Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Magic Mermaid Man

Neil was a rebound guy for me. Maybe I'll never forget him because I'll always feel guilty about him.

I was nursing a recent heartache when I met Neil. I had been beating myself up, emotionally, feeling rejected by Mister Extremely Good Looking and Perfect - a handsome, muscular, and very straight-appearing blue collar guy. He was so butch he even had an entire collection of John Wayne VHS movies.

Neil was also handsome, with blond hair and blue eyes. But blue collar he was not. He owned a floral shop and he was one of the designers for a fundraiser known as the Headdress Ball in Anaheim (picture society women in glittery evening gowns and displaying huge fountains of flowers from their heads, like Vegas showgirls for the Rose Parade).

My dance teacher, as choreographer for the fundraiser, had recruited me to dance around one of the headdress wearing participants. I was a shirtless faun, complete with pan flute and horns. The flute and horns were Neil's, as were the fur pants and tail, an old Halloween costume of his. He also offered to let me wear the three inch black stiletto heels that had been part of his costume but they were the wrong size for me (luckily . . . I wasn't that good of a dancer).

Neil was pretty obvious in his pursuit of me. I wasn't interested but I enjoyed the attention. He took me to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I don't remember much about our date but I must have been my usual self, dominating conversation. Part of why I feel guilty, now, is that I must have talked on and on about myself, including the recent rejection I had been feeling from Mister Extremely Good Looking and Perfect.

And Neil listened.

I can't remember if I remembered to ask Neil questions about himself, even if only as a return of courtesy. Neil must have had the gift of knowing the right questions to ask, knowing how to get someone to open up.

I told him about one of my favorite library books in elementary school, The City Under the Back Steps, a story about two children who shrink and live in an ant colony.

I told Neil about a beautiful and expensive handmade mermaid doll I had seen in a Laguna Beach boutique, in the mid-80's, and how I had always wanted to have one like it.

A few days later Neil gave me a used hardback copy of The City Under the Back Steps. This was in 1994, before the Internet became available in most people's homes, and I was impressed that he was able to find a copy available for sale. The book came in wrapping paper that had a red and white checkered table cloth print, like the ones used in storybook picnics. The picnic blanket wrapping paper even had a few black ants marching across it.

And a few days after that, a large pink gift bag was waiting for me when I went to dance class at my teacher's studio. Inside was a lovely handmade mermaid, with a shimmering, green tail, and pale curly hair the color of corn silk. The mermaid's tail had a few glass beads attached, like glistening dew drops. In her soft cloth hands, the mermaid was holding a pearl.

I still feel guilty about Neil today because he had made such heartfelt effort. I've thought several times about how he truly listened to me. It showed in his gifts.

I couldn't keep the mermaid doll. It didn't feel right. But I couldn't just throw it away, either. It was a labor of love on Neil's part, and I couldn't be cavalier about disposing the beautiful doll.

I gave it to BFF Kathy to hold onto. This made sense because she is the mermaid in my life. After seeing the movie "Splash" in the theater, I felt that I just had to meet a mermaid (it took me a few years to realize that I already had met one, and that it had been Kathy all along - as real as a mermaid can be on dry land).

Neil was not the man I had wanted to meet, but I will never forget him. He included a short, sweet note along with the mermaid doll. He wrote:

Dear Peter, I'm sorry you had to miss the John Wayne film festival.

That still makes me smile today.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fantastic First Musical

The first musical I had ever been in was during my junior year in high school. I was not quite 17 when I was cast as Matt in The Fantasticks. Matt was the young boy in the classic story formula of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wishes-he-could-kiss-other-boys.

Okay, maybe not exactly classic-classic, but I was already well aware of my secret feelings, even before high school. By the spring of eleventh grade I was more than ready to take the first of many steps into such musical theater traditions as being openly gay with other drama department students. Norco High was in a small town outside of Riverside, though, and it was still the early 80's. It would be a couple of years before I actually came out to anyone.

At almost-17, I was eager to hide in the make believe world of singing-and-dancing-shows such as The Fantasticks, the off-Broadway hit that ran for more than four decades before finally closing, just a few short years ago. One of the reasons I loved musicals when I was a teenager was that it seemed like you could simply dance and sing your way through any problems. If you didn't solve your problems, exactly, at least you were actively coping with them via fun choreography and rhyming lyrics.

