Sexual Predators

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“Am I a sexual predator? Are there people out there who think I’ve sexually harassed them?” and “Have I felt sexually harassed by others? Who, when, and why?”

I found myself wondering those questions over breakfast this morning, after a late night conversation with the boyfriend about these very topics. Lately, the news has been inundated with stories of sexual harassments and sexual assaults by celebrities and people in power. Social media has been full of outrage at Kevin Spacey, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and dozens more, all of them men who used power and manipulation to harm women (or in some cases men), or who excused their predatory behavior with “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing.”

But that leads me to think back to my own life and experiences, asking two questions internally. Are there times when I have felt sexually harassed, and are there times when others have felt sexually harassed by me?

Are there times when I have used “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing” as an excuse, and are there times when I’ve used those same excuses to explain away my feelings at the hands of others?

This is actually a really painful space to think upon. As a gay man, I’ve had plenty of evenings in gay clubs with loud music and drinks, where I’ve danced with a partner, and that can easily turn into kissing and groping. I’ve been approached by guys in a similar manner. And there is constantly either verbal or non-verbal consent or refusal happening. If someone grabs me in a club and I liked it, I might grab them back, feel flattered, or express mutual interest. If someone grabs me in a club and I didn’t like it, I might move away, give them eye contact to indicate I’m not interested., or feel disgusted or furious. Even more complex, if I flirt and someone doesn’t flirt back, I might feel angry, confused, or rejected, and they might feel things when I don’t flirt back. These basic encounters have sometimes left me feeling like a predator or like a victim, they just feel like part of the process.

But I can also recall times when guys have aggressively grabbed me in clubs. Strangers who have groped me while I walked by, or who have tried sticking their hands down my pants or unzipping my pants, times when guys from behind me have reached up between my legs from behind and grabbed hard. Those times have made me angry, downright furious, and I’ve forcefully removed hands and pushed guys away, giving very direct ‘NO’s with my voice or my eyes. Consent was much more apparent here. (And I’m never that aggressive in my own flirting).

That same feeling of discomfort has existed within me during more subtle encounters, however. I’ve felt anxious and angry at men who give too much eye contact or who aggressively follow me or pursue me at a party or a park. I’ve grown outraged with people who text too much or too aggressively, or who send unsolicited naked photos, or who brag publicly or privately with friends about sexual experiences they have had with me. These encounters have left me feeling unsettled and unsafe at times.

However, examples from both of the previous paragraphs have also been completely okay at times as well. I’ve had guys aggressively grab me and I felt flattered, men have pursued me or sent naked photos and I’ve liked it, guys have bragged about me and I felt happy about it.

It seems to come down to timing, trust levels, readiness, and level of attraction. And it’s difficult to know what will happen or how I will feel.

Self-inventory then ensues, and I begin to wonder about the times I’ve grabbed guys or have flirted too much or have followed a guy with my eyes in a coffee shop or I’ve complimented too easily. There are very likely people who have felt like I’m being predatory and who have felt unsafe, upset, or harassed by me. And that makes me feel worried and terrible.

Isolated encounters almost confuse me more. I think back to a time when I went on a weekend trip with a group of friends. We were in the Hot Springs together, and one of the guys got very handsy under the water, with his partner standing nearby. At the time, I found it enticing, and it went on for a while. It was only later that it bothered me. I never said no and I enjoyed the encounter, yet now when I look back I felt uncomfortable and maybe even a little harassed.

I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve appreciated it, and I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve been annoyed, sometimes avoiding them or even blocking them on social media because of it. I’ve had massage therapists get a little bit sexual and sometimes I’ve liked it and sometimes I’ve given a firm no and stayed furious about it. I’ve had clients flirt with me, and sometimes I’ve gotten angry and declared clear boundaries, and other times I’ve kind of enjoyed it and perhaps even subtly flirted back.

I once sat next to a friend during a movie, among a group of friends. During the film, I moved subtly closer until our legs were touching, then I moved my hand a bit closer to hopefully touch his. He responded by getting up and moving away, sitting on the floor, and later he’d told me that made him very uncomfortable. That had been hard to hear, but I respected that, and we are still good friends. I was happy he spoke up, and I was willing to listen.

Consent can be a bit confusing, honestly. And rather than saving my outrage for men in government and Hollywood who I have never met, who have preyed upon others, I’m taking the opportunity to do a bit of self-inventory. There are times when flirtations are just fun. And there are times when flirtations have caused me to feel unsafe and harassed. And there are times when flirtations have caused others to feel like I am harassing them.

I’m not sure what to take from all of these thoughts except to realize that asking is always better than assuming, that consent should be a part of every conversation and flirtation, and that I never like feeling unsafe, and that I don’t ever want anyone feeling unsafe around me.

