Sunday, July 22, 2012

Call Me Aunt Peter

An interracial baby boy was born, recently, to two of my coworkers. "Aunt Peter loves that you had an Asian baby!" I joked. Neither the mother nor the father, who both laughed (thank goodness), are of Asian descent. Their newborn son just looked rather Asiatic in his first twenty-four hours.

I'm glad I can make people laugh with my feminine nickname. And I'm glad I feel relaxed about making fun of myself . . . now. There was a time when I didn't laugh about my silly moniker.

"Prissy, your Aunt Peter is here," Jerry would say to his cat when I came to visit.

Years ago, Jerry and I had become close friends at work. He was very supportive when I first came out of the closet and struggled, as a young adult, to try to find a compromise for my sexuality and Christianity. He had always been there for me when I needed a shoulder to lean on, especially the shoulder of a Christian friend.

Jerry was also willing to provide a listening ear when I started attending a weekly support group for ex-gays. It was a twelve-step program for Christian men who wanted their sexuality to stop interfering with their spirituality, however that may be interpreted.

In our effort to become complete as heterosexual men, one of the key theories we learned was the importance of shunning all things feminine from our personalities. I explained this to Jerry, and pointed out how damaging it was for him to address me with a feminine title.

And I had to emphasize that I was being completely serious.

The irony is that Jerry was not the most masculine of my friends, although he swore he was straight, from the day I had met him. Compounding the irony was the fact that we had worked together in entertainment - for Disney. Most of my friends from Disney and theater naturally had a finely tuned sense of gaydar. And most of those same people thought Jerry was very, um, "sweet."

Years later, as a single man, Jerry was still maintaining his heterosexual status. And it was years later that I finally went back to school to major in Gender Studies. Two years of soaking up the liberal and interesting perspectives of this field made me more open-minded about people's sexuality, including Jerry's.

Having been raised in a Christian family, it took a while for me to detach from a "black or white" lens. You were either straight or gay. You were either Christian or you were not. Learning about human sexuality helped me to appreciate all of the in between shades of greys, and pinks, and lavenders of people, including Jerry.

I also learned to appreciate the notion that "shunning all things feminine" is rather misogynistic. In the simplest nutshell, some men don't want to identify with women because it is beneath them. If women are inferior to men, then men should not want to be associated with any of their traits or qualities.


I love being Uncle Peter to my nieces and nephews. And I adore being an honorary auntie to my friends' children. I look up to quite a few women in my life: my own Aunt Pat, my dance teacher, Dede, and the CEO of our workplace, a role model for graciousness. It is an honor to emulate them, knowing even just a small part of the obstacles they have had to overcome.

So, I embrace the feminine in me, and the masculine. I love and accept that which is one hundred percent Peter Varvel.

(The photo above is of BFF Kathy's two children, Abby and Jonah, and me. At least they still call me Uncle Peter . . . for now).

Friday, July 6, 2012

That Other Place

Someone had asked me, years ago, if dancing took me to an almost spiritual level. He had heard that performing could be a religious experience for professional dancers. I regretted having to tell him that while I had enjoyed performing on stage, I hadn't experienced that euphoric ideal yet. I hated having to disappoint him.

Although I was 23-years-old, at the time, I was emotionally young, still. But I wasn't truly a professional dancer, even after achieving my desired status as a paid performer - at a dinner theater! I had started late in life as a dancer, getting my formal training after I had turned eighteen and had moved out of my parents' house. It would be years before I would even begin to comprehend the spirituality of dancing.

But I did enjoy those performing-induced endorphins early on. The natural high from physically exerting my body while performing live for an audience was addicting. I wanted more.

That was a long time ago. In the last few years I have been feeling a little angry, now and then, about my dancing days being behind me. Having started so late, I realize how lucky I am that I got to dance at all.

But it wasn't enough. I had wanted more, so much more. So I've started performing again this year, age be damned.

I will start rehearsals soon for "Miss Saigon." I have been walking around work feeling a quiet joy of anticipation, walking from my office past cubicles, thinking about the most recent dance audition that helped me get cast as one of the ensemble.

Now that I am older, I'm just grateful that my body can still "do it" when I go to the rare dance audition, grateful that I can still pick up the steps and execute them at a fairly strong level (thank goodness for all of the workouts of lifting weights, jogging, and Pilates). It is mortally exhausting, and yet I still have the urge, the drive to dance, to perform!

I think about the martial artsy/military-esque routine for "Miss Saigon's" audition, and the angry Vietnamese soldier I was trying to put forth. It was almost like a removal of my conscious self, in typical actor fashion. I got out of my own way to let another persona inhabit the dance and the movements and the storytelling.

While going over the dance audition in my mind this week, I realized that I was able go to that other place outside of myself, and into performance euphoria.

And I think, finally, at my age, I'm beginning to understand more about what it means to reach a more spiritual level via dancing.

Better late than never.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Marsha Grisham, or What I Learned from JB

"Marsha Grisham?" he asked. "Oh, I've worked with her. I was one of her dancers"

JB meant Martha Graham. He was pretending to be a name dropping braggadocio, a character that made me and other coworkers laugh. We knew by his barely perceptible tone of sarcasm that JB was well aware of getting the name wrong.

"I've also worked with Alan Hayley. I was in one of his original dance troupes."

I'll always keep a special place in my heart for JB, and not just because we can carry on entire conversations by quoting Bette Midler lines from Beaches, or from the Divine Miss M's comedy album "Mud Will Be Flung Tonight!"

JB: "One time I mixed Midol with speed - I had my period six times in one day!"
Me: "But I had to give up speed . . . I started to understand what Charo was saying."
JB: "Where're those Hebe's that wrote this act?"

JB taught me something important about comedy that I will never forget. I am not naturally funny, as much as I would like to be. I admire funny people, people like JB that can keep us in stitches.

"If you're going to make a comment in jest," JB explained, "if you're just being facetious, make sure to say it in a character voice, so people will know you're joking."

I can be one of the most inappropriate people I know, with what comes out of my mouth. I'm still learning, even at my age, the balance of when it's okay to let loose with inappropriate remarks, and when to censor myself. JB's advice has been useful more than once while trying to achieve this balance. I'll always be grateful to him for that.

When working with dancers and talking about favorite shows, the jazz and burlesque styles of Fosse inevitably come up. And JB would inevitably pipe in.

"Bob Foster? Oh, I've worked with him."

JB is also a skilled and talented photographer. The photo above is a kind of spontaneous moment that he had captured of the two of us.