Thursday, June 30, 2016

ENDING & BEGINNING


Last day. Forgot to set the alarm but I woke up on my own, only one minute later than intended. Drove to the ferry terminal to catch the first ferry. It was full. I wasn’t even close.

A decade ago, I’d have been despondent. I’m not a tourist; I take the ferry for work. This is a two and a half hour setback. After eleven years of being connected to the Sunshine Coast and six and a half commuting daily one way or the other, this is a final first. First time I’ve been delayed getting to work because the first ferry was full. Maybe it’s fitting. Seems I’ve experienced it all in terms of ferry aggravations. (Okay, no sinking. I’ll happily take a pass on that.)

On October 1, 2005, I loaded up my Honda Civic with two miniature schnauzers and way too many green t-shirts and boarded the ferry en route to my new home. I was excited and relieved. It had been a prolonged breakup—the ex and I were stuck living together for a year after I ended it, as we needed to get through renovation hell on the dream home we shared. I found a house I could afford on my own, with a fenced backyard for the dogs. Vancouver and the suburbs were unaffordable on my school administrator salary; living with a ferry as part of my commute seemed like the perfect quirky element to my recovery. After all, I loved water. I’d moved from L.A. to Vancouver on account of a dream about some unknown city by the ocean, with bridges aplenty traversing inlets and rivers. I’d grown up in and by the water—a pool in our backyard, summers on the beach at our cottage, high school swim team, lifeguarding in university. All my life, I’d regular used my family’s motorboats, canoes, rowboats, sailboats and kayaks. The ferry simply upped the scale of my aquatic life.

In this new home, I’d find Me again after eight turbulent, eventually abusive years of We. I don’t know if it was the city or I who turned its back first, but Vancouver no longer felt welcoming. I couldn’t see a future there. It felt like a blessing that I was priced out of the city. My ex had become more erratic and I didn’t feel safe. A stretch of ocean water between us offered a buffer for greater safety. (Never mind that he found my house and staked it out. Never mind that, for the next eight years, he continued to plead for a second chance in out-of-the-blue emails that always pulled me back to memories of our darkest times.)

My new home had an ocean view and the cul-de-sac was surrounded by forest. There was far more wildlife than people—deer, raccoons, bears, coyotes and the always-rumored-but-never-seen resident cougar. While I was always alert for an unwelcome encounter, my dogs had more freedom than ever before. The leash stayed hanging on a hook in the hallway closet. Our walks through local trails offered exciting sniffs for them and cleared my head before I sat down for productive writing sessions.

My mother recalls me saying, “I’m never moving. I’ll die here.”

For the first year, I was very content. I’d found my paradise. It didn’t matter that I had a five-hour commute each day (two and a half hours each way). It didn’t matter that I left and arrived home in darkness for six months of the year. This was destination living.

Things got even better when I landed a job on the Coast after nine months. The job was twenty-five miles up the coast but ferries were no longer a factor. I didn’t have to schedule my life based on ferry departures that were two hours apart at the best of times. I was fully in control of my life.

But loneliness crept in. The novelty wore off for friends to come visit. The ferry made my home seem farther away than it actually was. Closer to Timbuktu than Vancouver. As a school administrator, I was now the boss and teachers were always respectful, even friendly, but never friends. No one wanted to be seen as too chummy. And, while the deer were lovely, they never had anything to say. Worse, they were terrible listeners, darting off every time I tried to initiate a conversation. While my first year had necessarily been All About Me—part of a recovery process—I began to think about dating again.

But single gay men were as rare as cougar sightings. In the first five years, I discovered two of them. No chemistry. Both of them came to their senses and moved back to Vancouver. I decided to do the same. I put my house up for sale, quit my job and accepted a position in a Vancouver suburb. The dream was dead.

And so began the nightmare. The house wouldn’t sell. I’d listed it ten months before starting the new job, but the once hot—okay, warm—market had gone cold. Frigid, in fact. For Sale signs became obscured by ever-invasive blackberry bushes. I’d list the house, take it off the market after months without a showing, and then list it again. I tried three different realtors over the course of three years. Nothing. I kept hearing an Eagles line from “Hotel California”: You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave.

