Thursday, 28 February 2013

Bringing Up Baby...

Hello Friends.

It's so weird. It seems like, for a few years there, every summer would have friends' weddings. Now, I keep hearing about friends' pregnancies. I keep trying to make the connection there, but it eludes me. Anyway, I'm thrilled to have so many Moms and Dads (whether they're brand new, or soon-to-be) as Friends! I have heard that once you're married, you just want to hang out with married people, and once you have kids, you just want to hang out with other parents. I'm thrilled to report that so far, that has not been the case with my nearest and dearest. They make time for me and my unmarried, childless problems ("I can't decide if I want to take a yoga class, or start drinking more! Waaah!"). All the same, though, I want to be sure that I can still offer wise counsel to my friends as they go from colleagues and school chums to Moms and Dads and I think I know how.

Dream: Tell other people how to care for their baby.

Goal: Achievable. As a childless man, there's nothing I can opine about more emphatically than infant care, and I have some ideas.

Plan: Share my baby-rearing tips so that expectant parents can have an easier time of their babyhood. Maybe you can print this out and tape it somewhere prominent like your refrigerator, coffee table, or engorged breasts. Here's what every parent-to-be needs to know.

1) Naming is critical. An anecdote: At the clothing store where I work, my boss was calling another location to place an item on hold for a customer. He said, "May I have your name for the hold, please?" And the customer mumbled her name and explained, "It's like Angela with an M." My boss said, "Okay so Angela M?" And she said, "No! Angela but with an M!" And he said, "Amgela?" And finally it turned out her name was Mangela. Mangela! Come on! Who names their kid Mangela? Alright, fine, maybe Mangela is a popular name in a different culture, but not in this one! Also, there are plenty of names that sound like terrible appropriations of other names like Zaiden, Shaydence, Kaylissa, Janika, Blaze, Flimsy, and Dyce. Don't do this to your kid. If you want something unconventional, at least pick a proper noun which already exists, like a place. Name your kid Dakota, or Paris, or Furniture Store.

2) Read to your baby. Reading is also critical. Even if Baby doesn't understand what you are reading, Baby gets that this is a nightly ritual and will soon become comforted and familiar with the act. To that end, I recommend reading Baby all the boring but necessary authors people will ask him/her about for his/her entire life. Get Michael Chrichton out of the way! Stephen King, too. Definitely read The Da Vinci Code because it's broken into like a thousand chapters and if someone brings Dan Brown up at a party when your child is older, they can snort and say, "Dan Brown? I read him when I was a baby." Toss a Danielle Steele in while they're still young enough to chew up the corners. And waste no time in introducing and debunking The Secret because even a baby can understand the Universe doesn't operate to get you more money or a better car and that all you "attract" by buying into that garbage is a sense of entitlement and greed.

3) Help Baby cultivate a few signature items. For instance, it's never too early to find a signature cocktail or fragrance. It took me year of drunken stumbling to find my go-to drink order, and I think I only prefer it because it's the hardest thing for the bartender to get wrong. But imagine Tiny Little City James with a vodka and tonic in a sippy cup. Adorable. Also, I know babies naturally smell nice, but they also smell like their own waste quite a bit, so splurge and dab a few drops of Chanel No. 5 to really class your infant up.

4) Sing to your Baby. I still remember my mother's made up songs from my childhood, with insightful lyrics like, "Look who's standing up straight and tall!" and "This is how come we wear pants!" If you're not inventive/clever, just copy an existing song to ensure Baby grows up with fantastic musical taste. Lull Baby to sleep with "Invisible Touch" or "Bette Davis Eyes" and make morning time an adventure with "Dress You Up (In My Love)". I remember countless nights falling asleep to Supertramp's Crime of the Century album, a memory so ingrained that the opening strains of School get me yawning comfortably.

5) Start a Baby blog! I don't mean a blog about your triumphs and struggles in your first year of parenting, that's boring and stupid. I mean start a blog from the point of view of your baby. Even if it's just, "Dream: Stop pooping in pants. Goal: Unachievable." Baby will always have that. And you don't have to use my format, Baby could express him or herself any way they wish: poems or artwork, even film pitches ("Movie idea: Keys! Keys!"). It's wide open!

