Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Month: August, 2012

White Boys

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As anyone who follows my Tumblr knows, I enjoy bright, vibrant, over-saturated colours which would not look out of place in MGM musical fantasias. Canary yellow, emerald green, royal blue, flamboyant fuchsia: these are the hues I gravitate towards and wear. But as a former academic, I am comfortable acknowledging grey areas in life. Every person on this earth is different, with unique experiences and insights. If you ever think you have all the answers you are more stupid than someone who has everything wrong. I sincerely believe that even the strictest beliefs can mellow over time and that we’d all do a lot better if we pontificated less and listened more.

But I’ve been told that my acknowledgement of grey areas doesn’t fit comfortably with our digital age. Opinions on the internet are as black and white as the pixels you are staring at. For some, it’s not enough that I previously wrote about how blogging may be hurting writers. I should have written “blogging is silly and a waste of time!” or, alternatively, “yay for blogging!” That would make it better, or at least got more hits (which, in the world of blogging, is the same thing). The habit of taking one extreme side of an argument in order to get people mad and drive up clicks has caused me to abandon one snarky columnist after another. I don’t respect that world view, nor do I respect those writers.

All that being said, I thought I would try my hand at writing a ridiculously oversimplified diatribe based on my observations and recent conversations with friends. To segue rather awkwardly, I will introduce another colour: brown.

It is a truth universally acknowledged (at least by my friends and readers) that I have a fondness (I don’t want to say ‘fetish’) for men of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage. It is forgiven that my friend Jess Bartram has never made me the ‘I Heart Brown Boys’ t-shirt she’s promised me for by this point it would be redundant.

For the record, I don’t ONLY date brown men and would gladly meet, date and enter into a relationship with any kind of guy, except for vampires. I’m over them.

But the interest seems to go both ways. My big ex-boyfriend was white, but my two second longest relationships were with an Iranian and an Indian. When I do online dating, ethnic men seem to be more responsive to me and eager to meet up.

It works in person, too. When I meet friends of friends, or when, good heavens, someone tries to set me up, white guys are not particularly interested in me. When I get crushes on guys who are superficially like me (white guys from middleclass Ontario backgrounds, interested in leftwing politics and the arts) the results have almost always been a disaster. I naively believe they will like me back, but it usually ends with me throwing myself at them, being turned down and us settling on being friends, with varying degrees of awkwardness.

For my own piece of mind, I want to believe the myriad excuses that it has nothing to do with me: “I’m not into dating right now”; “I’m still getting over my ex”; “I’m really messed up about sexuality.”

“Fine, fine,” I say, while thinking, “Okay, get over it.” Then I’ll meet a Pakistani guy, raised by a conservative Muslim family, who came to Canada by himself and has to balance being an ethnic minority within a sexual one (and the other way around), and we have a hot, passionate love affair. Why was that easier?

White boys have issues and, despite being one myself, I don’t have a simple explanation.

Maybe Canadian born and raised gay guys are less comfortable with themselves than our community’s rhetoric encourages us to be. Maybe the brown men I have dated are more courageous, which is why I was able to meet them in the first place. Maybe white guys are more idealistic (or spoiled), holding out for the great love affair with the six packed-guy the movies promised them.

Or maybe white guys are more difficult because they don’t like sex that much.

It doesn’t seem to be only gays. I have a good friend, an attractive, smart, interesting girl who, on top of all that, would make an amazing girlfriend for straight guys (she likes beer and hockey). But the stories she tells me of having to work around all sorts of white boy neuroses in order to hook up makes the mind reel.

Feminism has given women the freedom to own their sexuality, but it doesn’t mean they want to be the ones always chasing.

Popular culture always warned us to be weary of men. Girls had to watch out to not be used and thrown away once a guy’s enormous sexual appetite was filled. (Here is another crossover with gay guys: watching the original British ‘Queer As Folk’ as a teenager, I thought that I too would have an older man scoop me up on my first visit to the village and have his nasty way with me. Never happened.)