I gave up. After three years of dreadful commuting, I took another job back on the Coast. The suffering would continue but at least I’d have more sleep. I tried online dating, venturing into the city for go-nowhere coffee dates that took up six hours of my Saturdays, factoring in ferry time. I tried to be keen. I downplayed the ferry thing. But guys weren’t that desperate for a boyfriend.

Eventually, one dog died, then the other. I was in a three-bedroom house all by myself. I spiraled downward, slinking into what I later learned was deep depression. Within a week of the second dog’s death, I was admitted to hospital in Vancouver. I’d begged my doctor, “Don’t let them send my home.” I knew, he knew and every psychiatrist I encountered at St. Paul’s knew I posed too much of a risk to myself. I had no reason to live. I’d grown devoid of emotion. I’d completely given in. That Eagles lyric took on new meaning—yes, I’d checked out. I stayed in hospital for nine days of what was supposed to be five or six weeks. I couldn't handle being in a psych ward so I lied aplenty to get them to let me out.

That was two years ago. I’m surprised I’m still here. I endured months of pain that I can’t describe. I don’t even think the psychiatrists understood. They called me an enigma. One wondered aloud how I’d ever made it this long. If I’d had any guts, I’d have been dead thirty years ago. Somehow I held on.

And a little luck finally came. My team of doctors implored me to leave the Sunshine Coast. Another line, this time my own, had a new connotation: “I’ll die here.” In January 2015, I listed my house for the fourth time. Miraculously, I had two offers within five days. Sure, I had to take a loss, but I finally had a healthier Exit ticket. I meant to only rent an apartment back in Vancouver, but on an impulse, I bought a teensy one-bedroom condo and moved on April 1, 2015. (Never mind April Fool’s; I’d played that part for a decade.) Of course, I still had bills to pay. I had to keep my job. For the past fifteen months I’ve done what is known as the “reverse commute”, sucking up five hours a day going from the city to the Land of Nowhere.
Officially, I’ve been living in Vancouver, but I haven’t actually been living there.

Until tomorrow. Today I’ve got a long list of things to do to wrap up work. I’ve taken a new job back in the school district I left ten years ago. I’ll have bridges to cross but no boats to board. The commute will be almost two hours a day if I travel during rush hour. That’s nothing. And I can linger if I want. I don’t have to rush to a terminal. As of July 1, I’ll be free and clear from paradise.

Life can begin again.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

SO WHAT IF HE WAS

In the New York Times today, there’s the headline: “In Hunt for Answers, F.B.I. Follows Claims That Orlando Gunman Was Gay”. The possibility first surfaced as a Pulse patron was interviewed by a CNN reporter. He’d seen the killer at the club before. Said hello. The interviewee’s partner had talked further with the future murderer.

Please, no, I thought. Don’t let someone so savage be one of us. If any good can come from this nightmare, it is that there will be more open discussion about acceptance of LGBT people and the harm that comes from continued anti-gay religious dogma and political rhetoric. The haters look for anything to deny culpability. I shudder to hear them shoot back with, “He was one of you.” They’re not saying it yet. Even the haters—at least those not affiliated with a certain heinous Kansas church—have the sense to shut up for a while. But they’ll twist and distort anew once the next scary bathroom ordinance comes up for a vote or another baker bemoans a message two grooms want scrawled on a cake.

One of us.

We’ve all heard for ages how he who doth protest too much may be fighting something internal. The fag haters may very well be gay. The thinking is that the vial they spew deflects any shadow of suspicion. It’s an interesting argument and, yes, I’m sure that on occasion it is true. But I doubt that is true of the majority of anti-gay men. And I cringe that gay men hold onto this belief. It smacks of self-hate—I know you are, but what am I.

Thus far, according to The Times, FBI investigators “have not found any independent corroboration—through his web searches, emails or other electronic data—to establish that he was, in fact, gay.” Whew.

But what if they do? How could a man so conflicted about his sexual orientation take out his wrath on a group he may have been raised to shun? How could gay men have become the enemy? Wouldn’t it make more sense to turn one’s back on intolerant religious views? It’s futile to ruefully wish for logic regarding a cold-blooded killer.