Harassment and predatory behavior can show up in any space, through unwelcome compliments, eye contact, energy, or gestures. It can show up at work, in friend circles, and in bars. But it’s going to require us all taking stock of our encounters, apologizing when we need to apologize (without making excuses), communicating consent much more quickly, and setting clear boundaries when we need to. We are all sexual beings in our own rights, who experience attractions to others. But someone feeling like they have been marginalized or victimized, including myself, is never acceptable.

We live in a predatory community, and the way men treat men and especially how they treat women should never be focused on excuse-making and feeling rejected, but instead on conversations and consent. But it is very complex when we apply it ourselves. We all need to be using our voices and our ears much more. No one wants to be harassed, and no one wants to feel like they’ve harassed others.

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Good-Looking Murderers

A few days ago, it was reported that Aaron Hernandez committed suicide in jail. Hernandez, a famous sports star, rocketed into super-stardom when he was convicted of a brutal murder, and it came to light that he had been suspected in other murders. The reports on his death were grisly and left many questions.

When I checked my Facebook feed, a friend had posted an article about the death of Hernandez. I read the comments that followed the posted article. One, written by a gay man that I know, read, “He was hot! I wish he’d murder me!”

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As I processed through that statement and all that it implied about humanity, human consciousness, and social media, I scrolled farther down, where another friend had posted a meme about Hernandez committing suicide, a meme that also included Robin Williams, Kurt Cobain, and others, with a horribly unfunny joke about suicide. The friend had just written one thing about it. “What, too soon?”

I closed my computer and stepped away for a moment. As a professional, I have worked with the loved ones of those who have committed suicide many times over, and I have seen the emptiness, the pain, the shock, and the horror on their faces after the news comes in and in the days and weeks that have followed. I have also, to a lesser extent, worked with the families and loved ones of both those who have committed murder and those who have lost someone to murder. Going through something like that changes a person forever, irrevocably haunting them for the rest of their lives.

My mind flashed back to a few years ago, when I was running an LGBT history channel on YouTube, doing daily posts on events related to LGBT people and history. One day, I had done a post on Jeffrey Dahmer, a gay man who had committed dozens of horrific murders that defy explanation or understanding. Dahmer, now a legendary and, dare I say, celebrated serial killer was later violently killed while incarcerated by another inmate. The research I had done into his life and crimes had haunted me for days. I posted the video on social media, and someone in seconds had committed, “Mmm, look at him. Getting killed by him would have been worth it.”

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These thoughts stuck with me for a few days, disturbing, hanging out in the back of my brain. These people I knew were sexualizing murderers. Passive comments, for sure, and given without much thought. But an errant joke about suicide isn’t that funny if you’ve lost someone to suicide, and an errant joke about murder–well, frankly, neither one of them are funny at all. The killers and the victims were fathers, brothers, sons. They were humans who had lives and potentials. And when they were taken, gone, their pasts were all that were left. All of their potential, all of the paths they would have walked, all of the children they may have brought into the world, all gone with them.

My brain dredged up to similar comments I had heard over the years. When Dylan Roof killed 8 black worshippers in a church, I read a comment about ‘at least he killed old people’ on social media. In high school, when stories about Mary Kay Letourneau hit the media telling of how she had had sex with a much younger student, I remember some of the guys in my high school saying how lucky the student was, how much they wish they had had a teacher like that.

I wondered to myself the kind of world that we live in, where we as a culture are more focused on how hot or how young someone is, how desensitized to the news we are that we search for the horrific and titillating details, details which ultimately have little impact on us. This is a world where a woman makes a post on social media in support of Planned Parenthood, and a stranger comments on her feed that she deserves to be raped.

As I prepared my thoughts on this particular blog entry, I took a break and clicked on the news button on my iPhone. Four featured stories popped up, as they usually did. Something horrible about Donald Trump as usual, and then a detailed report about hundreds being killed in Syria in a brutal attack. Beneath that were two more stories, one about a celebrity divorce and a fourth about a celebrity’s plastic surgery mishaps.

A cold calm came over me as I realized the programming here, the way we view the news itself, the way we are indoctrinated into seeing the world. Hundreds of Syrian deaths mean nothing to those who aren’t Syrian, but the celebrity divorce gets clicked on because we have seen these people in a few movies. And the advertisers pay more for the stories that are clicked on. How quickly we cultivate an inability to feel horrible when we read something horrible. How swiftly we devolve into unsympathetic creatures when we scan the photos of murderers and victims and we focus solely on how attractive they were. We consider the mass deaths of strangers as shrug-worthy, and the tragic deaths of the young and beautiful a true tragedy.

And we are surrounded by men and women who feel no grief at the loss of life, yet they find value in the looks of the killers.

Judy/Frances

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This morning, I finished the biography of Judy Garland. Man oh man, was it sad.