Finally, teach your Baby the importance of friends, little and big. A lot of my friends are having their first babies, who are at present without siblings or work colleagues. Be sure to bring your Baby round to the park, Starbucks, and my house. It is truly a marvel for me to hold the baby of a friend or a relative and watch them blink their tiny eyes at my longish face. I always think about how weird it is that a life exists where there was none before, and that so many stars had to align, so many circumstances had to be just right, and so much love has grown and flourished, all to produce this tiny body. To think that all of us who exist were once so fragile and beautiful. Teach your baby anything you want, but teach yourself to remember these moments. Being a parent is the hardest work you'll ever undertake, so be sure to enjoy the easy part.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Master of Disguise...

Hello Friends.

One day last summer, I took the subway across town to meet friends for dinner. When the train arrived at a particularly busy stop, a group of black teenage girls got on together, all a bit giggly and self-conscious. When we were moving again, one of the girls addressed the train at large: "Hello everyone! We're from the youth group at such-and-such church of downtown Toronto. We believe that singing brings us closer to God, and we'd like to sing for you today. Would that be all right?" Most of us on the train applauded enthusiastically. I took my earbuds out and even moved seats to get a better view of what was about to unfold. Then they began to sing. I wish I had a camera. Because they were TERRIBLE!

I'm no singer, but objectively, these girls were not prepared. They were off-key and off-rhythm and many of them forgot the words and collapsed into giggles. They tried several different songs and couldn't finish any of them. As I say, I wish I had a camera because something about it was like a clever sketch. A candid-camera style scenario that made us all look like fools. Because the girls' singing group wasn't the butt of the joke, the joke was on the rest of us. We were the chumps who saw a giggling group of teenage girls, got SUPER-excited when they told us they were going to sing, then stared in disbelief when it all fell apart. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I know my initial enthusiasm stemmed solely from the fact that the girls were black. "Black singers from a church?!" I thought. "Hallelujah!" What makes it worse is the fact that a really similar scenario played out about a month ago. A group of white kids got on the subway with me after a Jays game or something and they all sang that K'naan song "Wavin' Flag" and I turned my iPod up as loud as it would go and scowled until my stop. Because white kids? Fuck that shit.

I can't remember who it was, but somebody introduced me to the following conversational ice-breaker: If someone were to spot you from across the street, what do you think the first thought that popped into their head would be? I suppose it's a Rorschach test of one's own self-awareness. A tall friend of mine said she bets people would think, "That's a really tall girl." A small-framed friend with large breasts said, "They probably notice my chest first." A bald guy pointed to his head and said, "Y'know...this." Jon says people probably can tell that he's queer. But, unless I'm totally missing something obvious about my appearance or demeanour, I don't know what my own answer is.

I think part of white, male privilege, if not the very essence of it, is the idea that white men like me can be considered nondescript. What I mean is, if you and I had a mutual friend and you were trying to get them to remember me, you wouldn't say, "Oh you know James! The white guy!" But you know who gets a version of that all the time? African Canadian guys. Korean women. First Nations teenagers. And almost never in those politically correct terms. This is a sensitive issue, obviously, and I don't want to be perceived as making light of it. But I'm intrigued by the idea that, as a white male, I'm a kind of blank slate. I wonder what I'm missing by not having an immediate descriptor.

Dream: Don several disguises and see what different impressions I make on people.

Goal: Achievable. People forget this, but I am a fantastic actor. One time, I played a King and my line was "Not a penny!" A dear classmate of mine was doing a scene from Shaw's Saint Joan as her final performance piece, and while the piece was by necessity mostly monologue, a few lines of dialogue had to be spoken to contextualize the scene better. Joan has a dramatic argument with the Archbishop, who says, "The army will disown you, and will not rescue you. And His Majesty the King has told you that the throne has not the means of ransoming you." And then I say, "Not a penny!" That's literally ALL I had to do, and I couldn't do it. Maybe it was because it was my only line in a really long scene where I otherwise just sat on a box pretending it was a throne. Maybe it was because, as was often the case when I was in a scene with somebody, I'd get so invested in my partner's good work that I'd forget about my own and just sit there with my mouth open. But every time I delivered the line, "Not a penny!" I would laugh, then the Archbishop would laugh in turn, then Joan. I ruined the scene and was cut from the performance. But one time I was chosen to be the alarm voice in a library which says, "Apparently your materials are setting off the alarm. Please return to the circulation desk." My point is, people forget this, but I am a fantastic actor. And with a little makeup, costumes, necessary padding, and prosthetics, I could be just about anybody.

