Tuesday, April 26, 2016

COVERING UP


Seems I’ve spent too much time hiding what I read.

I remember checking out E.M. Forster’s Maurice from a Dallas library and being relieved that it was one of those old hard covers without any illustration or adornment. Title, author, that’s all. (Maybe that’s where the expression, You can’t judge a book by its cover came from…a time when you, quite literally, couldn’t.)

I wasn’t one to checkout a lot of gay fiction from libraries. Fear? Perhaps. But back then I wasn’t much of a novel reader in the first place. Newspapers, magazines and way too many textbooks provided enough—too much—reading for my liking. I filled much of my free time watching hours and hours of television.  Maybe that proved to be a good thing. If I’d read even a few gay novels, I might have concluded that, once out, my social circle would consist of gay prostitutes. I might still be in the closet.

Somehow I mustered up the gumption to buy Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic while still living in Dallas. I don’t remember where I bought it. I can’t imagine twenty-three-year-old me doing it without having to take a shower as soon as I got home. No doubt, I bought a few other books—never read?—at the same time so I could sandwich The AIDS Book in between them. Maybe the cashier wouldn’t notice the word AIDS in bold letters on the cover. Maybe he or she would see the word Band and think I was a musician. But maybe not. This was 1987 in the midst of the AIDS crisis when people talked about getting it from toilet seats and water fountains. Call it an act of enlightenment that the clerk didn’t put on a pair of latex gloves just to handle the book. (I’d have remembered that.) I am certain I was red-faced and sheened in a layer of perspiration by the time my books were bagged and I rushed for the exit.

When I moved to L.A. two years later, I could buy books without embarrassment at A Different Light bookstore in West Hollywood. A gay bookstore! How wonderful to browse without having to wander away for a single Gay and Lesbian shelf in the Self’-Help section of regular bookstores. (The message I took always away was that, if you were gay, you needed help.) Still, I appreciated having a plain paper bag to take the books back to the car.

I’d also pick up a copy of Edge, the free gay newspaper of the time, whenever I was in West Hollywood. No bag to hide it from view. I was not so ironically on edge about Edge as I carried it back to my car. I worried that the wrong person might see the name on the front cover. If I folded it so the back cover was in sight, things were worse. Invariably, the back had a full-page advertisement for a gay chat line with an alluring image of buff boys in jock straps. I felt like I presented a clear target for anyone venturing to West Hollywood wishing to bash a fag.

Fortunately, I’ve evolved. But then so has society. In fact, my ability to buy a gay book—even one with a let’s-be-clear title like Two Boys Kissing—without going red in the face may be more about society’s enlightenment than my own personal comfort level. The lion in The Wizard of Oz oozed courage than I do.

I felt shame again today as I stepped up to order a Frappuccino at Starbucks. I had about an hour to kill before my appointment with my psychiatrist and I had pulled my current read from my backpack. While paying, I set the book on the counter. The barista glanced at the cover and I realized the title was in clear view with an even clearer title: Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me. I quickly flipped to the back cover. An obvious signal that I didn’t want the guy to read it, right? Well, he went out of his way to bend over and read the spine. I was momentarily mortified.

And then I regained composure and shrugged it off. So what if he saw the title? Why should I care if he concludes that I have a mental health problem? My problem, true enough, but in this context, not my problem.

Maybe there’s a smidgen of personal growth. Give it another decade or two and I won’t give a flip what people think about my books…assuming books still exist as we know them!

Monday, April 4, 2016

WAIST-DEEP


April marks a year since I’ve moved from my home and into a teensy, still empty condo in Downtown Vancouver. Based on my experiences following past moves, it takes about two years to feel settled and to establish social connections. I’m beyond the point of getting my feet wet; I suppose I’m waist-deep.

It is true that I lived in Vancouver for ten years before moving to the Land of Nowhere, but there was another ten year gap before I moved back. As well, more than seven of my years during Round 1 Vancouver were spent with my ex and friendships faded as time with him took over.