Judy died at the age of 47, of a pill overdose. She had been using pills for three decades–pills to wake up, pills to fall asleep, pills to quiet pain, pills to numb depression. She developed a dependency on them in her teenage years when, in her mid-teens, she was signed by MGM and was told she was homely and overweight. The studio began restricting her food and feeding her pills to get her to slim down so that she could properly play the girl-next-door, the one with the pretty voice that the leading man could fall for instead of the beautiful girls, like Lana Turner. By the time she made her most iconic movie, the Wizard of Oz, at the age of 16, she was already extremely addicted.

But Judy Garland wasn’t her real name. Judy Garland was a guise she created for herself, both outwardly and inwardly, a person she could be that the public wanted to see. Judy Garland was the heartfelt, soulful girl-next-door with the voice that could make you feel everything, who could then stand up and smile and dance and make your heart skip with joy. Judy was a character, a mask she wore.

Deep down, she was Frances Ethel Gumm, the youngest daughter of Frank and Ethel. Frank had owned theaters where Vaudeville performers could show off for the public, and Ethel had been a domineering mother who had had her own aspirations to be a star. Frank liked young men, and had trysts with some, leading him to move from town to town when he was exposed. And Ethel dressed up her daughters and had them sing for money, performing for strange men in bars and small town theaters. Little Frances had been a performer, surely; she loved to sing and she loved to show off. But ultimately she was a child with deep insecurities and a desire to be loved by her mother and her father. But Frank died, and then Ethel depended on Frances to be the breadwinner of the family. So she became Judy, and then spent a lifetime searching for Frances.

And thus began the regimens of pills, 16 hour work days, consistently competing for roles against beautiful women while being told she wasn’t pretty enough and that she had to keep her weight between 96 and 98 pounds, and public appearances non-stop.

While Judy sang and worked, Frances looked for love. She married five times, each time believing in the beauty and purity of love and newness, and each time quickly having her heart broken. And Frances didn’t do well when left with her own demons. She spent more than two decades smiling for the public while falling deeper into debt, being ravaged by taxes, and screaming for the attention of her husbands (two of whom were gay). She had multiple psychiatric hospitalizations, public and private suicide attempts, collapses on stage, medical complications, and near overdoses. Judy, her appearance ranging from skeletal to obese, strutted and sang for the public as flowers were tossed at her, while Frances was torn apart in the newspapers. Judy put forth the image of the perfect family while Frances struggled to know what it meant to be a mother to her three beloved children: Liza, Lorna, and Joey.

Although it sounds a bit stereotypical, since I’m gay, I have always loved the Wizard of Oz. But it wasn’t the movie that enchanted me initially. In fact, there are many movies from my childhood that remain very near and dear to my heart (Labyrinth, Annie, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Clue, Pete’s Dragon, the Sound of Music, and many others). It was the Oz books that drew me in, the epic fairy tale stories from L. Frank Baum. I loved all of the books he wrote on Oz (more than a dozen) but it was the first three that captured my childhood and left me plotting sequels on notebook paper.

I didn’t resonate with Dorothy the character all that much, but I loved her as the heroine in the first Oz book. Not a super man or a private detective, but a simple little girl from Kansas whose most heroic traits were her determinedness and her ability to win over friends with logic and a good heart. After reading the books and then going back to watch the film, it is easy to see Judy Garland’s talent at acting and singing and dancing and stage presence… but the vulnerability, the raw quality that makes Dorothy seem both brave and sad and relatable all at once? That wasn’t Judy. That was Frances.

And so as I finish her story now, I’m left feeling a bit empty and sad, like I just finished an intensive therapy session. Her younger years, she was the product of a deadly system and an unsupportive family. And then she grew into a woman who was her own worst enemy and who just couldn’t break the habits, addictions, and depressions that took her life.

And so I close this with what I find to be the most iconic quote attributed to Judy/Frances. Ironic because perhaps if she could have been a little more Frances and a little less Judy, then maybe her story wouldn’t have been so sad.

“Always be a first rate version of yourself instead of a second rate version of somebody else.”

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8 deplorable responses to Trump’s misogyny

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Last night, the universe was set on fire when footage was leaked of a 2005 video that involved Donald Trump making deplorable statements about women that alluded to sexual assault. I won’t quote the statements here (they are easy to find, and very offensive). Since then, there have been seemingly millions of Tweets, Comments, and Posts about the events, expressing all kinds of opinions. Many of these responses are utterly deplorable. Here are the eight worst categories of response that I came across.

8. Blame Hillary.

Many on the Internet seem to be blaming Hillary Clinton for all of this, basically stating that Donald Trump and Billy Bush are innocent men who were just minding their own business when Hillary master-minded the release of this video to get people to stop talking about their Emails. Completely overlooking the disgusting words to further vilify Hillary… it just blows my mind. Even if she were behind the ‘leak’, it’s a presidential campaign, and it would be a brilliant strategy move.

