Tuesday, May 22, 2018

THE FACE OF DEPRESSION


I hear it so often when a person who has experienced depression commits suicide. People are surprised.

He seemed to be doing better.

She was laughing more.

Look at the most recent photos. He looked so happy.

But depression isn’t something you can always detect on the surface like a rash or a broken arm. Shouldn’t all of us know by now that a Facebook/Instagram life is often nothing like the real thing? A tasty looking pizza pic is just that. And I haven’t had difficulty forcing a smile for the camera since those obligatory family photos of my adolescence. If anything, social media has only made us more practiced at faking it.

I recall the shock over Robin Williams’ death. Someone with such a frantic energy and the facility to make people laugh,…how could he? (I suspect he was bipolar.) Same thing when Chester Bennington, the lead singer of Linkin Park, took his life. The media posted pictures of him shortly before his death. I refused to look, but I surmised they were smiley images. How could there be such a mismatch between what’s inside and a broad smile or a robust laugh?

If we don’t dig, we don’t see. Public persona can hide the private agony. After all, we’ve been socialized to hide it. Stop being a downer, man.

The weekend before I was admitted to hospital in September, I went on a fifty-mile bike ride. I took in magnificent ocean and mountain views north of Vancouver. I appreciated my natural surroundings. Maybe I was even trying to pedal away dark feelings. To be sure, getting outside had been an ordeal. It took me two hours to get my socks on. The shock over Chester Bennington’s death gave me the wherewithal to snap pictures as I lay in bed, feeling utterly hopeless and helpless. Most shots didn’t have much in me in view. I didn’t have the energy to do any sort of posing or to even look and see if I was in frame. It was plenty just lifting the phone and pressing the button. Later, I deleted dozens of pics and was left with a few that honestly show how things were in the absence of a social media log-in.

This is depression. This is what it looks like when putting on a front gives way. This is the eve of my downfall. Things only got worse. The bike ride provided a reprieve; it didn’t fix anything.

If you know someone who has experienced clinical depression, all I can say is don’t make assumptions. Don’t read a hell of a lot into the thought, He looks good. People get good at covering up. In my experience, it’s rare for a person to continue to ask, “How are you?” and want anything more than the rote “Fine”. The question is synonymous with Hello.

It has to feel safe for someone to open up, not just once but on a continuing basis. It’s too easy for a person with depression to internalize things with What’s wrong with me? and Nobody cares. The default is, This is my burden. I go it alone. It’s ridiculously easy to fake fine. We’ve been socialized that way. It’s what’s expected. So there should be no surprise that someone’s depression goes unnoticed. There may be a period of genuine remission, but a resurgence is entirely possible, as with most afflictions.

Even when blurred by depression, a person’s suicide is his or her own action. I don’t believe in casting blame. That’s why it’s also referred to as taking one’s own life. The personal agency is at the heart of it. But people can do better with the check-ins for loved ones known to have mood disorders. Go beyond the how-are-you. Add, “No, really,…how are you?” Or name it. “Where are you at in terms of depression?” “What’s your mood been like?” “How well do you think you’re handling things?” These more specific questions venture beyond the hello. They show you care. You are prepared to talk about more than the warming weather, the slumping Blue Jays and how a gay skater won “Dancing with the Stars”.

For goodness sake, after asking an open-ended question, allow the person to have the time to respond. I’ve found that talk of mood disorders makes so many people skittish. A minute or two and it’s back to pulling out phones and photographing pizza. Do that and the chance your friend will open up in the future is significantly minimized. This kind of conversation makes a person feel extremely vulnerable. You’ve lost their trust. They can’t be brutally open only to be shut down halfway.

Ask. Then listen. Acknowledge. No advice necessary.
That’s all.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

EXPANDING MY HORIZONS

A few catchy titles on display at Ada's Technical Books & Café
Okay, so this post doesn't have anything to do with being gay or dealing with mental health issues. But then, the main reason I keep a blog is to have a forum for writing and to get feedback from readers either in the comments section or, as is more often the case, on Twitter. Writing can feel like a lonely, even foolish endeavor. What's it all for? Self-doubt often creeps in. I have several--six, I believe--first draft novel manuscripts awaiting revision, but trying to get an agent or an editor can seem far away and next to impossible.