Plan: Don the necessary disguises and see what it's really like to be...

A fat person. What must that be like? I lovingly carry my pizza gut with me everywhere, but a big sweater or bulky hoodie easily hides it from prying eyes. I don't actually know what it's like to be physically fat, but I would imagine it's terrible. People make all kinds of assumptions about your health, your diet, and your activities. They think that you're lazy, or gluttonous, when perhaps neither is true. They judge your character based on your carriage. I really wonder how, in my generation and those subsequent, attitudes will change toward overweight people. On one hand, obesity rates per capita, particularly in children, are increasing. That can't be healthy. But on the other hand, maybe we should leave other people's bodies the fuck alone, y'know? Judgement doesn't help anyone slim down. An overweight friend of mine doesn't talk about his size a lot, but did say to me one time, "People always act like I don't know that I'm fat. They always bring it up. Like I don't know this body I live in." He didn't elaborate, but I took his point, and it's pretty heartbreaking.

A pregnant woman. I'm not suggesting this is the same as being a fat person, but there is still a bizarre emphasis from total strangers about your body. I have a friend about six months into her first pregnancy and she said, "It's pretty great, with the exception of people suddenly thinking that it is acceptable to call me fat. That can be a little hurtful." I'm sure! Plus, people always want to touch a pregnant woman's belly. Why is that okay? People will say, "Oh well I just want to feel the baby!" But why is THAT okay? You don't run up to a woman carrying her newborn in her arms and just paw at the baby. "I JUST WANNA FEEL IT!" Also, I'm sure people make constant assumptions about what you should be doing at all times. "Shouldn't you be sitting down? Are you sure you should be sitting so much?" Ugh.

A bearded guy with shorts. Why do men grow beards? Are their chins cold? It just adds weird facebulk. You know who looks good with a beard? Treat Williams. Santa. End of list. And SHORTS! I want to make this perfectly clear for the millionth time: About one percent of the population has the coordinating legs and height that make shorts acceptable. One percent. Gather one hundred of your closest friends. Elect one of those friends to wear shorts. They can wear shorts. YOU CAN'T! Am I being unreasonable because my legs look like uncooked Vienna sausages covered in tiny hairs and so I can't wear shorts? Yeah, maybe.

Horny, ugly teenage couple. I'm not into public displays of affection in any way. I hug furtively at airports, glancing around, paranoid that someone witnessed me express physical love. But I reserve a special corner of my brain to wonder about the ugly teenage couple you occasionally see making out hardcore on a bus. Say what you will about appearances, but that couple enjoys an unselfconscious joy that I will never, ever know! I just want to experience that for, like, an hour.

A different race. Racism is a huge problem in this country, but it's one that white people get to dissect from a distance. I will never know what it's like to be racially discriminated against, but I wish I knew enough about race in our culture to be truly, deeply sensitive to it in a meaningful way, not just to pay the problem lip service. I think, for instance, that referring to the young women in my earlier anecdote as "black girls" is categorizing a group of people based on race, so isn't that racist? And if that is racist, am I better off examining my behaviour in that situation to better recognize my own racism, or is this a false over-sensitivity, akin to treating a pregnant woman like a delicate flower, or flattening myself against a nearby wall when a fat person walks past me?

A classy guy. I wish I knew precisely what makeup and props it took to be a classy person. And I don't mean classy as in debonair, I mean classy as in polite, respectful, and socially clued-in. I want to be the type of person who writes thank you notes, who deftly avoids conversational minefields by never saying the wrong thing. I'd like to stop stammering, over-analyzing, sweating, and retreating. Maybe that means not thinking about beards and teens and pregnant women and other races, or at least not having hard opinions about any of them. I would hope that one day, none of the masks that I routinely wear conceal my true nature, and that if I'm ever spotted across the street, you think to yourself, "There's a classy guy I'd like to know."

