Shirtless in Raleigh

I am becoming a dirty old man.

Since writing doesn’t pay the bills, I have to perform a different sort of writing to keep myself off the streets, an altogether different type, technically known as “coding”. In other (less long-winded) words, I work, as a developer, for a large software company based in North Carolina, and spend – as I am now – periodic two-week stints here at their campus, instead of at my home-office in Hollywood, CA. These trips sort of bifurcate my life into domains best described as gay-centrals on one hand, and baby factory on the other. Neer the twain shall meet.

In gay central, I spend a lot of time in West Hollywood, not necessarily living “the gay lifestyle” (this is just a friendly dig at a fellow columnist who dislikes that term), but certainly existing amidst a mostly gay milieu. For instance, I work on my laptop frequently at the big Starbucks opposite 24Hour Fitness. On such days, it’s not unusual for me to see, through the course of a few hours, fifty men beautiful enough to be models (in “normal” cities.)

Here in North Carolina, meanwhile, the walls and doors of many offices are plastered with baby pictures, every other vehicle is a mini-van, and lunch meetings with colleagues are on the suicidal verge of boredom. (When they’re not talking about their kids, they’re only left with sports and church.) I’ve worked for this company for twelve years. During that time, I don’t recall once meeting somebody on our campus that I could clearly identify as gay. Nor, for the most part, do I get the visual stimulus, here, of bodies beautiful (certainly not on campus.)

Maybe this explains why I got so excited last night. I was early for an appointment I had to drive to, so pulled over opposite a park, to catch up with some work. It was some sort of frizby-combo-golf-weird-game park, as near as I could make out, and playing the course were four college students, one of whom was shirtless, just wearing shorts, with a beautiful, compact, muscular build and the most engaging smile. You had the sense, as he walked around the course, that he was both completely aware of the homoeroticism implicit in his shirtlesness as well as extremely self-confident (though without being affected.) The body language on display in the group indicated that he was “the leader”. I’m not saying that any of the others were remotely affected by the proximity of his gorgeous bare chest, but it’s nice to fantasize.

I, however, was certainly affected. I fumbled with my bag to get out the point-and-shoot camera I always have with me, and shakily tried to line up a few shots without attracting their attention. I’m not at all sure why I was so flustered, since I see beautiful men every day back in gay-central. What is certain, however, is that I felt like a dirty old man, even if only in a self-amused ironic way.

(You can see the photos here, though I must excuse their poor quality by the evening light, the poor camera, and the distance from that camera of the object of my lust.)

I’ve long wondered how I’d feel when I reached the age of no longer having the kind of body others lusted at. If that sounds arrogant, let me follow with admitting that I went through most of my life without it, having grown up very skinny. Through my twenties, I detested my body so much, I’d call myself a death-head on a stick. When I saw men with the physique and confidence to bear their torsos in public, there was always a tinge of bitterness and envy mixed up in my admiration. It was only as I entered my late thirties, that my body got its act together, and, for an all to brief shining period, I enjoyed the attention I got when I had my shirt off. Now, at the age of forty-seven, that glow is fading (or, more frankly, has winked out), and, as I began to say, I wondered if – at this stage – the bitterness and envy would return.

It comes as a big surprise – to me at least – that there are good things about aging. You don’t take yourself so seriously; you care less (I mean that in the literal sense – as in “my care is less”; not as in “I couldn’t care less”) what others think about you; you have the wisdom to know when to pick your fights; you don’t get so bent out of shape at life’s injustices; and – this is the bigger surprise – you accept, with equanimity, that your looks aren’t what they were, and the sight of others – like the young man here in the park – who still inspire gasps when they’re shirtless, just brings to mind a tender mix of admiration and good memories. So, let’s here it for dirty old men!

Porn in public: the death of civility?

Is it time to mourn public civility?

 

Today’s New York Times had a front page article on San Francisco’s pragmatic solution to the problem of public library patrons purviewing porn: special hoods over the Internet workstations. The city turned to this solution because banning or blocking library visitors from adult websites would cause here a hue and cry not heard since the SFPD tried to crack down on nude runners in the annual Bay-to-Breakers race. This is a city – my beloved San Francisco, my home for fifteen years until I moved to LA – where even straight parents think it’s perfectly fine to take a seven year old to the Folsom Street Fair, where it’s far from rare to see not just full-frontal nudity (sometimes with mangled and pierced private parts), but public sex, not to mention flogging, bondage, and men in scary gas-masks. (Even homeless people join the revelry, shedding their garb.) I was in San Francisco for the last Folsom, and wasn’t overly surprised to see nude, excessively hair men sitting composedly on the corner of Market and Castro, reading the Sunday paper. The city decided to allow public nudity, but to require the practicioners to  have something – anything – even a sheet from their newspaper – between their posteriors and their seats.

