Friday, February 25, 2011

Leaving Never Land

Part of why I have felt so lucky for most of my life is that I have been rich in friendships since I was in elementary school. As an adult, during my involvement with ex-gay ministry, I didn't know if I would ever get married to a woman some day. It didn't bother me because, strangely, I was comforted by the fact that I knew who I would ask to be my groomsmen if I ever were to get married.

Ben, Eddie, and Tedd are friends that I have known for over a quarter of a century. I met Tedd when I first went away to college. After dropping out of college, Ben and Eddie quickly became two of my closest friends when I started working at Disneyland.

I realized early on that I usually bonded over shared memories of 70's children's shows and cartoons with those who became my close friends. Tedd, for all of his advanced academic status (he was a college freshman at age 16) and overachieving ways, still loved many of the same cartoons that I did, such as "Super Friends."

"Wonder Twin powers - activate! Form of ... an icicle! Shape of ... an orangutan!"

Backstage at Disneyland, Eddie and I used to ride the tram together from wardrobe to the step off point for the Electrical Parade. I'm sure we annoyed our fellow Cast Members with our hyperactive renditions of songs from the New Mickey Mouse Club, circa 1976.

"Surprise Day! Surprise Day! It's Mouseketeer Surprise Day, anything can happen and it usually does!"

Ben and I were roommates in three separate abodes. We were thrilled when the Sid & Marty Krofft shows came out on VHS tape, singing along to the opening theme songs for "Lidsville" or "Sigmund & the Sea Monsters," and of course, Witchiepoo's big stage number on "H.R. Puf'n'Stuf" - 'Oranges P'oranges!'

As I got older, I became suspicious that the Peter Pan syndrome was the consistent, common denominator among my friends, myself included. My own tribe of Lost Boys had organically formed itself in the early years of my young adulthood.

My time with ex-gay ministry gave me interesting and different perspectives. Part of the therapy we learned pointed out how emotionally stunted I was. My friends and I relished being overgrown boys, even if somewhere in the back of our minds we knew that we might be somehow stagnating. Who needed girlfriends or wives or marriage? We were young, and too busy having fun!

At 44 I don't feel old. But I become more aware of how much we've aged when I get together with these good friends (and not as often as I would like) and, as usual, we can look back and discuss over two decades of memories.

Eddie is not the wonderfully spastic boy he used to be, which is good and appropriate, now, but part of me mourns the young man who always seemed to be bouncing off the walls from a sugar rush (which, at times, I'm sure he was on, high from an overdose of Pixie Stix and Kudos bars).

Tedd is married and has three children. We can no longer be the big kids at heart as much as we used to be now that there are actual children in his house. Our extended adolescence was over-extended. We had a good run, and we can now look forward to being little old, energetic Asian men together.

My friendship with Ben has been the one that's most bittersweet to me when it comes to accommodating our middle age, adjusting to it. It was a few years ago when, after a day off of enjoying lunch and a movie, we couldn't fall into the same social patterns that we used to as roommates. Normally, as younger men, a day off would extend into more than one movie and maybe more than one meal out, or at least renting videos and ordering takeout pizza. Instead, I had to get home to feed and walk the dogs, and get dinner started for Domestic Partner and myself.

I felt a bit like I was abandoning Ben that day, even though it had been years since we were used to seeing each other on a daily basis as roommates.

I hadn't counted on the fact that getting into a long term relationship would mean leaving behind the support network that I had always enjoyed and maybe even took for granted. I have married friends, of course. We all do. Friendships do not end because of marriage, not all of them. I know it's normal and natural for a committed relationship to take precedence, but still . . .

Tedd gave me the honor of asking me to be his best man when he got married. Ben and Eddie are still single. I will grow old with Domestic Partner but we will probably never marry each other (why fix what ain't broke?), which is good. I wouldn't be able to decide which of my super friends I should ask to be my best man (or maid/matron-of-honor, as it were).

Not even if I could combine them all into one Super Friend: Beteddie! Form of ... Lifelong Friendship!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Fosse Feline

Remember my Dangerously Sexy Diva friend, Terra? She's the one who has portrayed Velma Kelly in "Chicago," not only on the Great White Way and in national tours, but also in Paris (in French!). She's back in town, again, singing and slinking her way on stage as 'Bombalurina' in "Cats" with Musical Theatre West.

