Thursday, January 26, 2017

MISSING MARY

The news of the death of Mary Tyler Moore has left me shaken, not because it was necessarily unexpected, but because Mary proved to be a seminal cultural pillar in my life. This post is the first in a series, "Chasing Mary", I originally published in August and September 2015 as I set out to walk through the old haunts of Minneapolis news producer Mary Richards.

Mary will continue to turn my world on with her smile. 


I suppose it began with “Sesame Street”. A crucial episode when M was the letter of the day. It helped me overcome a key sticking point in my learning. I could spout off the alphabet in a familiar singsong voice, but I’d thought the fast part in the middle, LMNOP, was the name of a single letter. Bert and Ernie et al. set me straight. That breakthrough proved huge. My phonetic awareness grew—m is for mom, m is for monkey.

What a cool letter!


And I became conscious of environmental print—my street name began with M and then there was the big yellow M for McDonald’s. But the fast food sign could not compete with the block, typeset capital M on the wall of a sitcom apartment set. M was for Mary. Was and is. Mary Richards, portrayed by MTM, Mary Tyler Moore.

There was always something about Mary. She visited my living room every Saturday night and, being as that was never a school night, I had the privilege of staying up “late” and seeing her navigate the newsroom and the homefront in a tiny apartment where everyone popped by. I got used to Mary’s place long before Jerry’s. Loopy people dropped in at will. She always had the time or was too polite to say otherwise. No wonder she remained single.

Even as an eight-year-old boy, I identified with Mary. She was my role model. Always gracious, always fighting to remain unflappable despite all that flapped around her. Mary taught me that the world was beyond my control. It was best to hold on to my convictions and greet the onslaught of oddities with a shrug and a smile.

Countless times growing up and throughout my adulthood, I’ve been deluged by other people’s problems. I am an established dumping ground. And as my own beloved Ted Baxters and Rhoda Morgenterns go on at length about a current conundrum, I find myself drifting off, if only for a moment, and saying, “Hello, Mary.”

And so it was only a matter of time before I set out to find Mary Richards. While my colleagues planned summer getaways in Italy and Nicaragua, I set my sights on Minneapolis.

I know I am no better than my eleventh grade classmate who showed up at school on a random, i.e., non-Halloween, day dressed as Darth Vader. Perhaps I am no further evolved than the four-year-old boy I recently saw in full Spiderman costume—just because—or all the little girls at Disneyworld in princess regalia. I do know Mary Richards is not real and she is certainly neither princess nor superhero; still, there is reality in her character due to the fine writing of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” staff.

I also know that the show has, as one online source described it, only a “tenuous” connection with Minneapolis. The show was always shot in a studio in L.A. But the opening and closing credits of the show solidly placed it in Minnesota’s largest city. As Sonny Curtis sang “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” we saw Mary Richards driving to town, na├»ve yet filled with aw-shucks anticipation. We saw a balcony restaurant and the opening ended with that iconic scene surrounded by pedestrians as she tossed her hat in the air, a hurrah, a Let’s-make-a-go-of-this. Indeed the optimism evolved in the theme song, with a second season lyric change from “You might just make it” to “You’re gonna make it.” After all, this was Mary Richards. Human, not superhuman. Indefatigable despite mishaps, hard-knocks and humiliations. As far as I could see things, how could one not want to make a pilgrimage to a veritable City of Hope? Yes, Minneapolis.

I will admit to waffling. I’d planned on Minneapolis last summer after feasting on Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s delightful book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a behind-the-scenes confection about the show. Maybe “feasting” is the wrong word; I consumed the book in bite-size pieces, overjoyed with each passage, needing to set the reading aside to savor the anecdotes.

I doubted the trip. As I incurred too many expenses in the spring—a higher mortgage for a teensy Vancouver condo, car payments for a teensy new car (a Mini Cooper)—I knew the responsible thing to do would be to spend summer at home. What’s not to love about Vancouver in the summer?