So, yes, I blog.

And lately, I've started to think about essays and other articles I can pitch to newspapers and magazines. Getting a shorter piece published, helps refuel when my confidence as a writer sags. Last October, UNESCO designated Seattle as a "creative city", specifically a City of Literature. Interesting. I had just gotten out of hospital, so I could only file that piece of information in the back of my brain. I just wasn't ready. In March, I began preparing a trip to Seattle that would be entirely focused on literary destinations. Then, over the Easter weekend, I drove down and crammed in twenty-seven places and events in order to decide which ones should be included in the ultimate literary travel vacation.

Returning on the  ferry from Bainbridge Island to Seattle 
After writing the article, I submitted it to The Globe and Mail, arguably Canada's most respected newspaper and today the article has been published. A bit of short-term validation. I'm thrilled and honored as this is my first travel piece.

In case you're interested, here's the link:

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/article-seattle-by-the-book/


Now I've got to come up with another pitch...



Sunday, May 6, 2018

LIVING "LITE"


May is Mental Health Awareness Month, or at least it is here. It’s probably a lot of other things. That time for May flowers, dotted with four “Caturdays” and whatever else people throw into the Twitterverse and sticks. But mental health concerns me far more than random cat photos or even the fact that May 10 is Clean Up Your Room Day. Periodically, I’ve shared some of my mental health challenges and I plan on two or three related posts this month.

Back in October, I acknowledged spending eighteen days in the psych ward of my local hospital. It was my second stay in four years, something I swore I’d never repeat. Unfortunately, I was suicidal after falling into a deep depression. I have been diagnosed as being bipolar II, meaning I have periods of depression and episodes of mania, but my mania is low-grade. That end of the diagnosis is never a worry. I like that part. I’m super productive then. I multi-task up to five things at once…and get them done! I think all my ideas are out-of-the-ballpark homeruns. And even if most of them aren’t, it’s amazing what a boost of confidence can do. Ah, mania. Not my problem area.

Alas, depression. I’d managed well after going off meds for thirteen months before hitting rock bottom again. Yes, I’d been foolish. I don’t like meds. For anything. I never take antibiotics; I won’t even swallow a vitamin tablet. I’ve apparently inherited a stubborn, I-will-handle-this-on-my-own tendency from my father. And he’s a doctor. Some say doctors make the worst patients but I’m a case for doctors’ kids being even worse.

For now I accept medication even though I recently read my file and my psychiatrist still contends I’m resistant. (The fact that I happen to forget once or twice (or more) each week is not intentional, I swear. I’m told forgetfulness can be part of depression.) We’ve been tinkering with my medications for the past seven months. Feels like we’re seasoning soup. Little of this, little of that. Stir. Too much, too little. A pinch less, a tad more. Stir again.

I figured if I complied with the meds, everything else would go back to the way it was. That’s what I’d done last time. Discharged from hospital on Friday, back at work on Monday. It wasn’t a choice. I hadn’t accrued enough sick leave from that employer. But a strong Protestant work ethic played a factor, too. (Sorry, other worthy religions. Somehow Protestants, particularly Calvinists, laid claim to hard work. Seems silly these days,…although I’m a huge fan of Calvin & Hobbes. That’s all I know about Calvinism.) I worked until everything fell apart all over again. Perhaps with an exponent tagged on the end.

Right now, I’d say my life is fairly manageable. That’s great until I think about how it’s a “lite” version of life. My plate has little on it. Maybe a couple of celery stalks and a dab of cottage cheese. Manageable and bland. I have not returned to my job as a school principal and that comes with a mix of emotions that I try to repress. I learned long ago as a teacher that I may be proud of what I do, but I’m not indispensable. Someone can take over. I’ve been doing my best ostrich-in-the-sand routine, not asking who is in for me. Somehow it’s better not knowing. What if the person drags down momentum? What if he/she exceeds anything I ever did? Yep, ostriches are my new favorite animal.