There’s also the possibility that he had faced rejection by gay men. Repeatedly. After the massacre, there was much talk of gay clubs as being a refuge, a spot where one can stop checking one’s mannerisms and a place for celebration, maybe even connection. Sure, on any given night, all that is possible, but let’s not get too fanciful. I can recall many a walk back to the car feeling overlooked or flat-out rejected. I loathed the go-go boys, gyrating on a podium in well-packaged thongs and taking away any chance I could establish eye contact with spellbound above-average Joes. The go-go boys were merely scapegoats with six packs. Sometimes it can feel devastatingly lonely in a gay bar. Could negative experiences, combined with an upbringing of gay intolerance, have triggered the killer to snap? Again, too often we try to search for rational factors to explain irrational acts. We’ve already spent more than enough time thinking about and for the killer.     

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch is quoted as saying, “People often act out of more than one motivation.” To be sure, the killer espoused radicalized views of terrorists. He wanted maximum carnage. But Pulse nightclub was a conscious choice. Gay, Latino men were targeted.  Lynch went on to say what has been said over and over since the massacre: “This was clearly an act of terror and an act of hate.” Whether he was or wasn’t gay, a range of influences—familial, religious, cultural, social, political—contributed to the fact that he hated gays. At this point, who he was is immaterial. It’s the contributing factors that bear scrutiny. These are the areas that must continue to evolve. They require our continued focus. Any further focus on the killer is a fruitless distraction.    

Thursday, June 23, 2016

THE NEAREST EXIT

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I took the cowardly route. But then again, so did he.

It began with that extended weekend when he couldn't get enough of me. Really, that should have been a sign.

And, in fact, there was a sign. On the Monday evening as we walked to dinner, Alfonso bemoaned the Vancouver labor market for someone like him in the higher echelon of the service industry. I listened as he went on what sounded like a rant. I’d mentioned a company a friend of mine works for and Alfonso felt compelled to be dismissive of that business organization. “They have the view that the customer is their greatest asset. How utterly plebeian.”

Alfonso felt that the employees were a company’s greatest asset. Fair enough. But it was the tone and the use of the word plebeian that seemed over the top. A company has a right to establish its own business philosophy. Get hired before you try to change it. That’s what I would have said. But he only looked to me for affirmation. He was right, wasn’t he? That’s what he wanted me to say. When he asked, “What do you think?” I said, “I don’t think you really want to know.” The intention was to avoid a first conflict but the avoidance itself created tension. I’d been in relationships with guys who expected me to affirm everything. That’s how some people feel supported. My problem is I have a tendency to consider another point of view. It benefits me in the employment sector but is a serious handicap on the dating front.

We continued our walk in silence. My mind raced to find a new subject, my eyes searched for a distraction. Alas, there’s never a Kermode bear on a pogo stick when you need one. I could have at least whistled, but that’s a skill I never perfected. Comes out more like a dying budgie.

Dying. Yes, that seemed to be the status of Alfonso and me. But then people do panic over a first fight. This didn’t amount to a fight though. Not a spat, not even a tiff. The word plebeian stuck in my mind. Who says that? I recalled other conversations over the weekend and I got the clear sense that Alfonso would never be wrong. He’d repeated a few affirmations about the universe looking out for him and his talents always finding an audience in due time. I hadn’t known how to respond to them. A slight nod? “Amen”? I pushed aside images of Stuart Smalley and his SNL bits. Affirmations are foreign to a guy like me who specializes in self-deprecation.

What I finally heard in Alfonso was conceit and false state of superiority. Three days into our courtship, I flashed forward to three months and even three years. This guy would be a difficult partner. There would be no compromising, not when he would always be right. I wondered what adjectives he’d have to belittle my perspective. Derivative? Nescient? Picayune? My gut said, Get out.

We passed over the pizza joint I’d suggested. “I can’t tolerate lines,” he said. Instead, we opted for a tapas restaurant across the street. “Do you mind if I have the view seat?” Oh, of course not. Was there an air of hostility or was I just noticing an unappealing egocentricity? Either way, not good.

The following weekend, we met on Friday and Sunday. I tried to put concerns behind me. This guy still liked me. I could ill afford to be picky. To borrow a Barry Manilow song title, I was Trying to Get the Feeling Again.