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Funny Valentine...

Hello Friends.

I hate to bring this up, today being what it is, but are you single? Do you feel sad about that? Has this manufactured holiday sent you into a tailspin of renewed New Year's Eve style resolutions ("I'm going to go to the gym ever hour on the hour!") and crippling self-pity ("I can't even save up the money to buy a strong enough necktie to properly auto-erotically asphyxiate myself!")?

I know a lot of single people who, by virtue of their own awesomeness, ought to have great dates every night of the week, but don't. Come to think of it, I know a lot of coupled people who take their partners for granted, smugly enjoying the benefits of being in a relationship, and they don't deserve any of it. This unbalanced situation seems wholly unfair.

I've been very lucky these past seven years to have once cornered a charming, handsome intellectual in a bar and tricked him into loving me. That doesn't make me an expert on relationships, but here's what does: If you hover close to my age and you've had many of the same friends, family or coworkers throughout your twenties, you've seen people get together and break up countless times. Sometimes the success or failure of a relationship is a crazy fluke, but sometimes you begin to see a pattern in this friend's behaviour, or you realize that their expectations of a relationship don't match their reality, so they're bound to be constantly disappointed. You know how, when it comes to other people's problems, it's super-easy to look down on everyone from your castle of self-satisfaction? Let's do that together!

Dream: Help single people find a partner, and help people with partners stay together.

Goal: Achievable, with caveats. If you're one of those uncoupled people who doesn't want or need the encumbrance of a partner, this blog is not for you. You probably have a healthier, more well-adjusted attitude about yourself than most people ever will. And I certainly don't believe that being single is a kind of deficiency, or that partnered people are any better off. I just know for myself, that having somebody around is better than not, and that loving a real person who watches Dateline and does the dishes with you, is better than lusting after an idealized person with the brain of a dolphin and the loyalty of a labradoodle. So take these tips and tricks in the lighthearted spirit with which they are intended, you judgey single person, or quit reading my blog and go suck a dick (oh wait you can't cuz you single! AHAHAHAHA! #hahahah #kony2012)

Plan: List some helpful hints, a little of the old do and don't, that I know about this stuff because I am an expert. Some tips:

Don't pretty yourself up for no one. Look, dudes, if you're heading out someplace, by all means wear a Guy Fieri bowling shirt to cover your hideous pizza gut and ladies, don't let Doritos fall into your bra (actually, men would love that, disregard). But otherwise, try to look close to what you normally look like. It's cliche, but I knew a girl who would wake up before an overnight guest, sneak into the bathroom, put makeup on, sneak back into bed. I know a guy who does 200 sit-ups before he goes out on a date. Two HUNDRED! What kind of precedent does that set? But if you do the reverse, your partner can only be surprised and delighted. I went out with Jon for months before I dared brush my hair or teeth.

Go to the party. Ugh! I know, I know, parties and the people who attend them are the fucking worst. And, the older you get, cancelling plans provides a rush more satisfying than any street drug. But unless you're in school or work in a really large group, it's really hard to actually meet new people. Parties are usually low-pressure situations because you can come and go at your leisure, you'll have some friends there to retreat to if the person you're chatting up turns out to be a Unitarian or outdoor music festival attendee (DEALBREAKER). So just steel yourself every so often to stand with a group of strangers holding red cups.

Be realistic. Everyone has a list of what they want or don't want in a partner. He must be able to make me laugh, she has to be good with money, she should be blonde, he's gotta be into oral, etc. Having criteria is fine, but the more extensive they are, the less likely someone is to meet them. So if you have a really long list, be prepared to cut it down, or wait a really long time. I don't have a successful career or commensurate income, Jon smokes cigarettes, you put up with it because the benefits far outweigh the detriments.

