Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tossing Copper

"A penny for your thoughts." (Sir Thomas More, 1522)

             I have never been one to hold back on what I think. I'm sure this lack of censor is a genetic predisposition from my Mother's side of the family. While my Father, and his heritage, held stoic as a valued emotional state, Mom and her family always seemed to tell it like it is, at least from their point of view. Expressing myself has always been something at which I've excelled. Whether in written form, or from my big fat mouth, words always just seem to flow from me, especially at the most inappropriate of times. I have always been cursed, and blessed, with this character trait. My entire life, this inability to shut my cakehole got me in a lot of trouble. Most times, it has served me quite well.
            There is something to be said for being blunt and uncensored.  Granted, as an adult I have learned to hold back and moderate my opinions and/or responses, but there are still many situations which call for a succinct relay of how I think and feel about something. It is through self-control that one builds an inner "editor", helping one discern what to say or not to say. The experiences from my life have taught me many things and from them I have become very strong. This strength guides my decisions, harnesses my anger and is the greatest form of self-preservation. It protects me and adapts to each situation, mimicking what is needed. It shields me from harm, both from others and myself. Strength, this internal fortitude, has made of me a force to be reckoned with. I don't take well to bullshit or the people who tend to dump it all over the place.
            People actually believe that just because one is spiritual, leading a God-based life versus a Me-based life, that the same mortal limitations no longer apply to them. They must be above being human. As if any man (or woman) of God is not as human and limited as any other person on this planet would be. Just because one's life focus is beyond their human nature, does not mean that they exist outside their human nature.  No matter how I rise above, I am constantly reminded how truly human I still am. No matter how others try to convince me I don't see things that way, I stand firm on my awareness.  I am always cognizant of how limited most other people can be, and of course, I tend to be so myself, at times. Frankly, most often people make it so that I just couldn't care less.              
            There is a huge difference between expressing your thoughts and attacking someone with words. One does not automatically measure the other. There is also a huge deviation between your opinion and the truth. The two rarely go hand in hand.  It's a simple notion, the idea of saying what you mean instead of what you feel at the moment, or even what you think at the time. It is the difference between night and day, between wrong and right. You have to learn to edit. You have to discern, to judge what to say rather than simply catching pennies.

 "Don't you recall what your Mama told
You've got to learn hot from cold
When you're afraid that you might get burned
Where do you turn?
You've got to know who to
Who not to listen to
You've gotta know who to
Who not to listen to
They're gonna hit you from all sides
Better make up your mind
Who to, who not to listen to"
(Who To Listen To, Amy Grant 1985) 

            If to be a child is to see without judgment, then to be an adult is to thrive in bias. We spend so much time perceiving others through our own sense of reality that we forget how truly human we all are. The most righteous man still sins in secret. The greatest saint was as flawed as the rest of us. The soaring angel will always have a fall. People are not perfect and I believe we never can be. This does not mean that I have to take your crap or make allowances for  your limitations. Neither should one have to for me.  
            As a boy growing up, my Mother taught me that I have the right to stand up for myself. My youth and naïveté limited my ability to do so correctly. My Father taught me that what others think matters little in the larger scheme of things and that not responding, in itself, is as great a weapon as any words spoken in self-defence. In high school, I did not tolerate any deviation from what I considered acceptable personal or social conduct towards me. If you acted, in my opinion, inappropriately then the gloves were off. I reacted by impulse, never once holding myself to the same standards I expected from others. I would catch another's "penny" and then would whip my entire roll right at their face. While this behaviour usually made things much worse for me, the only thing that mattered was if I thought I was right. Damn the consequence.
            Moderation was never my strong suit. This may have had something to do with the imbalance caused by my Bipolar disorder, but in truth, I was always this way. I seem to operate best within the black or the white. I still do not wear grey well. I have functioned in these extremes, never once considering how it made others feel or what their reaction may end up being. I could not have given a shit less. Therefore, I said what I wanted, believed what I wanted and rarely, if ever, took another into consideration. Screw empathy and compassion; for me, you would get what you paid for.
            Fully grown, and I am often still caught by surprise at how nasty I can be. It is still all or nothing for me, most of the time. I suppose a life of hardship has made me slightly intolerant of others' faults, but to be frank, if people left me out of their drama I wouldn't have to tell them to go fuck themselves. I've tried the "good guy" approach, handling each situation with patience and understanding. People still pitch pennies and they sting when they make contact. I've tried the "spiritual approach", allowing the force within me to reach out with that compassion and empathy. More often than not, I end up choking on all that change. There are no pennies from heaven.
            Those limitations we all have are hard to overlook when you're the one under attack. It is difficult for me to let go of the idea that the only way to escape the ramifications people bring into one's life, is to either be mean to them in defence, or just not bother with them at all. Simply put, if you don't compliment my life, then you complicate my life. If you don't bring quality to the table, then you bring chaos.    

"Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one."
(Friedrich Nietzsche)

             If the truth be told, sometimes I still enjoy being an asshole, particularly if someone judges me. How does one not judge the judgmental? It seems to me that I would not rely on the part of me that excoriates others if there wasn't a reason to do so. If you're going to condemn me, then you, as far as I am concerned, deserve everything you get. It has always been a challenge for me to hold back, even when I should just walk away. Fighting back can be such a waste of time and I know that it always works both ways. It serves little purpose. People rarely stop to think about the consequences of complicating rather than the productivity of complimenting. Screaming about it never seems to do any good.
            I seldom start a fight. I can count on one hand the times, over my entire life, when I drew first blood. If you strike out at me, I may smash you in the face. If you attack me, I may not hesitate to put you in your place. This is my makeup, it is who I am. I have little tolerance for stupidity, or bullying, or ignorance, and although I may not throw the first punch, rest assured I will probably hit you until you submit or just run away. While I appreciate the input of another, if you are going to chuck pennies, be prepared for me to pick them up and ram then down your throat. I will not allow anyone to step all over me, not now, not ever. I get to choose which way I take, not you.
            I believe in the intent, not in the action. It is not so much in the doing that I reason we are righteous, but in the trying we are virtuous. Jesus may have told us to turn the other cheek, but eventually we run out of flesh for bruising. Just because I have a spiritual foundation in my life does not mean I am going to waste more time worrying about what others think. If you act out against me, I have the right to defend myself. If you continue to do so, even after you have been put in your place, then I have the right to desert you, to walk away and not look back.
            I am not impulsive in this nature. It takes a long time for me to lose my temper and usually someone must push way past my boiling point for me to flow over. These days, I seem to be able to discern what to say and whether it is worth doing so. I am sure that I know who to and not to listen to. The Spirit within me has given me self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Self-control dictates denying yourself and thus controlling your impulses, not disregarding, or not reacting or not having those impulses. Through self-discipline we control our behaviour, not rid ourselves of it. I recognize that "those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind" (Dr. Seuss), but I can only bite my tongue for so long. Eventually, it will fall off. 

"I tried to be your brother
You cried and ran for cover
I made a mess, who doesn’t?
I did my best but it wasn’t enough ...
I’ll give you something you can cry about
One thing you should try it out
Hold a mirror shoulder high
When you’re older look you in the eye
When you’re older look you in the eye"
(You Run Away, Barenaked Ladies, 2010)

            Recently, someone close to me pissed me right off. They kept going and going, almost provoking my wrath to come forward. I let them know, with little doubt or question, my level of perturbed. The next day, they asked me if my medication for the treatment of my chemical disorder was working properly. Of course, I was the one with the problem. This is a prime example of how people think that because you react at all you are medically, or spiritually, compromised. What the fuck do I have to do with anyone acting like an asshole? Deflection is a coward's tool. I think the fact that I didn't punch them right in the mouth, or toss them out a window, validates that I have much control. Perhaps, if I am to control myself in the appropriate manner you should practice what you're bitching about. There is nothing worse than a hypocrite. People really do lay down their own rules thinking they apply to everyone but themselves. If you can't follow the very standards you set for others, then you may need to re-examine just who you are listening or not listening to.
            People are strange, quite often. They ask for your opinion, or incite a response, as if tossing coin like a symbolic form of invitation. When they don't get what they want from the exchange, it is always the other person who is the moron. It matters little to me whether you agree with me or not on these points. The point is I have the right to disagree and express my opinion, just as you do. Granted, I must control myself, exercising a moderate and appropriate response. Of course, there is a simple solution to all this. If you don't like what I say in reply, that's all good and well, but I'm not the one pitching pennies.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Let Me Entertain You

            The feeling one gets from forms of entertainment can manifest when one is also performing within them. There is art in all of us. Arguably, there is a little entertainer in all of us too. The rush of energy when you hear that clapping. The feel of warmth looking out on your audience and seeing Mom, and Dad, and all the other smiling faces, gives as many, if not more goosebumps, than viewing the greatest theatrical production or the most heart warming of films. The visceral experience, that thrill one gets from the limelight, acts like any song about lost love would. The surge of primal emotions we undergo while captured in the rapture cannot be forgotten or shed. Years later, there is a memory association which allows one to bask in the spotlight all over again. Sometimes art just flows over you. More often, it lives in you.

            In grade three, I was asked to play a witch when no female student would join the Regular Reading program at my public school. I agreed wholeheartedly, sweeping from room to room on my broom. There was no underlying implication from the dress and wig I wore, they simply fit me for the part. I could not have been more content with my performance. I actually felt happy inside despite the social significance of such a dramatic move. I say now to what I did then: “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.” This began my longtime love of performance. It is something I’ve always excelled at. It is something that has always given me great pleasure and the simplest form of joy, laughter.
            Just after my family relocated from Toronto to Strathroy, Ontario in 1976, I entered the Dora Fortner Poetry contest. I won first prize for the grade six class while my sister won for her grade four class. We both beamed when asked to take a photo for our local newspaper, The Age Dispatch. I took 7 bows when I read that poem during competition, a feat that has always pointed to writing as my forte and hamming it up as my special gift to mankind. A gift which has given me so much in return.
             Throughout my formative years, I was always in the church choir, year after year, accompanying my vocal training and study of musical theory. From grade six through my last year of high school, I studied and performed on string bass. Eight years of plucking made for strong fingers and a craving for attention. In grade ten, I took to the trumpet as well. The only thing more powerful for me then was my hatred of Rick Rogozinki, the musical chair/head of the department at Strathroy District Collegiate Institute. When I tried to join the jazz band in grade nine, he told me I was too short to play the bass properly. This had never been an issue with any other instructor. Although I grew beyond my imagination over the next 5 years, it was my asking him, if I was too short to perform, then how did he justify being a conductor when he was so fat and ugly? When he banned me from ever playing in one of “his” groups, I told him to go fuck himself. I recently saw him at a high school production involving my nephew. When our eyes met, he had no idea who I was until I smirked in his face. You could tell he realized it was me. He is still ugly and fat, but ancient to boot. The thrill of performing is a grand thing but no match for this disdain which has, apparently, lingered for all these years.
            I was always involved in music and always loved to perform for others. From Chorus in public school, to directing my Sunday School in several Biblically based plays and musicals, I have always been drawn to expressing myself in such a manner. My mother, on her autoharp, would sing along while accompanying me as I took to church after church. We performed together for years. From church socials, to retirement homes, right down to family gatherings, never since have there been such moments of exuberance for me. I cling to these memories, listening to us in my head, remnants of the life she lived and the time we spent together.