I had never seen "Cats" performed live on stage, so I was looking forward to experiencing it for the first time. I loved it! The dance productions and the familiar music had me smiling throughout much of the performance. As tempting as it may be to consider the signature song trite and tired, the soloist who sang "Memory" gave the audience a new, powerful interpretation of the song. She brought more beauty and depth to the notes than I had ever heard before and I teared up a little.

The entire cast was marvelous and it was very fulfilling to see this show . . . almost thirty years later.

In the early 80's, my aunt had planned to take me to see "Cats" as a gift for my seventeenth birthday. It was playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. It had opened only two years before in London.

I am told that my father objected to the idea. "No, don't take him to see this musical," he protested. "He'll come home wanting to take dance lessons, and I want him to go to college."

He was correct. I would have wanted to go to dance class. I had already wanted that a couple of years before when I became fifteen. I still wanted it after turning eighteen - and I went after it as soon as I had moved out of my parents' house, as soon as possible.

But I had always wondered: How much more directly inspired might I have been if I had been able to see "Cats" when I was seventeen? How much more aggressive would I have been in my pursuits to become a real dancer? How much more courageous would I have been about my goals?

I know it's pointless to consider what could have been, but I can't help doing so, every now and then.

It was fulfilling to finally see a complete and professional production of "Cats." I'm too old, now, to be as nimble and fluid as the gymnasts and ballet-trained performers I watched on stage. Surprisingly, I felt neither jealous nor bitter. As a spectator, I reveled in their youth and their agility, and in their pure joy of dance and performance.

Terra, as always, was flawless in her performance. As 'Bombalurina' she was a very sultry feline, both as a featured vocalist and in her kitty choreography.
It was wondrous to watch her Fosse trained body roll a shoulder, pose with the trademark broken wrist, and undulate in waves through her torso and limbs. She was the Fosse Feline. Even just the way Terra casts her gaze downward always reminds me of Ann Reinking.

I think part of why I enjoyed the show so much is precisely because I am older. I knew about the character of 'Grizabella,' the tragic, older, dying cat, but I hadn't expected to relate to her, even just a little. Gone are "my days in the sun" as a young performer, brief and modest as they might have been. In an attempt to embrace a more age appropriate lifestyle, I am ready to be lifted up to "the heavy side layer" - not in actual death, just to the next level of my life.

No, I am not dying, neither literally or even symbolically. But I do cherish the 'Memory.'

Sunday, February 20, 2011

My First Cabaret

I got to perform live once again, in front of an audience this past Wednesday night. We had reached the culmination of our second session in the Performers' Workshop: our cabaret acts. It was a session I truly enjoyed since I'm always making up new lyrics for well known songs, just for the fun of it (too much free time inside my head, perhaps). For our class assignments we were asked to journal about our current lives, to recognize and choose the recurring themes, and then write original lyrics to songs from musicals.

And to sing about it in public!

My classmates are talented and seasoned performers. It was interesting to hear more than one of them talk about how nervous they felt, having to exploit and expose their own lives and personalities. The recurring theme among the different singers was that it was much harder to perform as yourself than it is to hide in or behind a character, whether as part of the chorus or in a leading role.

I relished it. Call it the narcissist in me, but I rather enjoyed the process of choosing what to talk, write, and sing about. Plus, I'm always jonesin' for attention (why do you think I blog?). Not that I wasn't nervous, but I was also on a high all day Wednesday, before the performance, and even the day before. I relished the anticipation of performing live again, getting the chance to sing and even tap dance a little for an audience.

I talked and sang about getting fired from the Character department at Disneyland, my dependency on caffeine, and the desire to still have and do it all, both the day job and more performing gigs, despite my waning youth and energy.

I was the last to go on stage in an evening featuring ten singers. The singer before me was a woman I came to adore as a classmate and friend very quickly. She had honed her own cabaret style and act for several years in Chicago before coming out to Los Angeles. As a performer, she understands the importance of balancing the brassy and bawdy with heart wrenching ballads, the light with the dark.

So, it was easy to see why her act was saved for almost the end. I should have felt intimidated, having to follow someone such as her. Instead, I was flattered that I was chosen to go last.

It was a long evening. The audience was friendly and enthusiastic, at first. By the time we got to the second-to-last act, the energy in the room felt subdued as I watched my friend sing flawlessly on stage.

It was a one night only performance, and we were sold out. So what if the energy had died in the room? This was my one shot for this particular and personal show, and it's been a while since I last performed, so I was determined to make the most of it.