Sit in a parked car for an hour. Planning the perfect, activity-filled date is great fun, but eventually there's no good movie playing and the guy who runs the zip-lining place dies of a drug overdose, and you're forced to figure out whether just being with the person is enough. So sit in a parked car (and not for hanky panky, you sickos), or turn the tv off in your apartment, or pitch a tent under an overpass, I don't care, but make yourself sit and talk. Are you engaged and excited, still? Boom!

Don't play The Game. Throw out The Rules. Everyone just stop with the manipulation of a prospective partner. Sure, that might land someone in your bed, but it won't keep that person in your life (and if that's just what you're looking for, have fun getting older). Guys, if you think you can get more from a woman by treating her like shit, you're not a player, you're an asshole. Girls, if you wait a requisite number of days to return a text message, you're not coy, you're manipulative. Gay guys, we've got to stop using the flatness of a stomach or the dimensions of a wang determine how we fill our dance card. Lesbians, you seem like sea-turtles, often with severe haircuts, in that you mate for life. Keep doing what you're doing.

One person is just one person. No, that's not a headline from the Department of Doy!, it's an often overlooked truism. No one person can possibly be all you need in every facet of your life. Maybe you have a friend that usually makes you laugh harder than your mate does. Maybe you enjoy engaging in spirited political debate with a college friend over your main squeeze. So what? Jon and I have friends together and we have friends separately and we both understand that sometimes he wants to talk Canadian Members of Parliament and I want to bitch about Taylor Swift. If that's not our respective area of interest, why put each other through that? If you expect more of your partner than you can possibly bring to the table yourself, how's that gonna work out for you?

Whatever you have, be grateful for it. If you're single, realize that there's someone out there you're going to kiss on the mouth, and you haven't met them yet. How exciting! If you're in a relationship that's grown a little predictable, even dull, consider that shakeups in long relationships are never as the result of something good. It all changes when she gets a job offer in another country, or he gets cancer. Do you have kids? Think of the amazing joy they bring you every day. You have created and are nurturing human people! Awesome in the truest sense of the word. Are you childless? Sleep in, drink on a Tuesday afternoon, have sex in the kitchen, I'm sure you'll miss that when it's gone. Regardless of your situation, please realize that the most important relationship, the one you will maintain for the rest of your life, is the one you have with yourself. Be your own Valentine this year and every year after that, whether or not you've got someone in your life, because you're great, every single (or married) one of you.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Bonuses Of Gay Manhood...

The following has been reprinted, with permission, from Saskatoon Well Being's February 2013 issue. The article originally appeared here. Text edited (beautifully) by Sarah Stefanson.

Hello Saskatoon,

I may not be the manliest of men. I can’t chop wood or hunt game and I have no interest in hitting a ball and then walking around to find that ball and then hitting it again (and if you can explain golf in terms more accurate than that then you’re a wizard or a liar). But I’m certainly a man with man parts and man friends and I wake up next to a man every morning.

I’m not sure why gay men like me aren’t seen as authorities on masculinity when you consider all the time and energy we spend not only being men but using our masculine wiles to attract other men for a non-stop man party. Gay men in pop culture are often portrayed as completely asexual and exist only to dole out advice to their gal pals over brunch (which we’re happy to do, by the way, but not just that). But in real life, gay guys have more to say than, “Your hair looks fabulous today!” (which again, it does, what are you using? Never mind, text me later). In real life, if you’re reading this, you know actual gay people. Maybe you don’t think you do, but statistically, you must. You have gay coworkers, gay neighbours, gay family members, maybe even a gay kid. Maybe you are somebody’s gay kid and you’re reading this right now. Moms and Dads, if you’ve got teenaged sons, just leave this issue lying around conspicuously. Gay kid, if you’re reading this, I’m so pumped, because this is my chance to talk to you about being a man. Straight kid, if you’re reading this, read on anyway. You might learn something about the estimated 10 per cent of the population that you’re going to encounter throughout your life.

Dream: Get a message to the gay kids about being a man.