This past month, my status officially changed from “away on sick leave” to being on long-term disability (LTD). I cried when I got the news. In part, it was a relief. I’d been led to believe that, since my case involved mental health, there was a higher level of scrutiny than with typical physical disability cases. That not only incensed me but got me spinning with anxiety. My file was extensive and my doctors’ letters were unequivocal. It was suggested that there might be something akin to an interview just to make sure I wasn’t a fraud. (As if I’d fake the hospitalizations and everything else I go through.) But then, as I navigated the process, I was also advised that my case was a “slam dunk”. Gee, thanks. That felt like too much the other way. For now, LTD—incidentally, a 1970s, Jeffrey Osborne-fronted band with an awesome song I play when jogging—is my status and will be reviewed every few months (which makes me anxious just thinking about). Again, life is manageable in its current state. I realize that, as my leave extends, the chance of returning to work becomes less. Not sure how I feel about that in the long run; for now, I feel safe.

Of course, there are corollaries that come with being on leave. I have a hard time seeing school-aged children in public. Guilt and shame rise up. I’m reminded of where I used to be and what shaped a big part of my identity. I was a beloved teacher and then a principal that kids and parents adored. (Teachers were always harder to read.) One of the challenges in where I live is that there is an elementary school by the park across from me. It’s a beautiful new white building, accented with bright colors, impossible to miss whenever I look out my tenth floor window. I see kids going to school, backpacks strapped on, walking hand in hand with their parent; I hear the bells during the day and the squeals that rise during every recess and lunch. If I’m home, there is no escaping the school timetable. I’m supposed to be in that setting. I’m supposed to be working. I’m having to let go of that notion.

My week continues to feel full even if, mercifully, it just has a lot fewer people in it. I stick to a strict writing schedule seven days a week, hitting my first café as their first customer when the doors open at six in the morning. I exercise to the point of extremes six days a week. I read avidly. I’m having another go at learning French. And, four days a week, I attend support groups, psychiatric sessions and other meetings related to mental illness. I tell myself being active and being invested in my own wellness will make a difference.

I am fortunate that I don’t fit some stereotype of being curled up in bed, hidden by covers and a pillow. There are people in my support groups like that. (It’s a weird feeling going to a support group and not feeling worthy, not feeling depressed enough!) I am thankful that writing gives me purpose. I make myself write even if it may not produce anything worthwhile on a particular day or week. The fact that I have a compulsive need to exercise has created its own problems, but I believe it’s also saved me from sinking too low. I am one example of a person who deals with depression. (I like to say “deals with” instead of the more negative, victim-tinged “struggles with” or the neutral “experiences”. It feels like I have a more active role in facing the challenges before me.) I am fortunate that I can live off LTD when others scrimp on welfare. I have no family or friends here to help me so I’ve managed to reach out to formal supports. I teeter frequently but, for now, I am coping. I write this as one window into depression. There are, no doubt, many more.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

A MESSAGE...AT LAST


Eureka! A message.

That’s what my dating site inbox says. There’s a “1” plain as day.

Please let this one be a possibility. Please don’t allow myself to dismiss him for some shallow reason like ear hair you can braid or the fact he lists “Napping” as one of his few interests. (Both of these real guys have sent me messages in the past.)

Stop delaying. Just click on the inbox.

Hru



That’s it.

Hru

No punctuation. No words. No effort. Pretty sure the capital letter was only on account of an auto-correct.

I know, I know…“How are you?” But seriously, is that so hard to type? And, if it is, maybe the first message should be:

Asdf  (Aha! Auto-capitalization, just as I suspected.)

Even better, to show you’re a conscientious dude with true ambition and a commitment to finishing what you start:

Asdf jkl;

That would be much more impressive than hru. Was I really supposed to respond? If I type, “imok”, it feels like I’m going overboard and trying too hard with a response almost twice as long as the original.

And here I’ve gone and given it ten times the thought it deserves.

Delete.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

OUT OF RANGE

Unread. Return to sender.


It’s the kind of rejection that should be easy to brush off. Nothing personal. I just didn’t meet the criteria. And yet that’s what stings.

I logged in to Plenty of Fish, the dating website where fish—at least of the gay kind—are not plentiful at all. It’s an understocked koi pond, a few bottom feeders mixed in with the perennials that haven’t changed their photos or profiles in a decade. The fact that I know this makes me a perennial, too. But my photos are current, crow’s feet and all. And not a single pic comes with freaky Instagram bunny ears.