7. Saying Hillary is still worse.

Many are arguing that even though Trump is a terrible choice for president, he is still a better choice than Hillary Clinton, and thus his words should be excused. I get that people don’t trust Hillary, that they think she is dishonest, and at times even a criminal (I do not share these opinions), but a willingness to excuse misogyny… that is truly terrifying.

6. Saying it’s expected in Hollywood.

Many are excusing Trump because he was in Hollywood, running reality shows and making guest appearances on talk shows and soap operas, and that is just how it is in Hollywood. Trump certainly carved out a little empire in Tinseltown for a number of years, but expecting terrible treatment of women as part of an entire industry and excusing it, even for one person, is despicable.

5. Saying Bill is worse.

There is no doubt that there are many men out there who objectify women and who cheat on their wives, but a lot of people are offering comparisons, saying that what Trump said was bad, but it doesn’t compare to what Bill has done and how Hillary has helped him do it. Trump offered this comparison in his own initial “apology”. While Bill’s infidelity (and yes he also has assault accusations) are inexcusable, that doesn’t mean Trump’s are not.

4. Boys will be boys.

I see many Trump supporters coming out in favor of him, saying Trump is just a typical guy, that this is how men talk, it’s no big deal. Trump himself called this just ‘locker room talk’. He, and they, may very well be correct, but it is the very essence of rape culture, and these words do not belong to a presidential candidate.

3. It was a long time ago.

There are posts excusing Trump because the statements were made ten years ago. Three responses I have to that: 1. Every presidential candidate is subject to fine-tooth-comb searches of their history that are then used to determine their fitness to be president. 2. The fact that it happened ten years ago doesn’t make it any less vile. Trump had just married his super-model wife, his third marriage, the same year. 3. This is hardly the only negative statement Trump has made about women; the statements are consistent, 30, 20, 10, 5, and 2 years ago, and they are consistent now.

2. His words are excusable because he has everything else right.

Many people feel that even though they don’t like his statements about women, he has enough else right (immigrant and Muslim banning, punishing women who have abortions, etc) that it is worth having him in the White House. Imagine the people he would staff the White House with. Imagine how he would treat female foreign leaders and their spouses. Imagine him being in charge. His words are not excusable.

1. He’s right, good for him.

A large number of Trump supporters seem to not only not be ashamed by Trump’s words, but seem to agree with him, support him, and celebrate him, believing that women ought to be objectified and subject to dominant men who take what they want. And that is simply the most disgusting response of all. And there is a lot of it.

In other news, we see a lot of people finally dropping their support of Trump after this latest debacle, and I’m left wondering how it was they kept their support for him after every other thing he has said.

With the last presidential debates, I was unexpectedly a ball of anxiety. For the one taking place tomorrow evening, I’m making popcorn.

Sheer Bitchery

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Elda Furry rushed away from her boring life in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s and took herself right to Broadway, determined to see her name in lights.

Before, she had been the daughter of a butcher, she was a Baptist and had had half dozen siblings. In New York, she took the stage a few times, as a chorus girl, as a character actress, and as a traveling performer, before marrying a bona fide Broadway star, DeWolf Hopper, a man older than her father, and Elda was his fifth wife, and apparently he had a type: they all had names with two syllables and ending in A (Ella, Ida, Edna, Nella, then finally Elda). But DeWolf proved to be a bore to her as well, alcoholic and relatively self-absorbed and calling poor Elda any of his wives’ names interchangeably. So she left him.

So Elda took her soon, DeWolf Jr (who later went by Bill) and moved to California, where she vowed to see her name not just in lights, but lit up in the credits of silent films on the silver screens across America. She consulted a numerologist for $10 and, guided by the stars, changed her stage name to Hedda. Hedda Hopper.

Starting in 1915, and for over two decades, she made over 120 movies, generally as a high society woman in the background, but never made it as big as she had hoped, even when she played Mona Lisa herself. Wanting the attention for herself but never quite making it, Hedda grew to resent the stars around her who proved to be great successes.

And somewhere along the way, Hedda learned her greatest talent lied in gossip. Securing a newspaper column in the late 1930s, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood, she was soon being read by millions as she told the public who was up-and-coming, who was washed up, and what films to be excited about. Hedda Hopper could make or break careers, and most in Hollywood knew to rightfully fear her power: making her angry, reporting a story to another newspaper first, or ignoring her were all very dangerous choices. Her greatest rival was Louella Parsons, another Hollywood gossip with a column, and they feuded for years.

Hedda worked through her own little network of spies (hairdressers and maids and everyone in between), her firsthand sources to pregnancies, affairs, divorces, and marriages, and her scandalous seeds over the next few decades, until her death of pneumonia in 1966, but many in Hollywood remained frightened of her for years after her death. Hedda relished in fear, even calling her home “the House that Fear Built”, and she worried little about upsetting anyone. When actress Merle Oberon asked Hedda why she was writing such terrible things about Merle, Hedda famously smiled back at her at a party, and gave her most memorable quote.