Such a seemingly simple little show and story, this musical. The Fantasticks is traditionally performed on a bare bones stage, usually in a small theater space featuring a cast of eight. When the girl meets the boy, the two think, gleefully, that they are doing so against their parents' wishes. Their respective fathers have built a wall between their homes in a vain attempt to keep the young lovebirds apart. The girl and boy, Luisa and Matt, are not aware that they are falling for the ploys of reverse psychology, that their fathers are deliberately planning and plotting to have the two fall in love.

There is also the narrator character, El Gallo, who, the audience soon realizes, is kind of a puppet master of the little Shakespearean-esque drama.

The music and lyrics are lovely and quaint, at times exciting, and often touching. And timeless, too. It is a good introductory musical, both for audience members and for performers. It is a good way to begin learning the meaning of the word allegory.

I had always hoped to be able to play Matt again some day, in another production of The Fantasticks after leaving high school. Matt and Luisa are good roles for young actors who can play youthful people trying to play at being grownup.

More than a quarter century has passed, though, since I was almost-17. Maybe I'll be able to audition for the role of the narrator over the next decade. I could even audition to be one of the fathers, or for the part of the Mute, the cast member who holds the stick between the two households, the stick that symbolizes the wall.

The Fantasticks is also one of those shows that you understand more as you become older and live through your own life experiences. "The wall" is open to interpretation, and it can symbolize any obstacle that causes you to work and fight for what you truly want. Without "the wall" would we truly make any effort at accomplishing what we want to in life? To me, the wall symbolizes any obstacle that is useful for reminding you not to take what you have for granted.

"The wall" could be, for me and BFF Kathy, the fact that I'm gay. If I wasn't, I'm certain I would have asked her to marry me. Maybe the marriage would have been difficult. Maybe we would have had kids too soon, before finishing college. Maybe our marriage wouldn't have lasted.

With this conveniently built-in wall, we have enjoyed a fun and romantic friendship, ever since that same school year in high school when I did my first stage musical. As friends, we have both helped and held each other whenever one of us had our heart broken. Often, we have held each other even when we were breaking each other's hearts.

In perhaps the most well known song from the show, "Try to Remember," El Gallo sings:

Deep in December in nice to remember
Without a hurt a heart is hollow

One of the main themes that can be interpreted from The Fantasticks is how there can be no growth, no true growth, without a little damage, first, without pain.

At my age, I still have trouble wrapping my mind around concept, even though I have lived through my own version of it, more than once. I think about some of the emotional pain I have survived, and how I eventually grew from it, once I got to the other side of the situation. And yet, if I had been given the option, I don't know that I would have deliberately chosen to have gone through it.

And it's good thing, I think, that it is not an option. Maybe there's a reason we're not given a choice for certain situations. Maybe that right choices are made for us, unhappy as they make us.

And maybe, perhaps, my understanding - and my acceptance - of my own difficult times in the past, will continue to increase as I get older.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Do About It

"Enough is enough."

That was one of my friend's comments on facebook this past week, in response to the recent bout of teen suicides being reported in the media. These specific suicides were the result of teens being bullied because of gay, queer, or transgendered identity, whether actual or perceived.

It always breaks my heart to surmise that each reported incident we hear about represents dozens, maybe even hundreds of unknown and unacknowledged similar incidents across the nation and in the world, for any issue of concern.

"This is terrible."

"We must do something about it!"

These are the heartfelt if typical responses people will usually give before doing . . . nothing about it. But what can we do about it? There must be more specific action that can be taken beyond posting a link to the Trevor Project on your blog or facebook status update.

More specifically, what can I do about it?

Fortunately, I am constantly surrounded by Role Model friends. I need only to look beyond my fingertips on the keyboard to learn from the examples around me.

Noel Alumit wrote a loving, eloquent letter to his 17-year-old self for He assures his Past Self from a quarter-of-a-century ago that he will not forever remain the lonely and sad young man he feels he is, but grow into actually celebrating his sexuality with dance - and laughing and loving and singing - and surrounded by friends.

My friend, Michael, is a teacher at a middle school. He has had a facebook photo of himself and his partner passed around electronically by his students. In the photo, Michael and his partner are kissing. The principal told him that they are trying to confiscate all cell phones.

Michael's response is to ask the principal if he can do an anti-bullying presentation for the students, and to use his own situation as an example of what is happening in every state, every city.

He says these kids are lucky that he's the one they chose to pick on.

Michael does not live in California anymore. I still do, in the greater Los Angeles area. There is so much that I take for granted, being able to be out at work, having so many fabulous, openly-gay friends, and also having significant acceptance from Christian friends who are willing to agree to disagree and still remain friends.