When I began Round 2, I naively thought old friendships would blossom anew. I was, after all, excited to reconnect. We’d had good times. Now I was free and in closer proximity to pick up where we left off.

But things don’t work that way. I’m not that special. The world doesn’t wait. I’m reminded of this every day as I see the condo building across the street from me and I know that one of my closest friends from the ‘90s lives there with his partner. I see them, always together, about once every six weeks as I head off to the gym or return from a run and they are out walking their two bulldogs. The first exchange lasted about five minutes. Now we’re down to “Hello.”

So, yes, this is starting all over again. This would have been clearer and less ego-crushing had I moved somewhere completely new. Winnipeg. But having driven through that city several times and never stopping longer than to grab a coffee, I have no yearning to settle in the place that’s not so lovingly referred to as Winterpeg by many Canadians. There were a few places I’d have gladly have moved to. Los Angeles. Seattle. Portland. And, after a visit last summer, maybe Minneapolis. It comes as a surprise after living in the U.S. for sixteen years and all the while yearning to return to Canada that I realize I fit in better in the States. Yes, I know it is the land of Trump and I hear about people swearing they’ll move to Canada if Hillary or The Donald gets elected. I’m used to partisan politics and all that is broken and yet I still want to move there. Surely that’s the immigration test, isn’t it? Maybe we can do an exchange. But seriously, the application I sent six years ago, sponsored by my American parents, remains somewhere in what has to be the mother of all backlogs.  I’ve let that American dream go.

All that said, Vancouver is home. It almost sounds like it is so by default. Sorry about that, dear city. It’s breathtakingly beautiful here. In fact, after jogging along the Thames in March, I couldn’t help but feel pride and renewed appreciation for how gorgeous Vancouver’s seawall is. I love to jog it, bike it, walk it. I’m geeky about mass transit and Vancouver’s is decent, even if it comes nowhere near the efficiency of London’s system and even though there was the overwhelming smell of urine where I sat at the back of the bus. It’s an urban thing. The arts scene here is weak. I see flashes of hope though. Nothing to rival New York or Toronto, not even Minneapolis, but I can find a few exhibits and performances to attend over the course of a year. It’s something.

I’m realizing that the few friends I have reconnected with are routine-oriented. Maybe people get that way as they get older. Unfortunately, I’m terrible about planning ahead—I see it as being spontaneous—and so, by the time I get around to thinking about the weekend, it’s, well, Saturday afternoon. When I texted a friend about getting together, she suggested the last Sunday in May.

Wow. This is hard.

In the past, I’ve made friends through school and work but I’m finally done with academia and my work remains back in that rural area. Teachers don’t socialize with the principal. The go-tos of the past went away.

I signed up for the gay volleyball league. Unfortunately, I dislocated my pinky finger on the third night and it’s still not right. More physio and a prognosis that I’ll never play volleyball again. Sorry ‘bout that, Team Canada. Carry on that bid in Rio without me.

I’ve attended the gay running group three or four times but I haven’t made inroads and I wind up running alone. I’ll give it another go. Someday. The fact is that I’m an extreme introvert, very reserved, painfully shy. When a social group initially feels closed, I pass the time retying my shoelaces, petting a dog or just slipping away. Yes, indeed, this is hard.

I can do better. I moved back to Vancouver for more than solo jogs on the seawall. I still have another year to finally get back on course. Let me start trying to make something of next weekend tonight. Or I can at least firm things up for that Sunday in May. It’s a (re)start.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

FLUNKING SCIENCE

I hate when I flash back to my teen years. All that awkwardness, all that angst. Somehow John Hughes managed to capture it so well in “The Breakfast Club”, making entertaining what, in reality, was anything but. I don’t have recurring dreams about myself in adolescence (thankfully!), but sometimes life has a way of bringing me way, way back.