Years ago, I recognized that the Plenty of Fish had been overfished. A logical person would simply delete his profile. But a logical person does so with a Plan B in mind. And I can’t find a viable Plan B. I joined a gay running group and simply found myself jogging solo at a set time and place that wasn’t even convenient. Not only did that prove fruitless in terms of dating and making friends, it just made me feel worse. Now I jog according to my own schedule. Just me and Carly Rae Jepsen or K.C. & the Sunshine Band. I joined a gay volleyball league, but that led to a freakish finger dislocation on the third outing, such that my volleyball days are over, my pinky permanently gnarled. I’m not a big drinker and I cannot imagine going old school, hanging out at a gay bar or pub. I suppose I could hang out in the produce section of my local grocery store, but I don’t want to be that guy who keeps fondling melons or eyeing cucumbers.

So that’s my long-winded defense for sticking with what doesn’t work: (Not So) Plenty of Fish. And, as I mentioned in my last post, it’s not working more than ever. It seems my inbox has been shuttered. (See above self-reference as a perennial.) If I sit back and wait, nothing changes. I become an insufferable whiner. Okay, more of one. Can you hear the whining springing from my fingers on the keyboard? Sorry ‘bout that.

It takes reminders that I need to be proactive, search the site and send a message or two every now and then. Cast the rod, see if anything comes other than a snag on some rocky shoal.

While my inbox remained out of order, I did notice this week that I’d at least been viewed. I clicked the profile. He’s 50, I’m 53. Nice photos. A smile even. Positive sounding profile. Worth a shot. Certainly nothing to lose.

I crafted a breezy message, pointing out similar interests and views. I suggested a coffee and/or a walk to see if there might be a connection. Then I pressed send.

The next screen was blank except for this tiny note at the top:

He accepts messages only from certain users. Why not try one of your Matches instead?

All my years on Plenty of Fish and I’d never experienced this. My message had been swatted away before it could even be read. I had to confirm my hunch so I looped back to his profile. At the very bottom appeared the following:

To send a message to this person you MUST meet the following criteria:

Male

Age: Between 30 and 50.

You must have a picture to contact this user.



Male: Check

Picture: Check

30-50: XXX

Two out of three ain’t anything. And he’d been the one who viewed my profile despite the fact each person’s age is stated before you even click it. Over 50. And he looked.

But I was aged out anyway. He’ll never know I tried to send a message. He can go on fishing for a thirty-year-old. His thing. Fine.

But it still feels like a face slap. Fishing prospects are looking even grimmer.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

OFFLINE


Seems I’m constantly asking, Does this site work? Not with regards to its effectiveness in finding the man of my dreams and eventually posting a wedding announcement in The New York Times. (Yes, I see that another happy couple met on Ok Cupid.) That kind of success is all too far-reaching. I’m questioning the actual functionality of these dating sites. As in, How come every single time I log in there are no new messages? None. Zero. Must be a virus. My passwords are infested with online crickets.

There’s always that tried and true test: power off, power on, log out, log in. No difference. I even tried an electrical outlet in another room. No messages.

And so I’m rueing the good ol’ days of online dating which, to be clear, weren’t so good at all. But there were messages. Guys that struggled to type an entire line or even real words.

Sup?

U R kwute.

Instantly deletable but, in that nanosecond between realizing I had a message and actually seeing the message, there was hope. Sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G, love, marriage and all that. It’s been ingrained in me since grade one.

This time around, I don’t even get those presumably dubious messages from boys in Brazil or the Philippines. Scams of some sort. I never repled but technically they counted as messages in my inbox.

It’s nada now. No deliveries. I may have to take up knitting. Please don’t let it come to that. I’m afraid of needles, even the knitting kind. God knows what kind of injuries I’d incur. Solitaire is safer but I tired of that during my recent hospital stay. When I buy a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle that’s a red-hued Rothko or one big gray-blue swath of the Pacific Ocean, things will officially be bleak.