Maybe it’s not true. Maybe the old stereotype of Irish guys, that they were more interested in drinking at the pub with their mates than having sex, is true of all white men. Although that’s a slander against Irish blokes, as my experience in Dublin was much different from my cold times at Toronto bars.

I don’t think it’s biological. If white guys liked sex as little as that they’d be in as much danger as extinction as panda bears. Despite what the Tea Party may think, that isn’t the case. Evolutionarily, you’d assume sex shouldn’t be as complicated for humans as it is. I don’t know if I think it’s too much ego or too little, but I think we could all use a little bit of loosening up. Not becoming total slags (unless you want to), but opening oneself up to opportunities and saying ‘yes’ to new experiences.

It sounds like I’m trying to get with a straight guy. I’m really not. I have enough problems with the gay ones.

 

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Testing, Testing

I shouldn’t have been surprised that the room was filled with gay guys. I was on Church Street, after all. Men of different ages and ethnicities stood around, studiously ignoring each other. I took in the assembly of Abercrombie and H&M to see if there was anyone I knew, but even if there had been I probably wouldn’t have raced over, arms a-stretched, bellowing, “Hey girl, how are you?!”

For I wasn’t at a gay bar on Saturday night: I was at the Hassle Free clinic to get tested for HIV.

I am a single, gay guy living in Toronto. I go on dates. I try to enjoy my life. While I always practice safe sex and have never been with someone who is HIV positive, I believe that getting tested is what a responsible person does. If you describe yourself as HIV negative, you have to occasionally make sure you are. In the past, my family doctor had just thrown the test in when she’s taken my blood and I hadn’t thought much of it.

But this time felt different. It had been over a year since I was last tested and there had been some men in that time. I knew, rationally, I had no particular reason to worry, but the prospect of the test weighed down on me. For one thing, as I get older, I find that I worry about illness and death a lot more. And not just my own: nowadays I get paranoid every time one of my parents goes to the doctor.

Last year, when I felt a mole on my back, the two month wait for my doctor’s appointment was agonizing. After telling me I had nothing to worry about with the mole, she added, “I do want you to get those two spots on your chest checked out with our skin specialist, though. You always wear sunscreen, right?”

“Yes,” I said, defensively, before thinking, ‘There was that one time, in India…’

(The spots were fine.)

The other problem is, I have too many fictive stories in my head. While it’s good that TV shows, movies and books have dealt with AIDS, when it comes to my own life, instead of embracing the most likely scenario, my mind jumps to dramatic plotlines out of ‘Angels in America’. It’s the equivalent of people who are scared of flying because of movies in which planes burst into flames. The fact that one of the safest places in the world you can be is in an airplane makes no difference to them.

“If you are worried about it, just get tested,” a friend of mine said.

“But I don’t want to wait for a doctor’s appointment,” I whined.

“Then go to the Hassle free clinic. They have a five minute HIV test.” My friend, who is currently in a three-way relationship with two handsome bearded men, is more privy to this kind of information.

“I didn’t even know that existed. Welcome to the future.”

“Yeah, to get that test, they ask you to make an appointment,” he went on. “I think you should, even though I’m sure everything will be fine.”

Despite his admonishments, as the day of my appointment approached, I was nervous. I couldn’t stop picturing, after the test, the doctor pulling me into the little room to talk. Would I faint, like Samantha Jones on ‘Sex and the City’. In an episode of ‘Queer As Folk’, a main character gets tested after having unprotected sex in an orgy but finds out, miraculously, he’s still negative. In the same scene at the hospital, a man who presumably didn’t get the same result is comforted by a friend. The main characters look sympathetically at the two softly crying, before they exit, never to be seen again.

The night before my test, I went out for ice cream in the Annex with my old friend Laura, who is almost finished the tortuous odyssey of becoming a doctor. I thought if anyone, Laura, rational to the extreme, would allay my fears.