“Bitchery, dear. Sheer bitchery.”

While Hedda danced the night away with her close gay friends in clubs, she destroyed the careers of individuals she outted as gay in her columns. During World War II, while her own son (the actor William Hopper) served in the military, she accused certain celebrities of being anti-American. And after World War II, she listed names of suggested Communists, often leading to intense FBI investigations of the individuals; among the accused was Charlie Chaplin, who she suggested should be banned from the country (and indeed, for years, he was).

Most famous for her enormous and lavish hats, and nicknamed Hedda Hell by Louis B. Mayer himself, Hedda Hopper has been gone for 50 years now. While her legacy remains firmly entrenched in the tabloids and paparazzi of Hollywood, who now use blogs, tweets, and live social media broadcasting to scandalize celebrities, in many ways Hedda Hopper’s worst nightmare has now come true: Her name has been largely forgotten.

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Hollywoodland

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While I walked the streets of Los Angeles a few weeks ago, I automatically pictured myself living there and wondered what it might be like. I learned major lessons about myself when I moved to Seattle briefly, the primary lesson being that me in another place is still just me, just in another place. I think people romanticize ideas about themselves with fresh starts, that if they were in a different home, a different job, a different situation, that with just the right opportunity they would thrive, be happy, find love, be powerful, have success.

And as far as opportunity goes, Los Angeles has it in spades. Entire companies looking for writers and actors and producers and cameramen. Start-up companies, production studios, agents in every direction. And literally millions of people seeking to make successes of themselves. The city must be rampant with ego and heartbreak, rejection and depression, a never-ending thirst to find the next best thing, and constant compromises to sacrifice some ideas for others in order to find new chances and hopes.

I pictured myself seizing my own opportunity, my own ego and desire for success, and transplanting myself here. I pictured getting some room in a crowded place and filling it with cheap furniture, knowing I would swiftly tire of my roommates. I pictured myself finding some day job to support myself while I waited for my social work license to activate in California so I could do therapy on some corner, subletting from someone. I pictured myself getting a lot of date requests initially, being new blood in town, but not being able to ever go out because child support and living expenses and daily bills, and then those interest levels dying down after I had been in town a few weeks. I pictured myself finding local coffee shops to write in, streets to walk, parks to read in. I pictured myself finding a new routine, a gym, a grocery store, a favorite divey restaurant.

I pictured myself traveling back to Salt Lake City every month, at no small expense, renting cars and finding hotels or friends to stay with while I spent powerful moments with my sons, my lights and life. I pictured sunlight and beaches and palm trees and lots of thinking. I pictured writing and writing and writing as I watched the people and had new experiences, and then talking to others over and over about how I want to do so much with my life, write a book, have my blog and my LGBT Snapshots Channel on YouTube be incredible successes. I pictured moving to a new apartment, then another, trying to find my feet as I made new friends.

I pictured the seasons passing quickly. Valentines Day, Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and then a New Year, all while my sons age and grow and me in daily contact but not there with them. I pictured that new year, my energies still pooling toward shifting ideas of success but just not quite grasping it on my terms, and having to make the inevitable decision of trying to keep knocking on doors for more and more opportunity, or changing my very idea of success itself.

I pictured waking up and looking at that famous Hollywood sign on the hill, longing somehow for the days when it said Hollywoodland, and then realizing one day that it was just big letters on a big hill.

All these thoughts in my head, I sat down on a bus stop bench and felt the sunlight soak into my skin. A young black teenager with saggy jeans and a hoodie, scruffy facial hair and sunglasses, sat next to me and struck up a conversation.

“Hey, man, do you mind if I play you one of my tracks?”

I turned, not surprised somehow, though I should have been. “I would love that.”

He pulled a discman out of his backpack and set it on the bench, then began to play a remixed Reggae soundtrack, explaining how he was trying to find a new and unique sound, telling me how he loved music, especially Electronica, and how he just wanted people to hear how he heard. I told him I loved the music and asked him how old he was, and he smiled, a big bright full smile, and told me he was 16.

I told him he was an amazing talent, and to keep it up. He vowed he would.

Then he asked me, “What are your talents, man?”

Again, somehow unsurprised, I tilted my head slightly, thinking about my answer.

“Well, I have a lot I’m bad at, but a few things I’m great at.”

He laughed, “I know how that is!”

“I’m good at helping people. I’m a writer. I’m a teacher. I love the human story. But more than all of that, I’m a dad.”

The young man nodded a few times. “I can respect that.” And then his bus came, and he shook my hand and boarded.

I looked back at the Hollywood sign, thinking of ambition and dreams and the ground beneath my feet, then I called my sons.

Big man in Little Armenia

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I know nothing of Armenia.

While I consider myself a relatively well-educated person, constantly seeking to learn more, I have very little knowledge of the overall world outside my small spheres of influence.