But as soon as school let out, I felt restless. Minneapolis was personal business. It had been my destination since I was that eight-year-old, sitting on a sofa in the den of a brick house in Hamilton, Ontario.

I’d put off Mary long enough.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

TEMPERED EXUBERANCE

I’ve been single for most of my time living in British Columbia. There were seven and a half years when I navigated the ups and downs of coupledom and codependence, but the rest of my twenty-two years have been overpriced ready-made meals for one at Whole Foods and go-nowhere coffee interviews. (They say they want a boyfriend but they’re not hiring.)

For whatever reason, single people seem to gravitate toward single friends. We commiserate. We judge less. (Yes, it’s always his fault. What’s wrong with all of them?!) We have established routines when we get together, running through the latest false starts, bemoaning the pervasive flakiness of gay men, offering hollow words of encouragement.

Keep looking. Unless you need a break. Yes, breaks are good. They say you’ll find him when you’re not looking. Just like that American quarter I picked up on the sidewalk at 14th and Main.

You’re a catch. Really! Not for me, of course. (Let’s not get awkward.) But, yes, you deserve a break. One of these dates will finally lead to something. Besides, I heard on the radio yesterday that coffee is good for you. (It came right before the Starbucks ad.)

Single friends never make the offensive suggestions of those rogue attached friends who still sit down occasionally for a rushed get-together. (The car needed an oil change. Gotta kill forty-five minutes somehow.) Attached friends show their impatience as you launch into the first of what was supposed to be a series of anecdotes with the working title “Woes of the Single Man”. They’ve had better luck. (Yes, it has to be attributed to luck.) They’ve forgotten what it’s like to be single. They interrupt and say things your mother says before you abruptly hang up on her.

Maybe you should join a bridge club.

Maybe you should stop walking with your head down.

And then, worst of all, Maybe you’re being too picky, which to the overly sensitive, chronically single gay man translates as, “You’re not all that deserving. Settle. Lower your expectations.”

Ouch. Thank goodness for single friends.

The greatest danger to the friendship between two single people is the possibility—however remote—that one will fall into a relationship. It’s the beginning of the end. Sure, there’s initial joy. High fives. I told you it would happen. I’m so happy for you!

But it hurts. Being single suddenly feels lonelier. Maybe not all gay men are flakes. What’s wrong with me? Yep, self-pity crashes the celebration.

And your relationship status with the formerly single friend changes as his dating relationship deepens. Saturday brunch gets canceled. (“Dwayne and I are doing the Run for Vision-Impaired Peruvian Tree Frogs. And Sunday’s no good either. We’re canoodling. Have I mentioned he’s a great canoodler?”) Weeks go by. (“Dwayne’s cousin’s in town.” “Dwayne and I are going to Open Houses. You know, just for fun.” “Dwayne needs me. He has an infected toenail.” F*@king Dwayne.)

The rare get-togethers now involve seating for three and, while it’s clear The Boyfriend is the one who’s changed the dynamic, you’re the third wheel. Sometimes you’re the fifth wheel as another couple elbows its way in. (“We met at Charades Night at the community center.” Charades? Really?! When did that become more fun than a bitchfest over coffee?)

Your friend has moved on. You’ve been squeezed out. It’s time to lick your wounds, cough up that hairball and call your other single friend. The one who talks too fast, forgets to swallow as saliva builds on the sides of his mouth and makes too many connections to Pokemon characters. It’s all too clear why he’s hopelessly single. You question why you’re having coffee with him thirty seconds into his first monologue. But he’s available. No canoodling. No weekends wasted hypothetically wondering how a kitchen reno will make that overpriced townhouse in the suburbs livable. This default friendship is all Dwayne’s fault.

I’ve lost a lot of single friends to Dwaynes. We’re down to passing waves as the two of them walk their three Chihuahuas in the park and I rush to fit in a 12K run before the next Vancouver rain. (Must lose the belly blubber. Maybe then someone will notice me.) And so it is with trepidation that I’ve arranged to meet a single friend for coffee and another single friend for dinner. I have news.