While I applaud, once again, the civic mindedness and enlightenment of the SF  Board of Supervisors, I can’t help wishing that they hadn’t had to come up with a solution to porn-watching public library customers. Let’s face it, people should know better. To me, raised in England, that position seems a no-brainer. You shouldn’t need to be told that your free  rights as a citizen should give way, at times, to the concept of the public shared space of civility. Yet, sometimes, I feel it’s coming to seem like heresy to say this in America, a country in which personal liberty of behavior has come to attain the highest value.

I see it all the time at Starbucks in West Hollywood: people looking at Craigslist ads, hairy penises and all. Even if it weren’t for my concept of appropriate public behavior, I’d never be seen dead looking at ads like that in full view of others. While that’s partly my own personal story of obsessive privacy – I’d be equally dead against being seen choosing drapes on the Macys website – would it be that difficult for people to at least try to screen their screens?

People’s belief in their right to do what they want, where they want, plays out in so many ways here. You’re looked at in befuddled amazement by someone you ask to please talk more quietly on their phones. On one flight from Dallas to Burbank, the gal in the middle seat behind me talked non-stop, in a piercing nasal voice, to her seatmates, both strangers, about every personal detail of her life. It wasn’t just me. People several rows in front and back of her were obviously squirming in distaste at the travails of her on and off against boyfriend, and the scars from removing the tattoos on her upper thighs.

As we stood up to deplane, there was the inevitable delay in opening the front door, so she set off again, and, all of a sudden, I couldn’t help myself. I turned to her and asked her if she ever stopped talking. Did she realize that everybody within twenty feet could now recount her entire childhood? The look on her face was priceless: she obviously thought, who is this jerk? The thought that her behavior was in the least imposing on others was patently not capable of forming in her mind. (Reactions from my fellow passengers were mixed, with two people shaking my hand, and one calling me an animal and – the real motivator of his anger – a faggot (since he made this intervention at luggage claim after I’d just hugged my boyfriend.)

Speaking of flying, there was another recent New York Times article (which, try as I might, I can’t locate on their website) in Tuesday’s Itineraries section, where the journalist was casting about for opinions on when you should give up your seat so that couples or families could sit together. He reported several cases of antagonism when people refused to give up their seats. People apparently believed they had a God-given right to sit together, even though they hadn’t had the wherewithal to book their seats far enough in advance to secure them side-by-side. But I didn’t really understand the thrust of the article. The writer seemed to be asking the question, is it right to give up your seat? That seems to me fundamentally the wrong approach, since there’s really no right answer. In my hypothesized arena of perfect public civility, it would be a case-by-case basis: there’d be a polite request; the person being asked to move would weigh their own personal comfort needs against courtesy and fellow-feeling, and would choose accordingly; and everybody would accept the decision.

(I’m not a good test case: I’d almost never give up my seat. But not out of selfishness. Instead, out of pure survival instinct. I’m 6’6, with broad-shoulders, and the only way I can survive any flight over two hours long, is to sit exit-row/aisle. It would make of me a masochist to give up that carefully scheduled survival seat just so a lovey-dovey couple could avoid the awfulness of three hours apart.)

Oh, I could go on. Peeing on the seat in public toilets; talking loudly in cinemas (“kill the bitch”); the habit of LA pedestrians of joining the endless stream through cross-walks where a car is expected to wait forever, apparently, purely because the pedestrians do indeed have the right of way; all manner of self-entitled LA behavior, come to think of it. But I’ll rest my case. It’s time for the Last Rites on public civility.

Teen Woof!

The most homoerotic TV show ever?

I know I claimed to know nothing about popular culture, and, to be sure, perhaps you’ve a right to now expect me to expound on the use of alliteration in Henry James, and the masterful polyphony of Gustav Mahler. But then there’s Teen Wolf, MTV’s entry into the reborn fad for the undead.

There are many things I do to retain my ignorance of popular culture. First, I never, under ever circumstances, listen to the radio, because then it’s almost impossible to avoid my biggest pet peeve, commercials. For the same reason, I don’t watch live TV, and my partner and I TIVO the very few shows we like to catch, which have, frequently,  short-lasting seasons, like The Killing or The Walking Dead (both on AMC.) And, finally, if it isn’t in the New York Times, it didn’t happen, as far as I’m concerned. Which is why I find it very strange they’ve never yet reviewed Teen Wolf.