So, when I took an impromptu four day vacation to Los Angeles, I booked a small Airbnb in an unfamiliar neighborhood, crashing on a stranger’s couch so I could have some adventures in a new city. And I wound up in a small section of LA proper, just off of Hollywood Boulevard, near a confluence of other sections of the city. Little Armenia.

Cities have a strange way of breaking up into little sections. Safe and unsafe spaces. Spots to congregate. Businesses pile up here, artists there, tourist traps in another spot. There are hidden gems in any area of any little city. And Little Armenia didn’t disappoint.

One city block was vibrant with new businesses, in a strip mall format. Asian noodles on the corner, a barbershop and nail salon next door, a “Thai massage” spot one over from there, and a cute Asian bistro next to that. I stumbled on this block my first day in the city, exploring the area, and I thought, well, why not.

I entered the haircut salon first. A middle-aged woman named Nona greeted me with a wink and a smile. With few words, she sat me in a barber’s chair and got out her scissors, prepared to give me one of the most inefficient haircuts I’ve ever received. Nona had her hair bobbed up, short and sort of curled outward, like something from America’s past. She made a few cuts, surveyed me in the mirror, and nodded. “You are a very handsome American white boy,” she said in a thick Middle Eastern accent.

As Nona cut my hair, she told scattered stories, not related to each other. I barely spoke, happy to just listen and enjoy the experience. She kvetched about her adult daughter, always wanting to use the car, and beamed about her daughter in high school, successful and going places with her future. She talked to another woman in the parlor, wondering if some of their favorite clients would be coming in today. She wondered if she had made enough dinner.

I looked up at the wall, seeing a map of Armenia, a small country whose shape reminded me of a bird, wedged tightly between Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran. I intuited that there were likely wars there, women’s rights issues, as exist in so many countries in that region. I looked up at Nona and wondered what she had experienced to get here. I wondered if she missed home. I wondered about her family and her life in America. She looked happy. I could have asked a hundred questions, but instead I smiled, thanked her, and gave her a five dollar tip (she called me handsome, after all).

I walked next door with my new bad haircut and found a seat at a hardwood table. A single fresh flower stood in a small glass filled with water, its petals a light purple, and I started at it, contemplating its origins, as the waiter put in my order of crispy pork over glass noodles. The meal was simple and spicy and delicious, and during it, I remained within myself. I didn’t listen to other conversations or even look around the place. I just wanted to be there, me and my food, in Little Armenia.

I planned to keep walking after that, and to think and contemplate my space in life, but as I walked by the massage parlor, a gorgeous Armenian woman stepped outside. She was small, petite, with long shiny black hair down her back. “You want a massage? I offer discount.” She was grinning. I looked inside the place and assessed it wasn’t some seedy back parlor joint with threats of police raids and extra services offered for tips. It was actually quite beautiful. “I’m Mari. You want massage? $40 for one hour.”

I nodded, smiling, and entered the parlor. That’s a great price, and who am I to turn down fate on vacation? Soon I was in a back room with a massage table. I slipped on a pair of shorts made from a material that felt like gauze, and tied a cord around my waist to fasten it since three of me would fit in the shorts. I laid down on the table and soon Mari entered.

The massage was fantastic. Relaxing and soothing at times, deep and abiding at others, with sharp shocking slaps on large muscles to release tension. When Mari climbed on my back (no really, she climbed on my back) and used her knees and elbows to work different spots, it was heaven. Toward the end, I flipped over on my back and she worked on my feet. I felt my head drop back and I fell into an immediate sleep, awakened only by my own sharp, dehydrated snores a few minutes later.

Just minutes later, I stood on a street corner, under a large palm tree. The sun was perfect, warm but through a light breeze of ocean air mixed with city air, 70 degrees out. I closed my eyes. I could smell the massage oil on my skin, the sweet spice of the nearby noodle shop, and they mixed poorly with the concrete and urine smells of the city streets. There were almost too many sounds to individually distinguish them. Buzzing of electricity, motors and horns from the nearby freeway, busses and voices, loud loud loud.

And then I looked inward. Shoulders relaxed, stomach nurtured, feet sore with blisters, breeze on my skin and in my ears, lungs full, heart steady, head clear. I felt a patch of sun on my back, and I turned toward it.

This moment right here, this moment and any moment after, this was what I needed here.

Interview with a Hollywood wedding planner

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Basically it’s my job to make sure everything is perfect. 

And how do you figure out what is perfect?

I ask a lot of questions. Weddings are very personal things, very stressful things for people. The color scheme of the cake and the dresses and the tablecloths, the music, the timing of every specific event, the china, the types of flowers, the spacing of the tables, the backdrops, the available parking outside, the guest book, the refreshments or meal, the bar and alcohol, the seating tables perfectly spaced, the dance floor. The details are endless. And most of the weddings I do are what we call destination weddings, so I help set up the lodging, the transportation from the airports, everything. 