I’ve found a Dwayne.

Only better, of course. Much, much better! (I stubbornly refuse to punctuate with multiple exclamation marks—it’s redundant—but picture seventy-eight of them prior to this parenthetical aside. In fact, picture them in a bubble font, with hearts replacing the dots. I’ve officially become a tenth grade girl.)

But I can’t get too excited as I tell my single friends. It’s not that I feel a need to be cautious in what I say about him. Sure, I have a clear track record of dating failure, but I’m confident this time around. I know we fit. I’m elated. I’m giddy. I have an urge to blurt, “He’s the one!”

I am eager to share my news but I’ve got to show restraint. Casually insert “kinda” and remove exclamation marks and ALL CAPS as I gush about him. He’s kinda amazing. (You have no idea how hard it is to leave the preceding italicized sentence. Sometimes understatement is tantamount to a lie.) I don’t want them to feel discouraged. I don’t want to say goodbye to my friends—we’re not really huggers—and leave them to head back to their one-bedroom apartments in that Maybe it’s me downward spiral. I can still ascribe to the pervasive flakiness of gay men. Well, most of them. The single ones, my own friends, and the fine, enlightened readers of this blog, excepted.

I won’t abandon my single friends. I won’t stop listening to their struggles and frustrations. I’ll be there when they find their own Dwayne. If ever. I’ll listen and encourage. Knowing this, I can adjust to a gradual release of all the gleeful feelings and moments of this astonishing journey with my Dwayne. (To be clear, his name is not actually Dwayne. It’s way better. Naturally.) Despite the fact I know my life is changing, I’m determined for some things to stay the same.








Sunday, January 1, 2017

GOLD DIGGING


I’ve been working out for almost three decades. I’ve belonged to nine gyms and dropped in to countless others. But I’ve never gone to Gold’s.

It’s not my kind of place. I’m muscle-lite and they’re muscle-max. We don’t mix. That’s why they have their very own gym. Keep the scrawny dudes out.

But I’m out of sorts. Vacations will do that, mostly in good ways. (Yep, I have no idea what day of the week it is.) The problem is that I have to work off my holiday donut fat—please don’t tell me you can get them all year—and my feet are blistered out from a string of jogging days. So I needed to find a gym.

Gold’s was a three-block way. Convenient. But convenience is when you need a Slurpee. (I’m trying to tell myself I never need a Slurpee.) A gym requires more thought. It’s where I’m vulnerable. Exposed chicken legs. Bad form lifting (sorta) heavy objects. Endless stream of sweat dotting my t-shirt. If I get noticed at the gym, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

No Gold.

I Googled “Venice gyms” and that damn Gold’s popped up again, along with a handful of yoga places. My official line is that yoga isn’t real exercise. In truth, I can’t do it. I was the kid who always bent his knees when having to touch his toes in kindergarten. I can’t even keep my balance doing the Hokey-Pokey.

Definitely no yoga.

So I found L.A. Urban Fitness and located it on Google Maps. Close enough. But then their website revealed it was only a store for vitamin supplements and protein powders. And downing two gallons of chocolate-banana protein smoothies won’t even begin to cure my donut gut. Even if I vomit the chalky concoction.

So I had no choice. I’d be the fool at Gold’s. I mentally rehearsed my entrance as I left the hotel. Go forth with confidence. You have every right to do your workout. Just say no to steroids. You will never see these people again.



I remained composed, even as I saw a cluster of motorcycles near the entrance. Harleys? (Is there another brand?) Gang members? Would they swarm me inside and taunt me with some aggressive bicep flexing? Okay, so I dwindled to semi-composed. I blame my parents. They instilled a fear of motorcycles and people with tattoos. (My father was an ER doctor. He’d often come home from work, sit down for dinner and gravely say, “I never want to see any of you on a motorcycle.” Maybe he’d seen dead people. Maybe he just didn’t like the noise on the commute. My mother was more concerned about ink infections and bad grooming. “Those beards! Oh, if I could just take my scissors to them.”)