            In high school, I was a featured cast member in the production of Anything Goes, by Cole Porter. The next year, I took to lead as Colonel Purdy in the theatre arts production of "Teahouse of the August Moon", based on the 1951 novel by Vern Sneider.  In 1985 and 1986, I performed on Stage Ten, at the Western Fair in London, Ontario. Awarded semi-finalist both years, the plaques I received for my part still hang in my library, a testament to time gone by and rewards from living. I performed Laura Branigan’s ‘How Am I Supposed to Live Without You’ first year, and ‘On My Own’, from the 1980 movie Fame second year. Although I did not succeed in winning, or even appearing in the finals, I still can see the large crowds watching me up on that stage. I felt whole and complete as I crooned and moved about. They may not seem as grand to others, but these moments on the stage, they still possess me with wonder and earnest pleasure when I look back on each with much affection.
            From my years of training in Radio Broadcasting, to working in the field, to running Media, and the college radio station, for the Student Association at Lambton College in Sarnia, Ontario, disc jockeying allowed me to express the theatrical and comedic side of my personality. Whenever the "on-air"  light indicated my time to speak, I escaped into a world of expression that few true moments from my life have held a candle to. As I aged, and settled into full adulthood, journalism and writing have become my lasting compulsion. With the advent of Facebook, and other such Social Networking, I can relate my life, and embrace my pleasure, in a less upfront but more personal way. I now entertain from the privacy of my home office and create for a new world of performance art.
            As I approach 50 years of age, I find myself quietly amused. The enlightenment of my 40s has found safe harbour for me in my world, but I still find myself looking to touch others with ideas, expression and laughter. I’m on some working vacation. I have never felt such freedom, even when employed in all the forms of media from my past. The modern world has allowed me to embrace the thrill of entertaining while igniting the creative, and enduring, performer in me. Feedback has become my audience.

“Since all the riches of this world
May be gifts from the Devil and earthly kings,
I should suspect that I worshipp'd the Devil
If I thank'd my God for worldly things."
(Gnomic Verses, William Blake 1908)

            When I was a member of the Pentecostal Church, in my late teens, I was warned about the ways of this world and how media was a tool of the devil. Of course, this only applied to those forms which were not Christ-centered. It was okay to view an animated Jesus, feeding His flock in a Sunday morning cartoon, but dare you watch General Hospital, on a weekday afternoon, and the gates of hell opened to welcome you in. Television, music, even theatre, were expressions of the secular and should hold no influence on a servant of Our Lord. The consequences of performing, much laughter and pleasure, are a lure of the ungodly world around us and have no place in the life of a true Christian. These trappings rule this planet, so we must rebuke them and cast them aside.
            I have received more pleasure and joy from entertaining than I ever have out of religion. I have learnt more lessons from entertainment than from any Sunday School class. I have been moved more emotionally, and spiritually, from my music than from any sermon or hymn. I have felt heaven more from song than ever from the pages of the Bible. I suppose if I harp back on my Christian training, one might say, the devil made me do them. I strongly disagree, despite what scripture, or Billy Graham, might say.
            I find it ironic that the very tools they condemn, so too they use. Mass Media is the primary instrument used by fundamentalists, regardless of their particular faith structure. Muslims do it. Christians do it. Of course, when someone outside their “calling” does it, the message conveyed is evil and perverse. The devil made them do it too. After all, we are not here for pleasure, our purpose is to learn how to love God better and how to serve Him better. We must learn to test the "spirit" of those things with which we come in contact and discern what is of God and what is corrupt.

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,"
declares the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8, NIV)

            It is clear, to me at any rate, that entertainment in its purest form is a gift from God, not a curse. If you really stop and examine religious thought, almost everything can be interpreted as evil or worldly, in one manner or another. It doesn’t take much to figure out that has a lot to do with us actually being in this world. Jesus has never comforted me. Not once has God spoken softly to me through my solitude from a broken heart. I just don’t think it works that way. God speaks to us in the things around us. Anything true, anything real, whether it moves us or changes us, it shapes us for God. Everything can be an instrument of His peace and mercy. These things are His voice. They are His hands, His feet and His Spirit moving within. If we stop and pay attention, we can see Him in the world all around. It was not the books of  my religion that gave me comfort in my past, it was a song, or an idea, or an expression which found fruition in the way it was communicated. It is what we do with that expression which will determine whether something is good or evil, proper or excluded.
            I used to think that God used television to view us in our lives. That explained, in my child’s mind, how He constantly watched over us all. With my innocence gone, I still see no reason why this could not be so. How are we to know? I know I have been to many places and I have seen many things. My life has been filled with good things and filled with bad things. Each one had its own measure. I know, for me, some of the most comforting things I have are my memory associations to entertainment. If loving them is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.