I don’t deny that I persuaded Ben to give it a try purely on the basis of some screen-caps of a couple of hot shirtless guys on Google Images (this is a little sample.). (I don’t recall what I was searching for, but I’m sure it wasn’t related to popular culture: impossible.) But the first episode impressed us with its high production values, well-written script, interestingly cast and acted characters, and adventurous and innovative use of music. The narrative tension was sustained throughout, and there were promises of genuine cinematic heft.

None of those reasons explain the constant “Oh my God”s, and “Hmm, hmmmmm!”s that you’d here generated from the denizens in our … well, in our den, whilst the show is on. They’re involuntarily emitted by one or both of us at the prolonged, intensely homoerotic, shirtless scenes from what must be the most beautiful (in a real way, as opposed to the typical fake and self-conscious Hollywood way) young cast ever put together in a TV series. In the first season, there were at least two long scenes when one of these young men was squirming in agony, soaking wet, on the floor of a shower; and there was a long shirtless torture scene where the torturer licked the guy’s hot abs.

It’s gotten, if anything, even more homoerotic this season. In one episode, one of the characters, a young man of obscene beauty, spent most of the show shirtless, in a tralier, his arms handcuffed behind his back, with the lighting, of course, just so. Then there was the scene in a gay club where a creature with a venomous sting was sending splendid shirtless bodies crashing to the floor. Which reminds me that the character – a secondary one – with perhaps the finest body of them all, is gay, and it’s no big deal. After he wakes up in the hospital (having,  naturally, been one of the men stung by the creature with the venom), his friend comes to pick him up, and, for no reason at all, the gay guy is shirtless when his friend arrives, and takes forever putting his shirt on.

The new season, although it was hotter than ever, felt, at first, disjointed, in a surprising contrast to the near perfect pace of the first season. And we were probably both, privately reaching a point of self-denial about only continuing to watch it because of the boys. But the last two episodes were the best of all: gripping, moving, and, at times, terrifying: it felt as if it was crossing the boundary into the territory of the types of shows we revere for their story and their art. Oh. And the most recent episode I watched was the hottest of all.

Coming out … as “crazy” too!

Coming out as mentally ill, or coming out gay? Which is harder?

I’ve often noticed the similarities between coming out gay, and as a person with a serious, “scary” mental illness, in my case bipolar disorder Type I – the most virulent type. Like all gay men, I have my “coming out” story down pat, and the simple version of it is rather generic. The self-knowledge that I was homosexual had been with me for most of my formative years. I don’t think I’d even turned ten when I made the abrupt connection between my attraction to boys and the concept of “gay”. I vividly recall that exact moment: a horrible sinking recognition that I’d be alone for life, in the darkness of the closet. (I’d grown up in a very macho society, near Newcastle, in the north-east of England, in the seventies.)

Of course, I was wrong about most of that, but it took coming out to make that obvious; not to mention moving to another continent. I went to U. of Penn to do a Ph.D., and it’s only in retrospect that I realized that moving so far was really the means of giving myself space to deal with my sexuality. In my second year, my grades fell apart as I yearned with the insane physical desire to be touched by another man. I ended up pulling out of school early, and graduating with a Masters. The sequelae are conventional: I told my best friends, and, oh, it was no big deal; I told my parents, and … dead silence for a year, followed by grudging acceptance so long as I never, ever talked about it. (Coda: turned out that my brother was a big poofter too, and, years later, one of my sisters turned into a lesbian. Coda upon coda: all three of us have life partners, and my Dad loves them all.)

The fear about coming out as gay is that people will be disgusted, or that you’ll be disowned and rejected. In most civilized places, this disgust has become lessened by increasingly common marks of acceptance: gay marriage lawsuits, famous people coming out, etc. And even in less civilized places – oh, like Los Angeles – at least you won’t be feared. (I joke about LA – I mean it is uncivilized, but being gay there is at least not much of an issue.) Coming out as mentally ill is something else entirely. As with being gay, you’re facing prejudice and incomprehension. But most people also have a visceral fear of mental illness: it’s a subject wrapped willfully in darkness and obscurity. People fear that you’re unpredictable, and you’re going to act “crazy” at any moment. Hell, I’d feel the same.

My coming out as a PoPD (“person of bipolar disorder”) was, as with most PoPDs (I coined that term, by the way), abrupt and non-volitional. My rapid ascent into mania ended up with a fist-fight at a downtown luxury hotel with three security guards, a quite horrible night in jail capped by my faked suicide attempt (and one impersonation of the Anti-Christ), then four involuntary nights in a locked ER psych ward. It wasn’t exactly easy to keep all of this quiet.