Goal: Achievable. Sex and lifestyle columnist Dan Savage garnered amazing responses to his It Gets Better campaign: a series of YouTube videos made by adults who are LGBT or support the LGBT community, targeted to young people who might be struggling with their sexuality. Savage said the impetus for the campaign was the onslaught of news stories about bullied kids, some of whom took their own lives. It Gets Better spawned hundreds of videos, articles and news stories, and may have indeed helped countless young people around the world. So if I have a message for the gay kids and a platform to speak from (thanks, magazine!), someone might read it and learn some stuff.

Plan: Share what I know as a gay man.

A Disclaimer:  I’m speaking of my own experience, which may not be yours. I don’t mean to speak for any or all gay men, blah blah blah. If you’ve got a problem with LGBT-affirming information, go to your local mall food court and yell your objections into an empty shopping cart like any other deranged, bigoted fool. Anyway, here’s what even the most supportive parent or sympathetic guidance counsellor won’t tell you, not for any malicious reason, but because if they are straight, they probably won’t know the following information:
You get to learn an amazing amount about both genders. Some stereotypes can be justified and the idea that women and gay men get along like houses afire might be a tired trope, but it’s often true. Gay men and women see something of themselves in each other and you will soon find an unbelievable intimacy and connection in your friendships with the women in your life. But the crazy thing is, if you’re a halfway decent human being, you’ll find yourself with straight male friends too. If you’re in high school right now, you might see your straight counterparts as bullies or homophobes, and some of them might be, but some of them are just dudes who want to hang out and eat nachos and watch hockey or whatever. If you can stomach the carbs and tolerate some sports jargon, you’ll soon find that guys can be as complex, emotional and intelligent as the girls you’ve already befriended. You suddenly have access to both worlds and you’ll learn so much about people that way. Guys and girls are more alike than they are different, with the same strengths and insecurities, and you get to be privy to all of it. Lucky you!

You will develop an enviable sense of taste. If the preceding paragraph about your bevy of amazing friendships sounds insane and extremely unlikely to you, I get that too. Maybe you’re in the closet, fearful of being outed, so you have difficulty socializing. Or maybe you feel too different to befriend anyone. Both of those things will change in time, but for now, I bet you’re spending a lot of time on the computer. If you’re not hanging out with friends every second of the day (and who is?), chances are you’re spending at least some of your time cultivating a unique and fabulous obsession. Maybe you’re getting into the albums of Joni Mitchell or the films of John Waters. Or many YouTubed nights of Amy Sedaris or Billy Eichner have you dreaming of meeting them someday. You love Megan Amram’s Twitter feed or David Rakoff’s essays or Pedro Almodovar or Bob Fosse or French cinema or fanfiction or photography or Halston hats. Again,

I’m speaking in generalities here, but gay people don’t often see themselves adequately represented in pop culture and mass media and so seek out new forms of information and entertainment. It is these strange fringe obsessions you have now that will make you cultured and interesting later. At a party, people will listen with envy as you opine about something obscure and nuanced and will later remark, “Man that guy knows some stuff!”

You get to carve your own path. It’s amazing that gay people enjoy the rights and freedoms today that so many previous generations never lived to see. How thrilling that we can get married and adopt children (at least in this country). But it’s all so recent and, unlike many of our straight counterparts, a prescribed lifescript isn’t foisted upon us. People won’t hound you with questions of, “So when are you gonna get married?!” or “When are you gonna have babies!?!?” because these options are relatively new and these decisions deeply personal and often difficult and no one knows exactly how it’s supposed to go. So people just leave you alone (for the most part, I can’t do anything about your progressive hippie aunt or grandchild-hungry mother).

Look, gay kids, being a gay man isn’t the hand-wringing, stance-taking, trail-blazing experience you might think that it is. It’s like being a straight man, but with all these awesome extras! Guess what else? You don’t have to wait until you come out to everyone, or turn 20, or graduate high school, or move to a larger centre to reap the benefits. Sidle up to the most stylish girl in drama class and crack wise. Listen to Julie Klausner’s podcast and see how many references you get. Consider telling the people you love the most your biggest secret, because chances are that most of them know and none of them care. Worry less about finding someone to love and instead direct some of that energy into loving yourself. Know that not only does it get better, it is better, right this minute, because you’ve decided it is so. The world is yours for the taking, so take it like a man.