“Statistically, the chances are very small that you’d have anything,” she said. “But it’s good you’re getting tested.”

I stopped licking my Butter Pecan.

“That’s it? I thought you’d say I had nothing to worry about.”

“Sorry, Max, you probably don’t. But I’ve been trained to never promise people anything.”

‘I need to get this stupid test over as soon as possible,’ I thought.

I learned later that the reason it was all gay men in the waiting area was that the clinic has male and female hours. After I filled out the requisite forms, I pretended to read my book, but really I was thinking about the people around me. How many of them expected bad news? How many had already received bad news? After having read Randy Shilts’ ‘And The Band Played On’ about the development of the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s, I thought about how lucky we were to have the resources and the knowledge whose absence destroyed a generation.

“Max?”

It was a middle-aged South Asian man in glasses holding my newly-created chart.

“Sorry it is so crowded today,” he said. “We are understaffed.”

“Did somebody call in sick?” I asked, partly joking.

“Yes. Two people. Please have a seat. So, because of that, I will be doing your tests, but as I am not a doctor, I cannot do all of them.”

“Oh,” I said. “Which ones?”

“HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea–those are all fine. I can’t do a genital or anal exam.”

“That’s fine,” I sighed in relief. “I don’t think I need those.”

Then, there was a bunch of questions. It’s weird to describe your sexual history in stark, no-nonsense terms to a stranger. I kept wanting to go into deeper contexts about my ex-boyfriends: “Okay, the thing with that guy was that…” But the man seemed pleased with my answers.

“Given your history and your precautions, I would be very surprised if we found anything today,” he said, preparing the needle.

“So…are you a nurse?”

“No, I am a counselor who is trained to administer tests. Can I have your hand please?”

“I’m not going to look, okay?”

“That’s fine. It’s just a light prick.”

“I know. I’m not scared. It’s just that, when I got tested for mono at the end of high school, I almost fainted. First, the nurse asked, ‘Mono, huh? Been kissing lots of girls?’ Which was so inappropriate! I remember joking about it, saying that if I was being tested for HIV, would she have said, ‘HIV, huh? Been screwing lots of gays?’ (In reality, I had probably been coarser in my phrasing, and used two F-words.) And then, because it was taking longer than I expected, I glanced down at my arm, and saw the blood filling the needle. And my vision went all white, all I saw was light, and I started yelling, ‘I can’t see, I can’t see!’ So I had to lay down for awhile.”

“Okay, done,” he said. “Now I just need to take this sample to the other room and I’ll be right back. One line means you’re negative, two lines, positive.”

“Kind of like a pregnancy test.”

“Yes, but like I said, I doubt you’re positive.”

‘Stop saying that!’ I thought.

Then he left me alone. Here it was, the part I had feared: waiting for the moment of truth. But I was no longer scared. Partly it was the man’s nonchalant attitude and his freedom to say things that doctor’s aren’t allowed to say. But I also think my own rationality had kicked it. I trust science and facts, not gut feelings and phobias. I understood the dangers and had taken the right precautions. As Laura had said the day before, the advantage of having been careful is you don’t have to worry as much. I felt a bit silly for creating drama entirely within my own head.

I have been very fortunate in my life. Many have been less so.

“Good news!” the man announced as he came back in. “Like I thought, one line. Here! See? You’re fine.”

“Good.”

“With your habits, I see no reason for you to get tested any more than once a year, or once every two years.”

“Okay.”

“One last thing. I would like you to fill this cup with a urine sample. Up to this line, but not past it! Leave it at the front desk and we will test for everything else. We will call you if we find anything, but like I say, I don’t think we will.”

“Still best to be safe,” I said, collecting my things to leave.

“Yes. Goodbye.” he said, scribbling on my chart, continuing with his busy day.

Has Blogging Spoiled Writers?