Nonetheless, I still had a more formal coming out to consider. I’d started up various business ventures when I was in the manic misconception that I could do anything I put my mind too, even in the absence of funding. And at the same time, I’d been maintaining a blog (still ongoing, at brokenwhole.com), documenting what I’d thought had been an amazing recovery from decades of depression. Even after I’d been diagnosed as a PoPD, I still felt that some of my business ideas made sense: but I was faced, suddenly, with a horrible choice: should I keep my mental illness in the closet, as far as business was concerned?

This was not an obviously clear decision. There’s so much shame associated with mental-illness, and my own two decades of pre-bipolar depression had been clouded with it. Light is the opposite of shame, and so, to counteract shame, I’d always been open in my various blogs about depression. But bipolar disorder is altogether more serious, and I’d doubt many people would consider going into business with a newly minted PoBD. So my choice was to “come out” in my blog about my new diagnosis, and kill my business ideas; or to keep it private, and carry on as normal albeit with a superadded burden of closet-shame.

In the end, the decision became obvious. In the space of ten minutes, I crashed from declining, medicated mania into acute depression so bad that I felt I was teetering on shaking ground on the edge of a chasm, all my dreams fleeing away. And I knew then that being quiet about my condition wasn’t an option. It was hard … very hard … to say goodbye to my ideas, but being open about my diagnosis was much more important to me, and, ultimately, the only way to get a measure of healing. In fact, I even went one huge step further and wrote a book about it.

I still deal with the consequences of being an uncloseted PoBD. For instance, nobody’s ever said it to my face, but there’ve been situations where I’ve started a potential new friendship which has come to a sudden end coincident with their reading my blog for the first time. Like I said: mental illness is scary: which is why I write about it; to remove the mystery; to show that people like myself form a colorful part of life’s tapestry, offering qualities and insights perhaps not available to others. But not everybody can hear that. Of course, it’s also possible that some of these potential friends were scared off by my bad writing. It’s difficult to hide that in the closet (though I’ve several dusty drawers full of it.) Oh, and if this is my last appearance on this website, feel free to draw conclusions. (I’m joking, Bryce! I hope!)

Michaelangelo’s Waiting Room

Girls like cocky; do you?

Cocky

I’m sitting in the most homoerotic Starbucks in the world (otherwise known as West Hollywood Central), working – like almost everybody else – on my laptop (although, unlike everybody else, not writing a screenplay), and my attention was just interrupted by the swaggering entrance of a very hunky guy. This is not an unusual occurrence, here, of course. This man’s eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, but his self-regard was visible to the world nonetheless: he knew he was hot and his feelers were out for his due respect.

Now, I don’t like this sort of cocky self-entitlement. I find it a complete turn-off, lickable biceps notwithstanding. It’s true this man would not have looked out of place in Michelangelo’s waiting-room, but the overall impression was one of portentous seriousness. I have, in fact, seen him before, at the White Party in Palm Springs, embedded in a circle of equally buff buddies. I recall how his eyes sort of glided smoothly past me, as he detected my perusal of his muscular assets; as if he’d sooner die rather than give the impression, to somebody outside of his retinue, that he was a human being.

I’ve harbored, for a long time, the fantasy of quizzing such guys, seeing if I could pull out an admission of vulnerability from the off-putting apparent self-involvement. Perhaps he’d tell me just how darned difficult it is to be so god-like; that his tunnel gaze is protective against all those who greedily take him in. I’d try to tell him, in turn, the bit about being human.

I hear the yells: I must be a bitter old party queen, jealous that I don’t get generate that sort of heat. But I’ve had a long run of which I can’t complain. I’m tall, broad-shouldered, and, until recently at least, had blond highlights mandated by my boyfriend who’s yet to get over his frat-guy obsession. How can I say this without sounding vain: people seemed to find me hot. And I loved the attention, I make no bones about it. I drank it up. Yet I don’t think I was ever so full of myself that I couldn’t exchange a smile with a plainer Jane.

Recently, in Sydney of all places, I fulfilled another fantasy. At a club, I told a preening guy to get over himself. I just couldn’t resist trying to puncture his bubble. To my surprise, he looked hurt, and, after some hesitation, grabbed me by the arm, dragged me to a quieter area, and unburdened himself to me. He knew he was projecting this enormous self-fascination, but didn’t know how to break down the barrier. He felt self-conscious with all the attention, and had chosen the route of avoidance. What could he do to break this cycle, he asked me?