I didn't wow and delight the audience with every facet of my ten minute act, as I had hoped. But I got a couple of genuine laughs, including when I ad libbed the line, "I'm not into that" when I talked about being tickled while working in costume at Disneyland.

I am grateful for the experience, grateful for the learning gleaned from the creative process. Would I be willing to perform in future cabarets? I hope I get the opportunity. Would I be willing to write new material? Certainly.

But for now I'm glad it's over. I need a break. As I had joked to the audience in the act, "Grandpa's tired!" As grateful as I am to enjoy the luxury of being myself, it can be exhausting!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Luxury of Being Yourself, Part 2

Even before I went away to college, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to dance.
I wanted to sing, and act, and perform. I wanted to be like the students at the high school of the arts, on the television show "Fame." I wanted to be like the dancers and singers I had seen on stage at Disneyland. I wanted to be like my friend, John, who was one of the performers in Donald Duck's 50th Birthday parade.

And eventually, I did. I became a singer in a dinner theater revue. I later got my first job as a dancer on a cruise ship. Before going away to sea, I also got involved with ex-gay ministry, attending a weekly support group for Christian men who no longer wanted to identify as homosexual. It was another version of the religious leash I still felt I needed in order to be tethered.

One of the jobs I had as a dancer was for a Vegas style show on the island of Guam, which is a tiny rock of an island, south of Japan. The contract, at the Sandcastle Show Lounge, was to be for nine months.

I'm not sure why, but the other dancers in the Guam show assumed I was straight, and I just let them. After two or three years of being in the ex-gay support group, I suppose it seemed like the right thing to do. I didn't try to fake a straight identity, but neither did I confirm a gay identity in my behavior and personality.

It's strange to think that, in the atmosphere of dance rehearsals, and being backstage and in the boys' dressing room, other dancers would perceive me as straight. Entertainment people aren't as easy to fool when it comes to sexuality.

I missed Kathy and talked about her a lot. It was difficult for both of us, being apart. That was the truth. But I didn't refer to her as my Best Friend Forever. Omission of the Complete Truth may have been deceitful on my part.

I learned something during my temporary not-perceived-as-gay status: the young women in the show were friendly to me, but there was a barrier, an invisible wall they were putting up that I wasn't used to. It was as if they felt the need to be on their guard with me, even if only a little bit, as long as they thought I was straight.

I didn't like that. I wasn't used to it. Growing up, my closest friends were usually girls. I missed the physical and emotional comfort that female friends felt with me, those who knew that I was gay.

I was unhappy on Guam. Part of it was being away from Kathy, a big part of it. After only two months, I told my bosses that I wanted to go back home. Fortunately, there were a couple of male dancers that had been in the show before who wanted to come back. I was allowed to return to California without fulfilling my nine months contract.

It wasn't until after I had left Guam that I realized another major reason for my unhappiness: I hadn't been honest about who I really am. I had contributed to the walls and barriers that I felt amongst the other dancers by not being my authentic self.

I did not immediately start being more myself, right after that. It took a few years of practice, and it took letting go of my insecurities, little by little. It was not easy to let go of my religious ideals and face the fact that I was just plain lonely. I wanted to do what was right, but I did not want to deliberately choose to be alone, either.

I allowed myself to start dating men again, in my late twenties. I made some foolish choices and mistakes worthy of a seventh-grader. My attempts to date and pursue relationships with men were emotional disasters that were more fitting to a 19-year-old.

Oh, well, only about a decade behind.

I included the recent photo above because it disturbed one of my relatives (ironically, it was a relative who accepts me wholly for who I am). This had been my profile photo on facebook last month until my relative asked me to please change it.
I was surprised by the request. But it was a nice marker for how far I'd come in the last couple of decades, as far as what I can take for granted now, including the freedom to be as fabulously flamboyant as I want to, when the mood strikes.

It took a few years of emotional struggle as well as some trial and error, but I don't worry as much as I used to about receiving the approval of others. I don't feel I have to justify who I am, like I used to in the past. I have the comfort and luxury of being able to be myself without having to worry what others think.

If people don't like me, then that's too bad. It's my loss but I can live with it.

I know who I am, and it is sufficient.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Week's Notice

Howdy, Plastic Bubble Peeps!

I'll be performing a ten-minute cabaret act next Wednesday night, Feb. 16th, at the M Bar in Hollywood.

I'm still jonesin' to get to the Part 2 post of 'The Luxury of Being Yourself,' but I wanted to give you a heads up about the performance next week since I had sorta' promised Cheryl over at Bread and Bread that I would.