Grade 3, 1973
Roywood Drive, Toronto

August 1990
Hanover, Ontario

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

that's Entertainment too

            Being a gay man has little to do with my love of theatre and the performance arts. People just assume appreciation of these entertainment forms, for a man, relates to his sexual proclivity. These are, however, part of my family culture and are the consequence of long-term exposure, not to whom I expose myself. I think my first such influence, to this type of production, was the live Canadian version of  the children’s program called "Romper Room", way back in the early 1970s. Knowing Miss Betty (Betty Thompson) was only a few miles away, talking to me at that very moment, made for exquisite viewing. Oh, the joy when she spotted you watching the show through her magic mirror. There is something about live performance which has always given me the shivers since then.
            In high school, the English Department travelled to Stratford, Ontario, where we saw John Gielgud captivate in Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar". A few years later met Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson, their execution absolutely overwhelming my senses as each took to lead, performing "Macbeth", at the then-Hummingbird Centre in downtown Toronto. The first opera I attended was "Die Fledermaus" by Johann Strauss II. Although performed in German, I remember feeling like Julia Roberts did, from that scene in Pretty Woman, when 'La Traviata' by Giuseppe Verdi makes her cry. I felt like doing so myself when I saw it. I have always found such beauty, and magic, in these not so contemporary forms of art. I feel cultured and enlightened when I find myself taking part. They inspire me. They soothe my soul unlike any other creature comfort could.
            Whether "Cats", "Les Miserables" or "The Phantom of the Opera", theatre gives me goosebumps. Even a small cabaret off Church Street in Toronto, some one-woman drag queen show, can thrill me for hours. Live theatre, and such, has always been primal, to me, in its nature. The feeling of being there, stuck in that time and that place with another human being, always takes my breath away. Concerts, like theatre, deliver the same essence emotionally. The thrill of personal interaction with the performer(s) taps  into a basic sense of belonging. I’ve seen Amy Grant in concert four times. I’ve seen Madonna twice, once in Montreal and once in Toronto. Recently, I secured two tickets to the latest round of Madonna-rama, this September, once again in Toronto.
            In my early 20s, I stood among 100s of young women, my arms spread out to protect my sister Tracey and cousin Lisa from the onslaught of Corey Hart fans. I’m the one who bought the tickets. From Don Henley to Stompin’ Tom Connors, I cannot convey, with words, how I feel in those moments. I am taken somewhere else, I think. I’m in a different place, just like all the people who surround me. I just wanna get up on stage and sing with them. I can only imagine how many others have felt this way. I finally understand the use of security guards at the front for each performance.   
            I love movies. Old movies, new movies, some bad movies, such good movies; I just can’t get enough. I travel back in time with Epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. I like old movies like Arsenic and Old Lace and Now, Voyager. They caress my soul with nostalgia. I escape into any good horror movie. Whether Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) or Paranormal Activity, I giggle every time they’ve made me scream like a little girl. Science-fiction films, such as Alien, and the Tolkien Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, transport me in a way that it’s almost as if I’m reading a comic book. I can escape for days into these worlds, especially if there are sequels. With The Hobbit and Prometheus soon due out in movie theatres, I’m packing a bag, and buying a few tickets, to journey back again, for the very first time. Dramas like The Color Purple and Little Children touch me with genuine messages of hope and the reality of life. Nothing else can make me feel better the way a good movie can. Nothing can make me laugh louder than a bad movie can.
            The very first movie I distinctly remember seeing was Pufnstuf, based on the Saturday morning kid’s program. The summer of 1970 found my folks, and us younger kids, watching it and the double feature, Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The drive-in theatre, off Victoria Park Road in Scarborough, is gone now, but my experience is not. I can see my Dad pulling away as the credits, and Angela Lansbury, faded from my senses. I know I can feel now as I did back then. I was simply in that moment, with nothing to corrupt me but the end of the show. Whether I was watching The Godfather, parts one and two, with my Dad on a Sunday evening, or sneaking into Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, a birthday treat on my 10th celebration, I cherish movies as if they are a best friend. I quote them like they are Shakespeare. Sometimes, they are.
            In 1983, I bought my first VCR. I spent the next 10 years watching any movie I could get my hands on. When the dust settled, I collected my favourites on VHS. When the DVD reared its wonderful head, those tapes all found rest on the shelves in my library, nestled safely with old books and magazines. They were replaced, every one, by the shiny disc that technology now serves up. It too is dying a not so graceful death. Blu-ray and digital downloads just seem intrusive to the collection I now have. I keep reminding myself to buy a few extra DVD players for when they lose their appeal and fall away like my obsolete video tapes and machine.
            Movies not only enact emotional responses, they also act as a signpost to a certain place and time. Most forms of entertainment seem to have this same effect. Who doesn’t remember, so to speak, being 7 years old, watching The Greatest Story Ever Told each Easter, or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang come Thanksgiving. Every time I see 9 to 5, once again I am sitting in the theatre with my brother Phil, and my sister Tracey, laughing with little concern towards the hostile January weather of 1981. The last movie I watched with my mother was The Holiday, starring my favourite modern actress, Kate Winslet. When the music starts, and the California wind blows, I am transposed to the family living room, Mom’s feet tucked beneath my leg on the couch, hunting for warmth. It doesn’t matter my mood, or my day, I can just plop myself down, slip in a disc, or turn on a CD, and go anywhere I want to in my mind. I can even recall how nice Mel Gibson’s ass looked, sitting with my friend Sharlet in the London Mews theatres. Who knew back then that his butt was the best of him, and that the rest of him would turn out to be such a lethal weapon? Regardless of any lingering negative experiences one has with film, or other forms of entertainment, this transportation, in my opinion, is one of the sweetest and most comforting experiences life has to offer. There is little that compares.  
            The best thing about the computer age is the easy access to forms of entertainment. Pornography aside, the internet and digital revolution have ushered in an age of instant gratification. I am not going to complain. I can find any music video, any film, any song, without standing in line, waiting for a release date, or changing the channel. Who needs a library when you have Google Books? Live streaming has allowed me to access Ballet, Opera and Theatrical performances at the touch of my mouse. File sharing programs, like the now-defunct Limewire and Napster, may have been replaced by Frostwire, but any time I choose I can still download music easily. The age of YouTube and iTunes have made most forms of “hard copy” obsolete. The collector in me is threatened by such ambiguous modes of  delivery, but rest assured, like with the return of vinyl, our “old friends” shall live forever. At least, at the back of any good record store or on the shelves in my living room.
            I’ll admit I am hesitant to give in to this rush. The practice, however, of easy access has made the moments when I search for escapism much quicker than before. Sometimes, instant gratification isn’t quick enough. To be able to reach out and hold a song lost in time, or a movie long forgotten, and never leave my office, makes for a much less lonely day and far more entertaining nights. In fact, in combination with the other modes of transportation that stimulate the highway of my mind, they simply add to the congestion from emotional response. The other day, I replayed Trisha Yearwood’s music video for ‘On a Bus to St. Cloud’. The song itself is unsettling. It conveys almost every thought and feeling I had when my first partner Doug died. It was released the same year. Time, and the loss of music video programming on television, greatly limited my ability to re-embrace the video. Now, anytime I want, I can be chased like a shadow or haunted like a ghost. YouTube has become like a library of recall to my senses.  