Didn’t happen, unfortunately. I mean, I did tell him to get over himself, but he just looked right through me, and carried right on, steaming through the dance floor, the little people scattering in his wake. Nice to imagine, though, that it could happen.

The Competitive Agenda

Since this is my first blog entry on this site, I’d like to start off with something that would grab your interest by the throat until you screamed for more. Or something like that. But that’s not my agenda; in this first paragraph at least. No, here, I get to say hi, with a little about myself, and give you a preview of the sorts of things I’ll be writing on.

Quick encapsulation of the stuff you’re not going to be able to derive – necessarily – from my writing: British, have lived in the US for 26 years, living with my b.f. Ben in Hollywood, six-foot-six, and, I have a serious health condition which I’d ordinarily save for a later reveal, except that it’s in my byline: I have bipolar disorder. Which means that living with bipolar disorder, and the way it interacts with another subject that’s frequently been closeted: homosexuality – will be one of my subjects. Otherwise, I intend to write a more personal blog than the average: you can call it “the gay condition”. And I’ll try to refrain from too many references to what goes on in what you might call the eccentric fringe of my mind.

One final introductory self-disclosure: I won’t be blogging about celebrities (except perhaps about why celebrity culture is a problem) or popular culture (because others know a lot more about it than I do.)

I intended to start this first entry with some Internet research on why spouses – gay or straight – are competitive. But Google insisted instead on only showing me links to a game show, “Gay, Straight or Taken.” What sparked my interest in this subject was thinking about my own experiences in romantic relationships, where I’ve frequently indulged in completely meaningless competition. Are other gay male partners this competitive; and does the double dose of testosterone in the latter make it more common there than in straight relationships?

Arm Wrestling

Lacking hard statistics, I will look at my own relationship with my eight-year-old partner Ben, (He’s not actually a toddler – I mean we’ve been together that long.) Since Ben is not here to serve his own defence, I’ll restrict matters (mostly) to my most popular topic: myself. The truth is that I was truly, madly, insanely competitive, in the first year of our relationship, to a point that’s frankly embarrassing. And I’m not going to refrain from embarrassing myself here. I’ve never been a particular friend of “product” – bathroom items such as skin toner, scrub, and cotton wool. My admittedly fading looks emerge from a face that hasn’t seen moisturizer in many years. I just can’t be bothered. Yet when I first moved in with Ben, I’d see him moisturize his torso lovingly every night, and, astonishingly, I’d feel envy. I had – at the time – too much acne to support additional moisture on my skin.

But I was disturbed that Ben’s Aveda could drive me crazy like this, so I consulted my therapist, who was then a gay man. (He’s still gay, but I’ve moved on.) To my relief, he told me that most gay couples are competitive. (I’m sure he was thinking inside “Yes, but Aveda!”) I was even more competitive, though, about clothing. If we went shopping together, Ben, being 5’10 with a good build, could find anything on the rack, whereas for me, with my 6’6 broad-shouldered frame, I’d often draw a complete blank. Clothes designers seem to think that if you’re 6’6, you also weigh about 300 lbs, and are correspondingly rotund.

But I discovered alteration! Before long, all of my shirts, sweaters and even tank-tops would go under the knife and resultingly fit me so flatteringly that even Ben became envious. (Now, seven years later, at the age of 47, I’m discovering the down-side: half of my wardrobe is now awaiting the mythical day when I’ll become as slim again as I was when I was a wee slip of a 40 year-old.)

For all those suffering from the irrational competitive drive to do all things better than your boyfriend, I’m here to say that things get better. You grow up, and, hopefully, the neuroses drop away. In my case, the process was helped by a life-threatening crisis we both went through that went a long way towards destroying interpersonal insecurities. May I recommend the same approach if you’re a sufferer?

Ben, on the other hand, is still hugely competitive. He will play neither chess nor Scrabble with me. The ignoble excuse against Scrabble is “Oh, English isn’t my first language.” That statement is not only an arrant falsehood (he grew up in Singapore where English if the first language), but also demonstrably irrelevant, as anybody who’s ever heard him speak in public could confirm. Not only that, but Ben obviously became envious that I had a serious mental-health diagnosis and he didn’t, so he invented one for himself, some sort of attention-deficit disorder. I think what he really has is just common or garden AMPS (Absent-Minded Professor Syndrome.) But, say I accept his diagnosis at face value: my bipolar disorder clearly trumps his ADD, so there!