I'm the last performer to go on, which is quite the compliment, but it means I won't be on stage until after 10 pm - on a school night!

I'll be singing/talking a bit about when I got fired from Disneyland. (and I'll be wearing those bunny feet above, as part of the act)


Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Luxury of Being Yourself, Part 1

Erin #1 was my first girlfriend in junior high. We were both 13-years-old and in the eighth grade when we "went around" for a record of sixteen weeks! It was BFF Kathy who nicknamed her Erin #1 when I later sorta' dated another girl with the same first name. The second Erin and I were cast in a local community theater production of "Grease." Even though I only saw the second Erin once after our brief showmance in high school, my First Girlfriend Erin is still referred to as Erin #1 by Kathy and me, almost thirty years later.

Erin #1 - and her mom - gave me and taught me something valuable: the freedom of being able to be yourself. One of the reasons I liked Erin so much in the eighth grade was that I was able to be myself around her and her mother. I didn't have to feel shy or self conscious with them. That privilege was appreciated all the more when I compared it to the usual insecurity I felt in my teen years.

I took baby steps in high school toward expressing my rugged individualism, including wearing bandanna headbands and berets (but not at the same time - please). After breaking up in the eighth grade, Erin #1 and I became closer as friends during high school. She was a major influence in individualism to me, being one of the first brave young women to bring back the retro mod look from the underground, in her fishnet stockings, mini-skirts, and yes - berets. Erin was the one to introduce me to the mod/ska bands of the early 80's, including the English Beat.

As part of my continuing quest to be myself, I started my twenty year period of wearing something purple everyday. I was the first boy at my school to get the "step" or bowl haircut. I wasn't cool or popular; I was in band. And drama. And I got teased, picked on. But I continued being myself, as much as possible.

Until I went away to college.

I had a friend from high school attending UCLA, John. He was in the Christian fraternity on campus. John was a year older than me, and he was my idol. He was the valedictorian of his graduating class as well as a dancer and singer. He had been in the show choir at school. I wanted to be just like him. So, I followed him to UCLA a year later, and pledged the Christian fraternity on campus, just like he did. They were nicknamed "the ice cream frat" since there was never any beer at their parties.

John warned me: "They're a very conservative group." He suggested that I might want to tone down my personal style if I wanted to be accepted into the frat house.
Before my freshman year started I bought preppy shirts with button-down collars and regular Levi's 501's. My mother was surprised, and then relieved when I explained the reason for my new wardrobe. She thought I was taking my first steps toward growing up.

Yeah, right.

After a term of pledging and then being hazed (nothing too drastic, not at a Christian fraternity) I was not one of the pledges who had been accepted into the fraternity. I was the "bad pledge" because I spent too much time at Lisa's and Karen's apartment and not enough time at the frat house. Lisa and Karen were two of the fraternity's Little Sisters, and they were like big sisters to me, taking care of me and letting be myself around them.

I was the only pledge who got in trouble for going to a campus showing of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" on Halloween night, even though a couple of my pledge brothers went with me - and even though I made sure to attend the Wednesday night bible study before the midnight showing.

I was already suspect because I danced. I loved club dancing whenever possible and I took dance classes, jazz and ballet, at the John Wooden athletic center on campus. In addition to the no alcohol rule, the fraternity also had a no dancing policy. We weren't expressly forbidden to dance elsewhere, but the unspoken understanding was that Christians don't dance, not real Christians.

Not being accepted into the fraternity was tough. Besides wanting to be just like John, part of my reason for wanting to join was to put a religious leash on myself. I was already well aware of my physical attraction to guys. I had known since the age of twelve. When I first left my parents' house to go away to school I didn't trust myself to not take advantage of my first taste of freedom.

I thought that being in the Christian fraternity would keep me from straying.

Being rejected by the fraternity also hurt because it was a major part of my general failure at UCLA. I had lasted barely a full academic year before formally withdrawing, knowing that I wouldn't be back the following fall for my sophomore year. I had been put on academic probation (I had been cutting my math class to go to dance class) and I didn't really want to be there in the first place. I went to UCLA to make my parents happy, except that they weren't.

And neither was I.

"You just wasted an entire year!" my mother exclaimed.

"No," I countered. "I think I learned a lot more about myself - about what I want to do and what I don't want to do."

(to be continued)

The photo above is of me and Tedd in 1984 - I'm the one on the right! Tedd was one of my pledge brothers, and he is still one of my closest friends-for-life today)