"I wept in the arms of Jesus
For the choice you made
We were just gettin' to the good part
Just gettin' past the mystery
Oh, and it's just like you, it's just like you
To disagree ...
And you chase me like a shadow
And you haunt me like a ghost
And I hate you some, and I love you some
But I miss you most.”
(On a Bus to St. Cloud, Trisha Yearwood 1995)



Wednesday, May 9, 2012

that's Entertainment

            Despite the trials and tribulations of my life, I have always found some reward in my living. Entertainment has always been a source of much joy for me. From the time I was a little boy, one of the simplest and most treasured of things was this type of amusement. From music, to radio, to television, I never really ever had reason to be bored growing up. Theatre, Opera, and Motion Pictures added flavour, and a sense of quality, to my moments of escapism, helping me to progress into my future. As an adult, concerts and the like all left me feeling refreshed and filled with a renewing sense of wonder. Even when computers came along, YouTube, Google, and Facebook allowed more access to all the things I love so much. I do not know if I could have survived the insanity that comes with existence had I not experienced these worlds of play and imagination.  

            Of course, for a child in the 1970s, the world of this amusement was very different than it is today. Entertainment carried less substance and choice. Most really good movies were out of my age bracket and no child could afford a trip to mythical Hollywood. There was little compensation back when but for a few sessions of make believe, strutting on an imaginary stage or singing in the bathtub. Radio, however, was in its prime and the boob tube was rapidly expanding its cup size. Technology advanced and so did the manner in which we manage our down time. As the years passed by, so too did the 8-track player, the turntable and even the tape deck. Like with most other things, continuing human ingenuity only added to all the changes. The modern world is now riddled with tools that easily access information, education and entertainment. We can be instantly diverted. One can get lost in the drone of it all.
            In early 1976, the first record I ever bought was a 45. That’s a smaller vinyl disc, much like the large LPs sold in stores today. I remember hearing "Do You Know Where You’re Going To" by Diana Ross on a local Toronto radio station, from the film 'Mahogany', released in October of 1975. I ran all the way to the record shop, located near the Brookebank Library, at the edge of suburbia where North York and Scarborough meet in Toronto. There was something magical about the song. I drifted off in its melody. I got lost in its soul. It lifted me up and yet made me feel such sweet sorrow. I just had to have it. I used my entire allowance to purchase those 3 minutes of heaven. It died a slow death, played over and over again for years until it cracked.
            Music took such a hold on me that I ended up working in radio broadcasting. As a teenager, I used to program my own music and practice my disc jockey skills, sitting in my room, dreaming of a time when I might actually get paid for the pleasure. In the late 1970s, I discovered Amy Grant. Her message, and all that meaning, has remained my greatest refuge. I still know the words to every song she has recorded or performed in concert. Almost 300 songs, and well over 20 albums, and I never grow tired of the way she speaks to me. Without the spirit of hope contained in her work, I would have been completely lost in terms of direction with God.
            From Michael English to Chely Wright, music seems to calm my internal storms and directs me to a better place in mood and thinking. In the 1980s, Pat Benatar rocked my world while country artists like Clint Black sang along to my sadness with a good ole drinkin’ song. In the 1990s, I discovered The Corrs, Faith Hill and Celine Dion. The end of that decade brought many new artists and introduced me to the music of performers I had barely, if at all, heard before. Through a new romantic relationship, I was exposed to Soundgarden, Hole and even Madonna. Tool, Nine Inch Nails and Slipknot found themselves in my music library rather than my utility belt. Each one seemed to tap into a different emotional state in my being. Contemporary artists like Adele and Lady Antebellum still have the same effect. Each performance is so appealing, like watching the rain. Sometimes when music hits you just right, it’s like a hug.