That does sound supremely stressful. Why do you do it?

Well, I like doing it. I like setting up events like this. I like the chaos of it all. I don’t just do weddings. I do coming out parties, like for new celebrities here in Hollywood making their debut. I do themed parties. I do retirements, anniversaries, birthdays. But weddings is what I’m best known for. I like individualizing it all. This one wants swans, that one wants a perfect pink sunset, this one wants strawberry-creme dressing over vanilla, that one wants vanilla over strawberry. Americans subject themselves to the absolute worst kinds of stress in order to celebrate their lives. It is a delicious kind of irony. 

What kinds of destinations?

I’ve been to Hawaii a few times, Athens, London, some of the islands, Montana, Phoenix. It could be anywhere. You have these people here who have a lot of money, and they want the best, and I’m the best. I get to go to some of the most beautiful places in the world. I fly there, scout out locations, form contracts with local vendors, get it all mapped out. Then sometimes I go back with the bride or the couple and we look at things together. Then I go out again before the event itself, sometimes by a week, and work hard to get it all prepared for the big day. I travel most of the year in the good seasons. 

What are the worst parts of the job?

The ego! I can’t name names, but I have worked with some of the biggest names in the industry. When I first came out here years ago, I remember being enchanted by the celebrity thing. Now I hate it. Everyone here is connected to the movie business somehow. This guy is a cameraman, that guy walk’s an actor’s dogs, this one mows lawns for some director. Anyway, I work hard for the people I work with, and some of them come in with this attitude that I should be happy to work for them. 

Give me an example.

Well, I can’t name names, like I said, but let’s pretend Marilyn Monroe is getting married. She hires me, I get everything perfect and work for weeks on it, then I give her the bill, and she shrugs and says, ‘Oh, I thought you might just give me the service for free. I mean, working for me must be good for your business.’ And I just smile and say, ‘Nope, you gotta pay me.’ I mean, she has a hundred million or whatever and she’s upset about paying for a service that she requested in the first place. It’s exhausting dealing with egos of that size. 

You sound like you really love what you do, overall.

I really do. It’s the best job in the world, at least for me. I love this job, even with all of the craziness. I get to dive through the mess and make people happy, and I get to go to the most beautiful places in the world to do it. 

 

Rock Hudson liked blonde boys

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Rock Hudson grew up when men were men.

And he liked men who were men.

Masculine men. Blonde, blue-eyed military men. Men with strong chests and big shoulders, big biceps and strong backs, thick legs and firm butts. Men who could drink themselves under the table, who liked steak and potatoes, and who looked incredible without ever having to set foot in the gym. Men who could hack down a tree with an axe. Men who pursued women, yet still liked men on the side. Men with power and ambition, and who knew how to get ahead. Men who held a cigarette between their index finger and thumb and smoked the masculine way. The straighter and more masculine the man, the more Rock Hudson wanted them to be gay.

When Roy Fitzgerald first became Rock Hudson, the stage name slected for him by an older gay Hollywood agent Henry Willson who knew good looks when he saw them, he was a fish out of water. He had fooled around with boys in the Navy, but it was all very hush-hush, and Hollywood was full of gay men. He realized he turned heads. Even with his ill-fitting clothing (he was 6 foot 5) and his body odor (he refused to wear deodorant, considering it effeminate), he approached Hollywood with a wonder. How had he gone from small-town America with a doting mother and an abusive stepfather to a world like this?

And after he became an international movie star and sex symbol, he had a big house on a hill and a fast car and the men were suddenly everywhere. But he realized rather quickly that being a movie star can be intimidating to others. Men were shocked that Rock Hudson actually wanted to be with him, and they got shy when things turned sexual.

Though he may not have started with one, Rock Hudson developed an ego. He expected people to take notice when he walked by, wanted their attention and applause. He settled down a few times with a few different blonde boys, men who were the right balance of physically perfect, driven, masculine, playful, and devoted to him. Men who were discreet in public, and affectionate in private.

He even married a woman once, Phyllis, just to see if he could. And he loved her, he did, but there were men out there, so many men.

Ego seems to come at a price, however, for when someone feels they are the most important person in the room, those someones tend to doom themselves to quite a bit of loneliness. No one can match the ego, and so no one can feel the void. And so there was the sex, and the alcohol, and the nicotine, and the cocaine, and the trips around the world. But the void just kept screaming.

A few years into making movies, Rock Hudson had to realize that there was always a next day. After months of being paid a million dollars to laugh with Elizabeth Taylor or to strong-arm Doris Day, there were the quiet months at home before the next movie came along. In the 1940s and 1950s, there were the sex symbol movie stars, and the character actors who supported them. And then a new era came along, when the character actors who weren’t sex symbols started getting the top billing. The public suddenly wanted to see Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, not Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.

And the void got louder and still couldn’t be filled.