I live a happy life practically free of discrimination, well, at least free of the outwardly blatant kind. I always feel that the battles have already been fought for me, that I live a comfortable and safe life because of those who came before me and fought for Gay Rights in the 80's and before.

I don't always have to be too flamboyant or too outrageously gay - only when it's fun for me to be so. I am able to blend in when it is convenient to go unnoticed. I don't have to put myself at risk when I don't want to.

But obviously there is still work to be done if young people are still killing themselves in 2010 because they are being picked on and bullied for being gay - for being queer or sissy or effeminate, or butch! - and/or for just being different.

The fact that gay youth are still at risk in this day and age feels too much like blood on my hands. My friend is right. Enough is enough, and it's time for me to stop hiding in the safety of my risk-free zone.

I know what it feels like, to be picked on or to be made fun of for being perceived as gay (no matter how involved I was in church and in youth group - and no matter how correct my accusers were about my homosexuality). As a young man I had struggled to find a compromise for my sexuality and my Christian beliefs. At the time it felt like there were no answers to be found, and that the only answer, the only way to deal with this tormenting conflict was to end my life.

I had never even come close being seriously suicidal, but simply entertaining thoughts of taking one's life is disturbing enough.

So. What can I do about it? In an attempt to take small, realistic steps, I will stop censoring my behaviour and speech as much as I used to. I will be more verbal and open about my "actively gay lifestyle" among conservative and Christian friends and stop worrying so much about not wanting to ruffle their feathers.

I don't feel the need to be more flamboyant or outrageous in my speech and behaviour. But what I can do is to flick my "church button" on less frequently. I can be a true-to-life example of a Real Gay Person, even at church, so that anyone who is suffering silently over sexual identity issues, no matter what age, does not have to feel so alone if they cross paths with someone like me or Michael or Noel.

And, yes, I will also click on the link to the Trevor Project and find out how to progress to taking bigger steps, and see what opportunities there are to get involved with locally, to learn what else I can do about it.

The photo above is of my friend, Michael, the middle school teacher, and his partner, Garry.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Leaving the Little Purple Bear

I have had a love/hate relationship with Disney in the past, working for The Mouse off and on. Wanting to become a performer at Disneyland again always felt like wanting to get back together with an ex boyfriend - against my better judgment.

The last time I had tried was almost a decade ago. I had already been through rehearsals for the stage show, "Animazement," which had been performed on stage at the Fantasyland Theatre (formerly known as Videopolis in the 80's). In addition to being cast as a dancing utensil for the "Be Our Guest" number, and as a gazelle in the Lion King section, I was also a dancing starfish in "Under the Sea." I was thrilled to be back at the park as a union dancer.

I had been through my clearance shows but whatever politics that were in place at the time kept me from being scheduled for actual shifts.

A few months later I was told that I would have to audition again.

I wasn't very optimistic. I had a feeling that I was being made to audition just as a formality, so that I could be officially dismissed from the show, once and for all.

I was almost 35, at the time, and trying to accept the fact that I was getting too old to dance at Disneyland anymore. I had enjoyed an Extended Adolescence way beyond my due date. I needed to figure out a way to leave my happy childhood and fantasy life, even if just a little bit.

Paul Zindel wrote about performing a "symbolic act" in his novel, Pardon Me, You're Stepping on My Eyeball. A main character had trouble accepting the death of his father. I felt I had to do the same, figure out a symbolic act to perform in order to help me accept the death of that part of my childhood.

I had a little purple bear, not much bigger than my thumb. It had been given to me along with a birthday card from Domestic Partner, after I had first met him. I had worn purple clothing for twenty years, so this little purple bear was the perfect symbol for my Inner Child.

I had to leave him behind. That decided it. If I didn't get back in the show I would leave the little purple bear at the dance studio after auditioning. I would symbolically leave that part of my youth behind me. And yet, I still really hoped that I would get back into the show.

I did not get back in. Disney did not recast me in the show.

And I couldn't do it. I tried. I actually placed the little purple bear behind one of the stereo speakers before walking out of the dance studio. But it felt too much like abandoning him. It almost felt like just dumping my pug, Caesar, on the side of the road, and I couldn't do it.

I grabbed my little purple bear and put him into my pocket. I walked quickly out of the studio without looking back.

I could never leave my little purple bear, my baby pug, Caesar - my Inner Child - behind. I love that guy, and I cherish him too much to abandon him completely.