            The older I get, the more the music of my parents seems to find my favour. I suppose the influence of Michael Bublé, Diana Krall, and other “retro performers” tapped into the safety and security I knew as a child through music. John Denver, Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee all take me back to that innocent time. With each word, each phrase, I am transported to the strongest memory associated with each song. Any time I choose, I can dance with my mother again or sing along with my father. All it takes is a little time away and a player that works.
            A child at night, lying in my bed, the black dice-shaped radio my father gave me tuned into CHUM radio or the CBC. I used to flip between many different stations, from rock to classical, all the while pretending I was the programmer at “Super-MIX”, my own radio platform. Each night, under the silence of my bedding, Bach, Mozart or Mahler would soothe my soul, then Burton Cummings, Heart or Linda Ronstadt would keep me from my slumber. I still listen to Classical music every night as I drift off to sleep. The new 96.3 FM, “Toronto’s only all Classical station,” is better, for me, than counting a million sheep. Like a lullaby, it helps me find rest.
            Television was less complicated when I was just a kid, yet still, 12 channels and  most times there was nothing on. These days, I still find myself flipping “the dial”, but  through over 500 channels, with little success finding anything but a rerun or infomercial. The more things change. While the makeup of the actual television set has advanced in ways unimaginable 30 years ago, the essence of television itself remains basically the same. It offers so much in the way of amusement.       
           I can remember sitting, watching the last season of 'The Brady Bunch' as it aired on ABC in 1974. Whenever I watched that gang, I would have a sunshiny day. Through the week, 'Happy Days' and 'Three’s Company' brought me laughter. On the weekend, Mary Tyler Moore, then the Love Boat brought endless grins and smiles. Nothing compared to Saturday mornings. 'HR Pufnstuf',  'Superfriends' and 'The Land of the Lost' found me hypnotized, carried away to worlds of delight and safe harbour. Every year, just before returning to school after summer vacation, the major networks would promo their new Saturday morning cartoons. The Friday night just before the premieres, you could find me enraptured, grasping at the tease produced for just that purpose. I was so engrossed, you could not have made me move. I was filled with anticipation.
            In the 1980s, I turned to Soap Operas as a form of indulgence and pleasure. From 1980 until 2007, I watched almost every episode of 'General Hospital', either as it aired or taped on the VCR. In 1981, I sat weeping as Luke finally married Laura, despite having raped her years before. In the early 80s, I sat with my Mother on Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. watching Soap. It almost made us pee our pants. Every Wednesday night found me beside her again, cheering as Alexis and Crystal battled it out on 'Dynasty'. On Thursdays, at 10 o’clock, I would huddle in my room alone and disappear into the California setting of 'Knot’s Landing'. In the 1990s, Soap Operas turned to 'Cheers' and 'Roseanne', granting much enjoyment. All the while, Sunday morning religious programming made me cringe at the sight. A new millennium brought with it more 'X-Files' and 'ER'. I had no idea then that 'Will and Grace' would quickly become my favourite television series ever. It wasn’t just the characters, or the situations, that had me rolling on the floor. It was the writing. I still laugh out loud whenever I see any episode. It is almost as if I have fallen in love with every delivery and each punch line. Every Thursday, I still hate Jack McFarland.
            With the onslaught of cable programming, such as 'True Blood' and 'The Walking Dead', I find myself riveted just the same as I was as a boy. DVDs have allowed me to discover shows I never would have imagined watching just a few years prior. I was hardly interested in the modern interpretation of Superman found in each episode of 'Smallville'. Until the end of the ninth season, I had never watched a single installment. Now, every Tuesday and Friday, rain or shine, I am a child once more, thrilled and inspired by Clark Kent, Lois Lane and the world created around original characters like Chloe Sullivan. I absolutely LOVE this show. Call me a nerd, call me a dork, but it makes me feel all young again. It may seem simple, but it still is true nonetheless. Change has affected the way I watch TV, but has done little to affect the way I respond emotionally to television and other forms of entertainment.
“Do you know where you're going to?
Do you like the things that life is showing you?
Where are you going to?
Do you know?
Do you get what you're hoping for
When you look behind you
There's no open doors
What are you hoping for?
Do you know?”
(Do You Know Where You’re Going To?, Diana Ross 1975)