And like any human, Rock Hudson was complicated. He was giving and kind, young at heart, insatiable. He didn’t trust easily, and when he did he trusted well, yet broken trust could be impossible to regain. After a few years in the business, he could brilliantly convey emotion on the big screen, yet he couldn’t share his feelings even with his lovers and closest friends.

Rock Hudson lived his life in the closet, denying rumors of his attractions to men right up until the very end. In the last months of his life, as he lay weak and dying from AIDS, he wanted his story to be told. He hired a biographer, he encouraged his friends to be open with their hearts and stories, he came out publicly as homosexual, though he had denied the same claim for decades before it.

And at the end, at the age of 59, he was weak and small, though still 6 foot 5, and he went out of the world as quietly as he had entered.

In the end, like so many stars, he got what he wanted… he made sure the world would remember Rock Hudson, the identity created for himself.

But I would much rather remember Roy Fitzgerald.

Making Lemonade in Hollywood

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Let’s say you love making lemonade. I mean, you love it. The whole process. You love blending the ingredients to perfection, and you especially love the huge refreshing and surprised smile people get on their faces when they taste it, cold and delicious. You have tried out several combinations and mixtures, from huckleberry to honey lime to chocolate peanut butter, and the variety is exciting, but it is that homemade original recipe that you love so much.

People ask you how you came up with such a perfect recipe, they wonder why it tastes so good, and you come up with a story about how you got it from your grandmother, but the truth is you made it all by yourself, and you don’t want to share the recipe with anyone else, it’s special and it is just yours.

Soon friends start asking you to make your lemonade for special events, weddings and receptions, company barbecues and family picnics. At first you do it for free, then you charge them just a bit, just enough to cover the ingredients, but then you get busier and you start charging for your time as well. But you charge barely anything. Making lemonade on top of your day job keeps you very busy indeed. But you love it still.

And one day a friend sits you down and says, you know, you could do something with this lemonade thing. You are the best. Just quit your job and open a little store front, or sell it online. Create a YouTube channel about your lemonade, make an Instagram account, create a Facebook fan page, put up a Twitter account, come up with a campaign, people of all ages loving your lemonade. And you are surprised, because even though you make the best lemonade, you have no idea how to run a business, how to market it. You live in a small town. You can’t just make lemonade, can you? But the idea sticks in your mind for a while, and you think, why not give it a shot. But you don’t quit your job, you try to do it smart.

And so you start telling people about your lemonade. You put some money into creating a marketing campaign. You do daily posts on social media. You take pictures and publish them. You offer samples. You tell local companies about it, and put some ads up on the internet. And you stick with it for a few months, but orders don’t increase, and all that time and initiative you are putting into your lemonade promotion is yielding very small results. The people who loved it before still love it, but no one else is really trying it.

You talk to your friend again, and he tells you to keep at it, says the lemonade is the best. And you tell him that you agree, it’s damn good lemonade, but no one else is trying it out. Think bigger, he says. The talent is there, you just have to find it.

And so you save up a bit, and you take yourself to Hollywood, just to see. It’s beautiful there. The streets are lined with amazing buildings full of history and money and success, but also failure and pain and flops. Lemonade is everywhere in Hollywood, in every shape and color and on every corner. There are 50,000 people there making lemonade, and only a few thousand of them are doing well at it, and only a few hundred doing really well at it.

And you spend a few days drinking other people’s lemonade. It’s good, but not as good as yours. But this lemonade, it’s selling like crazy. People are raving about it. It is in shiny cups lined with sugar, in store fronts with air-conditioning and plush seats and soft lighting.

And after a few days of drinking other people’s lemonade, you wonder about your options you really want to keep making lemonade (and you really do), how can you be a success at it? You want to be one of the few thousand (not one of the few hundred), but there are a lot of lemonade stands out there. Do you need pretty packaging? A busy store front on a Hollywood intersection? A new label? Do you need to team with someone who is already making lemonade in order to make yours bigger?

Or do you just keep making lemonade and working the day job, hoping it will take off some day?

Or do you just keep making lemonade for the people in your small town who already like it, and be content with that?

Or do you stop making lemonade all together?

And so a few days later, you are back in your little kitchen and you are swishing your old familiar mixing spoon around and around your old familiar pitcher. Ice is clinking against the sides of the glass as the liquid beneath it swirls round and round. You see the sugar dissolving into the water, and the wedges of lemon bobbing up and down. It turns a careful beautiful bright yellow. And you know it will be delicious, not only because you have made it 1000 times before, but because you love to make it, you love this process, these careful calculations, the mix and stir and clink and swish and pour. You love the process even more than you love the taste of it on your tongue. And people come in and they drink and they say it is delicious.

And you hold a glass of cold lemonade in your hand, and you look out the window at the setting sun, already thinking about the batch of lemonade you will make tomorrow, and you wonder again about ambition, and potential, and doing what you love.