I forked over my $25 drop-in fee. (That’s got to be about $400 Canadian.) My parents also taught me to get good value for my money. Now I couldn’t leave.

I immediately went to the cables. No one was on them. A coup, I thought. They’re always busy at my gym. But then I glanced around between sets. And it dawned on me. These guys don’t do cables. Free weights only, man. A few sets in, someone joined in at the lat pulldown cable beside me. A woman. With biceps twice as big as mine.

Three decades at gyms. You can do this.

I’d expected a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack. Jimi Hendrix. Metallica. That guy that eats bat heads. But perhaps I was confusing steroid gyms with small town facilities. It was hard to hear the music but rap seemed to predominate. Angry. Motivational?

Sit down and shut up.

I don’t give a f*ck about nothin’.

This is me crushin’.

Shut up. Shut up.



When I finished my cable work, I couldn’t find the 65-pound barbell to do curls. Searched and searched. And then another epiphany. They don’t stock 5s. What’s the point? Increase by 10 every time. Like the big boys. (I stuck with 60. This was not the place where I wanted to scream in pain over a muscle cramp.)

Last time I was worked out in Los Angeles, it was at L.A. Fitness. They had palm trees painted on a wall. The subliminal message: If you exercise hard enough, you may be able to go to the beach and shed your turtleneck. But Gold’s doesn’t mess with subtleties. The walls were covered with photos of Speedo-clad Mr. USAs or Mr. Worlds. I may never wear a swimsuit again.

I tried not to stare at people. But I had no wifi on my phone as I didn’t want to pay international roaming charges. (Again, my parents taught me to get good value for my money. I couldn’t justify any urgency to reading about Trump’s latest tweets.) Glancing at Mr. Worlds had caused enough damage and it got boring staring at the time on my phone so I turned people watching into a little game. Like counting blue cars or state license plates, I tried to entertain myself by searching for someone scrawnier or flabbier than me. It was tougher than the New York Times Saturday crossword, but it prompted me to wander into other rooms at the gym. And I dared to look closely at a couple of muscle men. One short, stocky guy’s bald head showed off a maze of protruding veins. I wondered what a Venice fortune teller might read into his noggin. You have a long love line. But I see lots of turbulence. I mistook another bald man as wearing a blue-gray swim cap. And then I realized it was a mass coating of ink. It fascinated me. Only a square area that included his eyes, nose and mouth was tat-free. Where did he work?  What does his mother think? Does he go through extra screening at airports?

These wonderings helped pass time between sets. I grew more comfortable. I gave up the need to find someone scrawnier. I even said, “Excuse me” to a guy leaning on the leg press machine I wanted to use instead of meekly deciding to skip legs for the day. I watched as many guys worked out with a partner and yakked too long between sets. Just like at my gym. I noticed one workout buddy videotaping the other. Okay, not like my gym.

I realized these guys were possibly as messed up as I am, spending way too much time exercising. They just had more to show for it. I don’t ever want the kind of bulk where I can only fit my legs in pajama bottoms and sweatpants—not that that’s even in the realm of possibility—but I had to give a nod to the dedication of these men. They had their own goals and I’d say they were meeting them. I’m sure that some of them will never be satisfied, always comparing their bodies to someone “better”, always being hyper-focused on a millimeter of flab on the big toe or slightly asymmetrical calf muscles, but much as I like to be dismissive, they weren’t born with six-pack (twelve-pack?) abs and biceps bigger than my thighs. They achieved something.

And so did I. I spent ninety minutes in a gym with several dozen men I’d never be able to look in the eye. And I left being slightly less defensive, a tad less judgmental and a trace more connected.

I didn’t firm up my pecs or trim my tummy, but I maybe I got something more out of my Gold-en opportunity.