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Man Behaving Badly

 “The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.” 
(Lay of the Last Minstrel, Sir Walter Scott 1805)

            Between the ages of 18 -23, I was a practicing hedonist. Proposing there was no God to restrict me, I tossed aside my moral code. I was an agent of whim and a slave to my impulses. My passions and desires  met no limit, other than the manner of craving they produced. I did as I pleased, with little regard for anyone other than myself. I believed God had drawn first blood with His four jockeys, so I rebuked Christianity, and everything Holy, and threw myself into a life of pleasure. My boundaries were few and far between, though corrupted and weak. I was living only for me and took little time to think of others, especially God.
            I would be lying if I claimed that I had not considered the idea of using my chemical disorder as a justification for my past actions. The truth is, it simply gave me the balls to go through with a lot of the things I did back in my youth. In turning from God, I wanted to convey, and literally had said, "Fuck you, Jesus," but this had nothing to do with my impulses. It was a long time coming, at least that’s how I validated my behaviour. It was a conscious decision. I wanted to offend the God I claimed to have abandoned and professed to no longer believe existed. For something I recognized as nothing, I still was at war with Him. Frankly, it gave me pleasure to imagine that I had pissed someone, upstairs, off.
            Being a promiscuous homosexual during the 1980s was a trip. Despite the AIDS epidemic, if you wanted to go heathen, all you required was any gay community in any large city. I made it my mission to discover as many as I could. Once the weekend hit, I was off to San Francisco for a few days of lurid gratification or Montreal and a massive taste of the French “cuisine”. Living only 2 hours by car from Toronto, this was were I spent most of my free time playing. There was always more than enough sin to quench my rebellious heart. Back before internet chat lines and smartphones, Church Street was the attraction for depravity and endless escapism. Known as “The Village”, the area from Dundas Street to Bloor Street, along Church, is still rank with putrefaction.
            If you felt like a little danger, you could cruise Allen Gardens or Hyde Park, just west of downtown. If a game of chance was your pleasure, one could tour the Black Eagle, a leather bar, or dance at the Barn/Stables. The St. Charles, located just west of the Village area, on Yonge Street, was a favoured spot for my kind of recreation. In spite of the gay raids in 1980, gay bars consisted of a common area for drinking, a standard dance or gathering area, and a dark, dank area set aside for casual sexual encounters. Gay bathhouses littered the side streets. A gay bathhouse has little in common with a Turkish bathhouse. Although both usually contain a sauna, showers and plenty of men in white towels, the gay space almost exclusively is filled with small rooms used for instant gratification and few exchanges of name. This type of establishment continues to flourish in the centre of gay Toronto. The Barracks, from the mid-80s, has given way to the Cellar or the St. Mark Spa. Most large urban areas still contain these types of “hostels”. For $25.00, and a towel deposit, anyone wishing to spend a few hours basking in their own turpitude need only follow the line of middle-aged men and Orientals flocking to these parts well-known. Debauchery comes at little expense.
            In those days, it was not surprising how many gay men offered me drugs just to get in my pants. During the years of my playtime, drugs were handed out like candy, a lubrication of sorts. I assume they still are, all designer in their nature. For me, they made everything a lot easier. If you had the energy, you could spend all weekend walking from rot to rot, consuming a plethora of pleasure and poppers. From cocaine to magic mushrooms, choice of the moment was merely based on your location. I was lucky that I never got hooked on any of the poison I took trying to be free. I didn’t realize then that I carried my own consumption at the hands of Demerol and Morphine. Still, I never found the recreational doses of escapism I dabbled in excessively habitual. Perhaps it was returning to real life every Sunday evening, then heading off to work or class the next morning, that saved me from complete obliteration. Truth is, I just wanted to be happy and any vehicle available for transport was hard ridden.
            The slope I slid on was steep and unsteady. I ravaged almost everything with which I had contact. Over a four year period, I went from a fit, muscular and handsome young man to a fat pile of sloth, meant for sinning. At 18, I stood 6’1” and weighed 185 pounds. By my birthday in 1988, I was no shorter but maxed out at 263 pounds. I was a heathen, greed and lust the pinnacles of my Cardinal Sins. I was also a complete mess, even though I never stopped to realize it. During my normal life, 5 days a week, I slept through my classes or stayed home from work, then drank away my savings every night. Whether partying with my straight friends or tripping with my freak friends, I was consumed with getting more in the hope of feeling less.  
            Weekend after weekend, I threw myself into the pursuit of pleasure. When I started the Radio Broadcasting program in 1987, at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, I maintained my hedonism in silence. I even dated Miss Katherine to hide who I was and what I was doing. On the first day of my second year, I found my reprieve. He was sitting fully bearded, smiling at my face, when my centre repositioned immediately. All my focus shifted from me, to him. I suppose one might say, not knowing what was to come, that I transferred the pursuit of my own delight to the pursuit of delight in him. Either way, it was like a window opened when a door had slammed shut.