Not a good mindset after only one weekend. Sizzle turned to fizzle. It didn’t help that Alfonso immediately went into a ten-minute play-by-play on Friday of how he reamed out an employer after he quit an hour into the second day of his new job. The account smacked of a superiority complex and mean-spiritedness.

But I let another week go by. I was busy with work week. No time for contact. I texted near dinnertime the following Friday. I needed to see him to end things. He said he’d already made plans. I felt relieved. And Saturday ticked by. Can’t this whole thing just fade away? He phoned at 6 p.m. when I was running an errand. He took that as me being unavailable and I did nothing to change that perception.

Five minutes later, I received a text. I don’t see “us” happening. Your world is too rigid and I don’t think I am your prince.

I fist-pumped, something I’ve never done in my life, not even on the tennis court. It was a tacky gesture for no one to use, but it was a spontaneous release of angst. I’d avoided what I was certain would have been a prickly conversation. I guess he did, too. And Alfonso could tell others that he made the decision. He’d want that. A perfect ending.

I realized I am not as desperate to be dating as I sometimes think. Things shouldn’t feel uncomfortable on a third day together. The prospect of growing old alone isn’t nearly as scary as being in a wrong relationship again. I’ve been too dismissive of gut instincts in the past. I will still succumb to pity parties in the future, but for now I can embrace my passive stance toward self-preservation. Spineless? Sure. I’m okay with that.



Thursday, June 16, 2016

SAFETY UNDERMINED


So young. It’s reprehensible and sickening that forty-nine people at a gay bar succumbed to a savage, violent killing spree. Every single one of them younger than me. So much life ahead, so much potential, so many experiences and connections. Stolen. Shot down.

Only the day before I’d noticed a photo on Twitter of two men kissing, one gesturing a defiant middle finger. I found the action was unnecessary. We’ve come so far. We are safe now. At least in North America.

Wishful thinking.

Yet again, I had become complacent. Or maybe I’d grown tired of living life with an undercurrent of worry.

The first gay club I went to on my own was in Dallas. I feared I’d lose my teaching job if I were seen. I walked a little faster to my car when I left, partly taken aback by a man who unexpectedly moved in to kiss me—I think his lips caught my nose—and more out of concern that someone was lurking behind a car, ready to pulverize me just for kicks. It was 1989 and I still had an article from Texas Monthly in my mind about vigilantes who made it a practice to beat up fags.

I moved to California that year, choosing to go to law school at Pepperdine instead of Southern Methodist because I didn’t feel I could come out in Texas…and, hey, I’d be living in Malibu. It took a month before I dared venture to West Hollywood after dark. My hands shook as I maneuvered the steering wheel. It took more attempts than usual to parallel park on Robertson several blocks from the clubs. I race-walked to Rage. The return walk was even more frantic. Keep your wits about you. In all the times I went clubbing, I never stopped looking over my shoulder and surveying my surroundings. A bashing always seemed like a possibility.

The fear was always out in the open, on the streets. In Rage or Micky’s or Studio One, I was safe. The dance floor was a refuge. It represented freedom and a chance for me to stop monitoring my mannerisms. I could Vogue with abandon.

No basher would come in. He wouldn’t dare. He’d be outnumbered. In my mind, bashers would get ambushed. Someone would lend his handcuffs for the cause.

Sunday’s shooter shook our sense of safety. I imagine that club goers will make a new habit out of surveying the exits when entering a bar. If we aren’t safe in a gay bar in a gay-friendly city, can we ever let down our guard?

Recently, I’d been thinking how fortunate young gay men are. The struggles were supposed to be in the past, little history we older gays try to impart on a younger generation. Stonewall. Harvey’s Milk’s assassination. The AIDS crisis. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Matthew Shepard. Marriage bans.