The morning after my second coffee with Craig, he sent a follow-up text, just as he’d done after the first. I was in a meeting and I only had a moment to glance at the name of the sender and to register that it was a long one. I smiled. Clearly he’d gotten over that jolt that I was friends with his ex. I knew he had a busy week so I assumed he was offering a couple of openings when we could meet. Maybe he was even apologizing for the sudden shift in the tone on our walk after I accidentally mentioned Jay. Vancouver is such a small town, ha ha.

It was an intense day at work but I slipped into my office for a moment at lunch to read the text.

Thanks again for the coffee and walk yesterday. I enjoy chatting with you, and would like to continue getting to know you. I’ve had a chances to reflect and I think what I’m feeling is more platonic…Blah, blah, blah.

Shit.

It happened again.

Two steps forward. Two steps back.

I was (mercifully?) called out of my office immediately and didn’t have another moment to reply until I got on the ferry that evening and headed home. Sometimes being busy after a pinch of rejection is a good thing. No rash text response. No wallowing. Just keep going with the routines that make a day pass. But I was bugged. Craig strikes me as a kind person and someone who, like me, is precise with his words. The blah, blah, blah had been about wanting to develop a friendship and to have more coffees and chats, but my hunch had been that everything was fine—great, in fact—until we stumbled on the realization that his ex was my tennis bud. Even though they broke up a year ago, I sensed I’d inadvertently scratched a scab off one serious wound. That bugger risked getting infected all over again. I wanted Craig to admit as much. This was about his continuing struggle to right his life, post-Jay. This was not about me at all. And so I texted—How did you determine this needed to go down the platonic path? Own up. Mention Jay.

But I didn’t get what I wanted. Not Craig and not the explanation. You and I presented (I would say) fair and honest pictures of who we are to each other. It comes down to chemistry and I have to go with my gut. My gut says, “great guy! Good possible friend!” I can’t explain but, it’s in that hard-to-point-to place called “This is what it feels like.”

Shit.

It is me.

F#*kin’ chemistry. Yet another reminder that high school is nothing like the real world. In eleventh grade, I made As in Chemistry. One semester I even got 100%. I had this science down to an art!

It was only two coffees, one more than I usually manage. It’s no big deal. I know this. If Craig texts sometime in the next month and wants to go for a platonic coffee and a platonic walk, I can do that. I can smile and be genuinely invested. I need more friends.

But I’ve spiraled downward in the days since. It’s not about Craig. It’s about the message, not the messenger. I’m a great guy. Super nice. Gosh golly swell. But whether the guy calls it chemistry or the elusive spark, I don’t have it. I’m not date-worthy.

Yep, I went there. When you hear the no-chemistry/no-spark line enough times, it sinks in. Hello fifteen-year-old me. I’m right back to What’s wrong with me? WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH ME?! Teen Me thought everything would be better if only the Clearasil could just ward off the blackheads and if I just committed to using the weight set in my room. Coax some semblance of a bicep to make an appearance. And stop telling people Air Supply is my favorite music group.

I need to snap out of it. Reverse the numbers in 15 and act my real age. At 51, I’ve got a lot going for me. The pimples are long gone. The muscles finally showed up. I’m incredibly fit. I still have a full head of hair (I think. I make a point of not looking in any hand-held mirror at that point at the top of my head where I had a cyst removed.). I’m regularly told I look much younger than my age. I’ve earned three degrees. I’m a leader at work. I’ve got that Sally Field factor: people like me; they really like me.

But not like that.

I want to scream. I want to blame someone. Damn single gay men. Flakes, all of ‘em. I could call up my 60-year-old single gay friend, John, and meet him for coffee. He’ll commiserate. Yep. They’re all fucked up. Flakier than a chocolate croissant. (And then our bitch session would take an intermission as John goes back to the coffee counter and gets that last croissant, the one that’s distracted him repeatedly during our conversation. He’ll return saying the calories will go straight to his belly. Not that it matters. Flakes!)

So here I am after all these years, still wondering what’s wrong with me, still trying to improve myself, still not being enough. What does it take to have real-world chemistry? How do I radiate a spark? Where the hell do I buy myself a warehouse of figurative fireworks?

The truth is I always hated Chemistry.

