like that, Clive performed another vanishing act. I’ve compared him to Carrie Bradshaw’s Mr. Big on “Sex in the City” but that’s not quite right. After all, Carrie gets Mr. Big in the end. Clive is more like Lucy with the football. And, good grief, I’m that gullible Charlie Brown, lured back into the game and falling flat on my face.

We’d had another tentative date set up but, without texting me, he wound up going to a gay bar with a friend. There was no apology the next day. Only this: “Ya kinda felt obligated to go out. Anyhow what are you doing today?” I had plans. And I kept them.  And that was that.

Clive did text again while he was on vacation in Hawaii last month. “Let’s connect up again when I get back!”

And, again, that was that. Nothing.

I’m done with being Charlie Brown and, quite frankly, I always sucked at football. I have no urge to play any more games with Lucy/Clive. That’s a good thing. There are those who tempt us. When it gets to the point that it feels like they’re taunting us, it’s time to walk away. Leave the ball. Take up fencing instead.

So there you go. Sorry I’d left that dangling. It can be hard to admit being played for a fool. I went out for coffee again today. On my own. No helmet required.

   

Saturday, December 12, 2015

REBRANDING THE COFFEE DATE

I suppose it's because I've been doing it so long, this coffee dating thing, that I need to rebrand it. If I keep calling them coffee dates, the time will surely come when I will hate coffee. And I need my coffee. I love my coffee. Coffee cannot--shall not!--symbolize ambivalence, rejection and failure.

So I'm digging back to my days of watching "America's Next Top Model". No, I am not looking in front of a mirror and practicing smizing. And I am not silently sizing up my dates and thinking, "Congratulations. You are still in the running..." Instead, I am likening my dates to that episode in each season of ANTM when the models go on go-sees.


That's what these dates are. I go. I practice my strut into the café. (Really, the only thing I’m thinking is, Don’t slouch. The thought comes in my mother’s voice, not Miss J’s.) I share some of my portfolio. This is me, all happy in the job that I do. And this is me, even happier that I left Texas while my family stayed behind. And here I am, readjusting to beautiful but hard-to-connect Vancouver. I do my best to stay focused, even if lose the link between his monologue about someone named Luke’s flooded basement and the guy across the table from me losing a camera while getting in a gondola on the Grand Canal in Venice. Water! The link is water! (Though I still don’t understand why either monologue needed to be shared. Sometimes I can work through the small stuff; the bigger questions continue to confound.) I correct the frown I’m certain overtook my face. I’m rather certain I’m smiling. I second-guess myself about not practicing that smizing thing. (It’s too aggressive, I remind myself. Stick to the plan: cool and carefree.)

He stands and I realize he must’ve said something about leaving. So I stand, too. We exchange perfectly civil nice-to-meet-yous and then we’re on the sidewalk. He goes one way, I go the other, even if it means a more roundabout route home. Never prolong the dismissal. As I walk home, I’m thinking, “You are no longer in the running. You must immediately pack your bags and leave." This time it’s in Tyra’s voice. I’m just glad there are no cameras to capture the aftermath. I have no reality show rejection tears to shed, but I’m sure the camera would add ten pounds and ten years to my look.

I keep busy the rest of the day, only checking my phone and my emails a few times—a dozen at most—to see if I get a call back. Chances are slim. But it’s okay. There will be another go-see.

Maybe next time I’ll try to smize. Seems I’ve got to do something differently.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

DON'T STARE

"Don't stare." It's what parents tell their kids when caught looking at a woman in a wheelchair, a teen whose walk is impacted by cerebral palsy or a blind man who navigates with a cane. (Not that the blind man would notice but we're quick to correct.)

Children, of course, are naturally curious. Why is that woman in a wheelchair? Why does that boy walk like that? How does that stick help the blind man? Difference draws attention. It always has. As we get older, as we are properly socialized, we look away, we don't intrude with question. We're not necessarily more enlightened. We see through rather than see. In looking away, we eliminate the unnerving gaze but we also take away the opportunity for a smile. Guilt, self-consciousness and persistent training—"I said, 'Don't stare!'"—get in the way of a momentary connection...or something even greater. We settle for tolerance instead of understanding.

I heard my inner voice say, "Don't stare!" as I jogged along the seawall on Sunday. Yes, I suppose I was staring. I'd spotted a difference and I was both curious and awed. Sad that I should have either response. I should know better.

It was a cool day but there were throngs of people walking the seawall. We were experiencing a gap between the rains. And the forecast called for rain for as far as the forecasters dared to reach. I am rather certain I stared at no one else during my seventy-minute jog. I had Carly Rae Jepsen ditties and water views to hold my attention. People merely represented moving pylons I had to dodge.

But this man caught my eye. He hadn't adjusted to the chill. As he walked, he tucked his head into the body of his companion as if to block winds I couldn't detect. His arm locked with his partner's. Oh, yes, you guessed it. The arm of another man.

And I stared.


I'm gay and still I stared.

Just for a fraction of a second. I wasn’t gawking. It was more like, Did I just see that? Because in this day and age, in a country as progressive as Canada, in a city that is even more progressive than the national average, I still thought for a moment that my eyes were playing tricks on me.


Despite all our gains and all the talking about achieving equality, we're not there yet. It remains a sight to behold that two men should walk arm and arm far, far away from any Gay Pride Parade and on the other side of the water from Davie Village and Vancouver's West End. Maybe it was the cold that made them not give a crap over encountering a jogger who stares.

I have seen men hug and kiss thousands of times. At parades. In bars. On dance floors. We are comfortable in the Gay Zones, official and otherwise. Still, while we may be technically equal, we're not as free. Not yet. And so walking arm in arm in a random public space still seems different.

Shouldn't be. Shouldn't trigger a double-take. But it does.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

REMEMBERING

My first thought on World AIDS Day was, Let this not be about Charlie Sheen. The media likes to make things topical and timely. But pop culture needn’t drive such a significant day, a time to reflect on lives lost far too soon. Needlessly. Painfully. All too swiftly.

There was a time when the pop factor mattered. Rock Hudson. Freddie Mercury. Magic Johnson. They helped “normalize” HIV and AIDS by shining a paparazzi-driven spotlight on the crisis. Pedro Zamora educated young people about AIDS, talking openly about his diagnosis on “The Real World” during what I believe was the reality series’ finest season. And for a while, Entertainment Weekly ran “The Faces of AIDS” on an annual basis, showing how the death toll impacted the industry. It was a somber, compelling statement, part tribute, part tragic reminder of the personal and creative toll.

Movies like “Philadelphia” and plays like “Angels in America” provided memorable characters to show the public the struggles that came with AIDS and to provide those of us closer to the crisis another means of grieving. Still, two works continue to impact me to this day as I reflect on the fears and frustration I felt throughout the AIDS crisis: (1) Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On which awakened me to the magnitude of the problem and the infuriating politicking that interfered with sound public policy and research efforts, and (2) “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt”, the Oscar-winning documentary on The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt which achingly told the stories of loved ones lost.

Today, as I stop to think about Stephen and Farrell and Don and Jose and Steve and Greg and others whom I knew who died from AIDS, I wish there were a public initiative for yet another grand-scale unveiling of the AIDS Quilt. Parts of the quilt tour the U.S. during the year and I am not sure that the 48,000 panels can be displayed in one setting. Let it be shown in large sections in public parks and stadiums on this day. The individual panels were meant to be displayed as a collective. While we marvel at medical advances today, people need to be reminded of the scope of the devastation from AIDS and its continuing destruction in parts of the world.

Today is a day to love, to honor and to remember.