I’ve messaged a couple of guys on each dating site. OkCupid tries to temper my expectations immediately after I press the send button. “If it’s meant to be, you’ll hear from him.” No response. It’s not even meant to be a rejection after coffee. (Egad. Do I actually miss that?!)

Perhaps I should click on the FAQs page or contact a site administrator.

Dear Sir,

I wanted to alert you to a glitch with your dating site. I am not getting any messages. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

I heard laughter even as I typed that. (You’re welcome, Site Manager. I’m guessing most days are rather boring. Forgotten passwords, complaints about pop-up ads and all that.)

Guess I’ll have to keep powering on and off, logging in and out. I’ll try to catch myself when I hum “Someday My Prince Will Come” and make it stop. And this Sunday I may give the Vows section of The New York Times a pass. Happy for you, all the same, Blake and Stanley with your degrees from Harvard and your lovely wedding on Martha’s Vineyard. I just have to focus on my computer conundrum.
It’s not me. It’s my computer.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

CASTING A CRITICAL EYE ON "QUEER EYE"


New "Queer Eye" cast. Left to right: Bobby Berk,
Karamo Brown, Antoni Porowski, Jonathan         
Van Ness, Tan France                                            
Well, that went fast.

I tuned in for the first episode of “Queer Eye” 2.0 about six weeks ago and worked through the season without an urge to binge. I figured I’d be watching the show into late Spring and was surprised when the show stopped being a viewing option on my Netflix account. Eight episodes, call it a season.


Original series cast, L to R: Jai Rodriguez,
Ted Allen, Carson Kressley, Kyan              
Douglas, Thom Filicia                                
I remember the hype when the original “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” aired in 2003 with five gay guys guiding straight men into a transformation regarding their lifestyle. Ted Allen mentored in the kitchen, Kyan Douglas gave grooming tips, Thom Filicia guided a home decorating overhaul, Carson Kressley advised on a fashion makeover and Jai Rodriguez had the nebulous role of being “Culture Vulture”, offering tips on relationships and being a swell guy at social functions. The show ran for five seasons and one hundred episodes. Carson Kressley and Ted Allen continue to be in the public eye, riding whatever cable waves they can find.

More than ten years after the original show ended, QE2 (also how I refer to Her Majesty) waded in again with a new cast, checking to see if some campier than average gay men can still endear themselves to seemingly polar opposite straight men (and one closeted gay man) while also delivering an After that is radically different from Before.

Did it work? Are there still straight guys whose worlds are sheltered from gay exposure? Does the premise still pique an audience’s interest? Is there enough in a makeover to give five guys enough to do?

Well, I’d say Will & Grace 2.0 (okay, so it also needs a nickname…WAG2) is fresher than QE2. But then WAG2 has legendary director James Burrows, amazing writers and a stellar acting team. It was reborn with a silver cocktail strainer for Karen Walker’s butler.

Unfair to compare reboots. Perhaps it’s better to consider how it stacks up against the original and whether it’s still relevant. As with the original, QE2 struggles with having substantial roles for each of the five pairs of queer eyes. Jai Rodriguez had a weightless role in the original but Karamo Brown as culture expert steals every scene. Jai was 24 when the QE1 started and he came off as too green. At 37, Karamo has more life’s experience and a genuine interest in getting to know what the setbacks have been for each makeover man. He quickly develops a rapport on each episode. (As well, his casual attire is impeccable and, well, he’s easy on the eyes.)

The hair and makeup guy—handsome Kyan in the original; see-me, hear-me, love-me Jonathan Van Ness in QE2—is a thankless role in both series. There’s a bit of talk about eye cream, lots of talk about moisturizing and then Jonathan primarily cheerleads as a barber does most of the haircutting. Moreover, a couple of the featured men don’t require much of a hair transformation but just the kind of cleanup any decent barber or stylist would provide. The wow factor in the haircut and/or beard trim is present more in the first half of the season than the latter half. That leaves Jonathan reverting to dipping his head in front of the camera and Vogue-ing with his hands a lot.