Friday, April 1, 2016

EX FACTOR

Sometimes it is who you know.

After a solid first coffee with Craig, even a guarded guy like me had to conclude that it was one of the more promising starts. The conversation revealed more in common than I can recall with, well, anyone. I didn’t for a moment doubt that there would be a second date.

Sure enough, Craig texted at 8 a.m. the next day to say, “Thanks so much for hanging out yesterday. I enjoyed it, and would like to do it again.” We both have busy schedules but I always go with a while-the-fire’s-hot mindset. Two days later, we grabbed another coffee and walked the seawall.

Nothing questionable in Craig’s attire this time. He wore a blue zippered hoodie, jeans and sneakers. For the next hour and a half, we walked in the morning sun and the conversation went smoothly. At least it did for the first seventy-five minutes. That’s when I said something I shouldn’t have.

It’s not like I said something inappropriate. I’m careful with my words. Perhaps too much so. I sometimes wonder if I wear my reserved nature on my sleeve. So, no, I did not proclaim something ludicrous about an encounter with a UFO or that I wanted to plan a weekend getaway to attend Trump rallies. I did not say something controversial about religion. I did not even cuss. But what I said was worse.

As Craig works in human resources, we were talking about employees who say and post things they shouldn’t on Twitter and Facebook. He offered lots of examples he’d come across and I guess I figured I needed to contribute something instead of simply nodding and reacting. I mentioned a friend of mine I’d met on Plenty of Fish a year ago. This guy hadn’t seen dating potential in us but we’d become tennis buddies. This guy works for BC Ferries but had just been accepted to become an RCMP officer. I thought his Facebook posts—

Craig suddenly stopped walking. “Wait. What’s your friend’s name?” I gave the name. “That’s my ex.”

Oh.

Craig was clearly rattled. I’d opened a deep wound. He muttered, “So Jay plays tennis now.”

It felt like we were suddenly on a sinking ship and I only had a coffee cup to bail water. I tried to quickly finish the Facebook anecdote and move on. The equivalent to an emphatic, “Anyway…”

But Craig was distracted by his own thoughts. About Jay. And perhaps about the fact I was friends with Jay.

If only I had more friends—especially ones who posted inappropriate things—Jay’s name might never have come up. At least not this early on.

As I tried to shift the conversation, I flashed back to that first coffee date with Jay. We’d walked the seawall too, although on the other side of False Creek. That was late June and Jay had gone where you’re not supposed to go on first dates. He’d brought up his ex, a guy named—yes, that’s right—Craig. They’d officially broken up four months prior as I recall. And it had been under sad circumstances. Odd, in fact. Jay felt some guilt for ending a ten-year relationship, but there hadn’t been sex in the last two years and there wasn’t any hope of things turning around. His partner had started dressing, first androgynously, and then in “man dresses”. The change had the effect of neutering attraction and Jay had felt guilty, even shallow. But it was what it was. I remember thinking at the time that I may very well have done the same thing as Jay. At the very least, I could not judge.

Maybe this explained Craig’s odd attire on our first coffee date. Once we’d gotten into conversation, I’d completely lost sight of what he wore. But now I had this extra piece of information. I knew too much too soon. Still, I told myself to focus on the Craig I was with at that moment and not the Craig that Jay spoke of.

So Craig and I finished the walk, continuing to talk but I felt the momentum was gone. I was still game but I wondered if Craig was out. We reached Craig’s turnoff point and Craig noted that he had a busy week ahead and a full weekend but he’d be in touch. We hugged and I offered my most hopeful smile before we walked in different directions. It’s still good, I told myself. I still enjoyed his company and I wanted to know him better. Surely we could work through the fact I was friends with his ex. And, yes, if Craig’s clothing choices and perhaps his identity became an issue, we’d talk about that In due course. If we weren’t hopelessly off-course already. Yes, it’s still good. If I thought it enough, it was possible. Someone coined the phrase, “the power of positive thinking”. Here I am, a guarded, perhaps even pessimistic, person putting it to the test.