And now there’s Pulse or Orlando or whatever this disgusting takedown of forty-nine lives gets referred to as in the long-term. I’ve heard LGBT leaders repeatedly state this week that we will be strong. We will support one another. We will not go back in the closet. Of course. But that sense of freedom and abandon that can be found in a gay club as the bass pounds and Rihanna belts a vocal in a wicked remix while a shirtless wonder flaunts a six-pack that should only be achieved through PhotoShop has been compromised. It’s back to look over one’s shoulder. Inside our safe haven. It’s more than an inconvenience. Hate remains. And so does a tinge of fear.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

RIDING THE BRAKES


I’ve got an excess of pet peeves about how people drive, but one driver behavior that I find especially maddening is when someone relies too much on the brake. A plastic bag blows along the side of the road. Brake. (Side note: I can’t eye a plastic bag without having “Firework” play in my head. Thanks for that, Katy Perry.) A bug splats on the windshield. Brake. A car pulls out six blocks ahead. Brake. Why not just take the foot off the accelerator to reduce speed? Glance at the “Walk” pedestrian sign at the oncoming traffic light intersection to realize the green isn’t close to turning yellow. Get comfy with how it feels to take a curve at 30 mph. Scream “Whee!” if you must. Please, oh please, take your foot off the brake.

But that’s what I’m doing. Going forward while riding the brake.

I met Alfonso for coffee at 5 p.m. Saturday. In his profile, he’d professed to being a discerning coffee aficionado so I felt my café choice was a pivotal prelude to a first impression. The decision was complicated by the fact the trendiest (and tastiest) coffee spots in downtown Vancouver close at 5; by default, I suggested a café a few blocks from my place. The last time I met a guy there he cut the meet-and-greet short and literally ran out the door. But cafés aren’t men. They can have second chances.

I arrived right on time and spotted Alfonso at the first table. Dark and handsome with a broad grin and a sparkle in his eyes, he was too much to take in at once. I quickly asked what he wanted to drink and turned away to place our order at the counter. I needed a moment to compose myself. Easy now. You are worthy. If he tries to flee, put your foot out. Make it memorable.

The conversation went smoothly. After an hour, Alfonso asked if I wanted to go for a walk. Sure, sure. Don’t make too much of it. I’d gone on these coffee date extensions many times before. Guys like my company, but it doesn’t mean they like me. I’ve been on a “no spark” streak lately. Stay skeptical.

We walked along Vancouver’s seawall, eyeing the marine activity while chatting freely, drifting from one subject to another. It was all part of that typical getting-to-know-you conversation, but Alfonso seemed genuinely interested. Invested even. He suggested dinner. No. Absolutely not. Leave with him wanting more. But, yes, we dined. Then we walked along Coal Harbour. He held my hand. Soon we kissed. As the sun set, we slipped into another venue for a glass of wine. Saturday’s coffee lasted six hours.

As I readied for the walk home, Alfonso asked, “What are you doing tomorrow?” He’s kidding, right? I had laundry to do. Plus, I love to lounge and chew on the Sunday New York Times.

We met for breakfast before heading out on a hike in West Vancouver followed by lunch in the West End. The whole time, a persistent thought swirled about in my mind:  Aren’t you sick of me?  I needed to pull away. And so after sharing green onion pancakes and thick noodles in a creamy peanut sauce, I asked Alfonso to drop me off so I could fit in a solo bike ride. It felt exhilarating pedaling past the beach volleyball players at Kits Beach and the barbecuers at Jericho Beach as I approached the incline heading to the University of British Columbia. My pace. No talk. But maybe a bit more zip due to a head rush from the past twenty-four hours.

When I got home, Alfonso texted. Ice cream? My weakness. Hadn’t I burned plenty of calories? Once I visualize a double scoop of Earnest’s salted caramel, I can’t say no. After dessert, we strolled once again and wound up slipping into my favorite pizza joint for dinner. Another weakness.

But there really can be too much of a good think. Ice cream. Pizza. Alfonso. I needed to pull out the no card. Drag this out more. Good things are meant to be savored, not wolfed down.

So when Alfonso asked me to dinner Monday night I said…“Sure!”

Jeez.

I actually looked forward to diving into the hectic pace of the work week. Distractions. Excuses. Legitimate reasons for saying no.

It’s been a promising start, but I’m not looking for a man to fill my schedule and to be my everything. What about balance? Isn’t anticipation a good thing? And, yes, sometimes it’s prudent to apply an occasional gentle tap on the brakes. Maybe I’ll even be more forgiving of cautious drivers. They’re moving forward while monitoring their comfort level. And so am I.