While energetic Jonathan doesn’t have much to do, it’s even more of a slog for producers to figure out what QE2’s food and wine expert Antoni Porowski should do. In the original series, Ted would show how to make a single meal which seemed like a limited part of a makeover. How many times is the guy going to “impress” people with the same damn meal? Pan-seared salmon? Again?! It’s much worse for the very nice (he’s Canadian) Antoni who freely acknowledges he has no training as a chef; instead, he has an interest in food. Ah, yes. Another “foodie”. I suspect Antoni got the part because of his good looks.  The concoctions he coaches the weekly makeover guy through are laughably simple. Guacamole. Avocado-grapefruit salad. Hmm, what else can I do with avocado? Macaroni (from a recipe he lifts off the guy’s mom!). Chili. Hot dogs. (Yes, hot dogs. But with fancy condiments, which reminds me of a line in Canadian group Barenaked Ladies’ “If I Had $1,000,000”: “Buy really expensive ketchups with it, That’s right, all the fanciest Dijon ketchups.”) So we’ve got a guy who can eat guacamole at home when he loves a certain Mexican restaurant. I don’t see it happening. Same with everything poor Antoni dishes out.

There is no one with the sassy wit of Carson Kressley. The QE2 team tries, especially in the opening montage where they are all in one SUV driving to each episode’s particular Georgia location, but I think the producers need to let go of any thought of a Carson reincarnation. It’s the same as when “American Idol” lost Simon Cowell. The zingers are gone; you move on.

Still, in addition to Karamo, Tan France and Bobby Berk work well in their roles as fashion expert and home design expert, respectively. Tan’s clothing advice is thoughtful and there is genuine interaction between him and the makeover guy. Tan wants to know if the guy is comfortable in each suggested look and adjusts based on the feedback. It seems there is a greater likelihood that the new wardrobe and ways of wearing clothes will be adhered to due to the conversation.

Bobby is much like Thom in the original, forgoing the limelight (which Jonathan seems to crave) and working with contractors and a design team behind the scenes to turn neglected bachelor pads into fresh, livable spaces. The reveal is always polished but with special touches involving family photos or a quilt made of a deceased father’s clothes that had overtaken closet space. Any tear shedding from the made over man or the viewer at home is likely to come from the work of Bobby or Karamo.

Just yesterday, Netflix announced that there will be a second season of QE2. Going forward, the show could be tweaked. During the eight-episode season, they cut the end segment, a useless half-minute tip such as how to walk with confidence. (That particular tip made me feel they needed J. Alexander from “America’s Next Top Model” as a special guest to show his runway walk.) The show would be tighter if they went from a quintet to a quartet. Get rid of some of the filler in each episode; deepen the transformation. I’ll let the producers decide who gets cut,…maybe, ahem, as they eat fancy hot dogs and realize they’re still just hot dogs.

Really, they could cut the cast to three. Okay, if producers are seeking advice, I’d say keep Tan (fashion), Bobby (home design) and Karamo (culture and grooming). If the makeover guy is in a nacho rut, so be it. Let him apply to be on whatever happens to be Bobby Flay’s newest show.

Is “Queer Eye” still needed? Not really. Gay men are out in the open more than ever and, yes, they’ve left their enclaves in the Castro, West Hollywood and Boystown. There may be an uptick in hate crimes and a White House that doesn’t want transgendered people in the military, but in the world of reality TV, “Queer Eye” is tame. We don’t need it any more than we need junior chefs making food the viewer can’t taste or some catty housewives from, I don’t know,…Iowa City.

That said, “Queer Eye” is easy viewing. I watched each episode on nights when I knew I’d fall asleep if I cracked open a book. I found myself wishing they’d include a buyer’s guide in the credits or online to indicate where to buy Tan’s white polo with red and blue trim and a zipper instead of buttons—he wore it and distracted me in two episodes—or where to get any of Karamo’s clothes. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but I found myself wishing the QE crew would come help me. For the past three years, I’ve used moving boxes for a coffee table and a basic wooden stool is my only chair. Almost all my clothes are solids and my feet only know what it feels like to be immersed in Converse. (Thirty pairs, mind you!) Yes, this gay guy could use a Queer Eye with better vision. For now I’ll just have to learn from the TV and congratulate myself for my new habit of buying flowers for myself each week. (It’s an easier decision than a table. Cheaper, too!)

Bring on the second season!