“It is only by enlarging the scope of one’s tastes and one’s fantasies, by sacrificing everything to pleasure, that that unfortunate individual called man, thrown despite himself into this sad world, can succeed in gathering a few roses among life’s thorns.”
(Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade)

            I was a good boy when Doug and I were together, at least in a monogamous sense. I escaped into my relationship with him rather than clinging to the outside needs of my flesh. He was my only need, at least on that level. Putting together two men, both in the closet, may have brought us love and comfort, but it did little to quell the need to indulge and escape. Instead of hard drugs and casual sex, we drank together. We drank a lot together.  There was never any dust on any bottle.
            For over 6 years, the cases of beer piled up high and empty bottles of tequila littered our lives. The part of me that warred with God found slight slumber, but any armistice could be found only at the bottom of a shot glass. We went to class, and our jobs, but our free time was nothing but a trip away, floating in suds and wiggling with a worm. We travelled from city to city, vacationing from our lives and our spiritual desolation. I continued to reject the peace that Godly things claimed to bring, while Doug simply tobogganed down his life into chaos. I was so drunk with myself that I didn’t even recognize his own battle with strife.
            What could have been the greatest love of my life turned into a trap. Both for me and, most certainly, for  him. While those who wait upon the Lord shall renew, we both ended up quite spent. I thought I was happy, at any rate. Unfortunately, when all that matters is you, you fail to see things clearly. I really had no idea how unhappy Doug felt within. Even when it became clear how troubled he was, neither one of us tried to do much about it. A few months before his death, our solution was to merely relocate from where we lived in Toronto, back into the quiet of the small town where I grew up. It did not take long for him to end up at the base of a tower in the cold February dark.
            The suicide of a loved one can be a devastating event. Honestly, I never saw it coming. Once the deed was done, the life I was consuming turned to nothing but an empty vessel that could no longer make me feel better. I had to take responsibility for what happened. I blamed myself for not seeing, not knowing, regardless of any other events which may have pushed him over the edge. I tossed the life I held aside, as if I had a choice. I threw myself at the feet of Jesus and begged Him for absolution.

 “I’m so afraid You’ve forgiven one too many times
I’m so afraid to give my heart again just to have a change of mind
I’m not quite sure if You can trust me
I would hate to have You find me again
Drifting away like the wind”
(The Wind, Michael English 1996)

            Six months after the funeral, I found myself comfortably numb. What was supposed to be relief from liver problems became my only friend. I decided to cease this use of pain killers when I realized they were no longer killing the pain. What may have once been the perfect form of pleasure only made me worse. I quit all on my own. Jesus had, in spite of my pleading, left me standing on the side of the same road I had been walking for years, a quill of syringes stuck in my face. He was no compensation. My masquerade did nothing to mask my pain. The grief I felt only confused me more. My next reaction was to delve back into the hedonism I had once used to quiet the storms in my head and my heart. It was empty and lonely and unbecoming. My reward was having to play with Raggedy Andy. I was never one for silly toys.
            The intense religious and spiritual studies I took up throughout my life did little to help me understand the why and the how of what had happened. I ended up craving them just like every other temptation I had met in my life. In the end, when you’re halfway up, you’re also halfway down. Nothing I did solved my problem. Even when I started the relationship I currently have had for almost 14 years, I constantly battled the beast within me. Eventually, it only took a few tiny pills to give me the power to look back on my life before it destroyed me. Finally, I was able to control myself. Still, I was unsure I could follow through on trying to survive God while I attempted to survive myself.  I wasn’t sure I would not fall into ill repute again.
            It would be nice if life offered us the chance to see where we are going. If we had the opportunity to think twice about our decisions and the consequences they would bring, would we toss the dice regardless? After all has been said and done, we end up watching the design of our reality drift away. All we want and desire seems taken from our hands, to fade slowly and disappear altogether. Our dreams tend to die.
            With no earthly substance to give me rest, I turned to looking over my shoulder, wanting something to appear that would save me. It took some time to realize I could only save myself. I was like a bird with no wings stuck in the same old shit over and over again. I spent my adult life seeking anything to hold on to, as if it laid in waiting, but most of the time there was never anything there. The things taken from the world will always desert you, leaving you longing for more. When you stop trying to fill those empty needs, when you stop holding onto the questions that haunt you, you see the answer lies waiting within. Only you can save you.
            Sometimes I still get up in the morning and wish I wasn’t here. Life is so hard and, most days, no one seems to give a damn. On occasion, I long for the comforting chaos that once helped me believe I was free. Still, my mind is steadfast with my soul. I recognize the simple truth that I have been given much beyond measure. Only in fixing myself did I find something more. After all, I am the only one who decided to swallow each tiny pill. My happiness was not a trophy. Gaining pleasure was never a substitute.  The only way for God to come to you is through surrender, but in the nicest of ways.
            People give God all the glory, but I pride myself on my battles won. I know it was through His guidance that I could overcome, but He didn’t do it for me. There is grace and mercy, a fountain of strength, in knowing He is with me now. He moves past my weaknesses to my needs.  I still have to get up every day and make my own way. The difference between then and the now is, I don’t have to behave badly to get His attention. Even though I might not be all that I should be, and I hope I'm not all that I will be, at least I'm not what I once was.

 “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.”
(The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde 1890)