Back before we gave into our computer overlords, when people flirted at bars and used the telephone to invite their friends to parties, no one had personal websites. If you had a problem with something, an opinion you needed to get off your chest, you could write an angry letter or go on Speakers Corner. Those were your only options. To have an outlet for your thoughts and, of equal importance, a captive audience, was a privilege that only professional writers and award-clutching actors enjoyed.

That began to change in 1994 when Justin Hall, a 20-year-old student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, began sharing increasingly intimate details about his life on his website Justin’s Links from the Underground. At first, only the technologically skilled knew how to create ‘web logs’, but as the number of free blogging services grew, so did the democratization of the ‘Information Super Highway’. We became the Blogging Generation.

We blogged about a lot of things: we blogged about ‘Star Wars’; we blogged about our pets; we blogged about attempting every recipe of Julia Child’s. A lot of what we blogged about was ourselves. It wasn’t that we were terribly self-involved so much as one’s thoughts, dreams and anecdotes are the closest things to grasp. Blogging began a rhythmic chant of the first person pronoun ‘I’.

I was like that when I started blogging. During my university years, on my Live Journal (doesn’t that take you back?) I wrote a lot about my friends and relationships, including some ill-considered things about my ex-boyfriend. Even the name Live Journal encouraged the kind of self-confession that a previous generation had been happy to keep in a locked diary.

How could I not over-share? Years of ‘Sex and the City’ had made me want to be Carrie Bradshaw, tapping away at her laptop by the window, condensing all her and her friends’ romantic entanglements into pithy, one-paragraph-long ‘columns’. (My ‘SATC’ obsession also explains how I dressed back then, a sort of ‘gay boy Carrie who binged at Value Village’.)

I blogged on and off for years, starting new ones for different stages in my life, like being a graduate student at the University of Toronto and moving to Dublin, Ireland. While my early blogs must have had charm, for I had devoted followers not all of who were my friends, looking back I can see that they lacked focus. Bouncing around from politics to TV shows to the bar I had gone to the night before, the only thing that tied them together was my personal voice. And if you weren’t familiar with me, why would you care?

That was one of the first lessons I learned when I started taking journalism courses at Ryerson. Also: the importance of the first sentence; the ‘nut graf’ (the paragraph which sums up your point and could be taken out of context); the trick of twisting or subverting your argument in the conclusion. I’ve tried to apply those lessons to this blog, making every post “about something”.

At the same time, I started at WORN Fashion Journal, going from an intern to an editor in about a year. There, I wrote about glasses and plaid jackets and nail polish, and three feature articles (my third, about drag queens’ wigs, comes out in October). Through the helpful machinations of my editor, I took David Hayes’ Advanced Feature Writing course and learned about structuring, interviewing, transitioning between paragraphs and pitching to magazines.

David attempted to give us some insights into the mysterious depths of ‘What Magazine Editors Are Thinking’, which is something you never have to think about with a personal blog. All you have to know is what you think about something. Editors don’t care about how you feel about it. They need to care about how the topic fits into the publication, what the style will be like, what the subscribers and advertisers will think, will there be good pictures. Personal voice is a plus, but can you, as the writer, have the voice of the publication?

A better symbol, or cautionary tale, for our generation is not Carrie Bradshaw with her columnist salary, but the perpetually underemployed Hannah Horvath on ‘Girls’, an aspiring writer who only seems to write Tweets (but with the added twist that the ‘real’ Hannah, Lena Denham, has already written a TV series and a couple films).

At the end of the course, I felt like Eliza Doolittle at the conclusion of ‘My Fair Lady’, when she’s not quite a lady but can’t go back to being a street urchin flower girl. My sights have been set higher. My dreams are bigger. I have the email addresses of some editors and sometimes they write me back. And while I still haven’t had my break through into the freelance world (my invitation to the palace, if you will), I continue to think of it as not if but when.

I had to learn is what a lot of young bloggers have to learn when they try to transition into professional writing: that the ‘I’ which was useful on WordPress becomes like an anchor holding you back. Blogging is good for instant satisfaction (just press ‘post’ and you’re done). It’s much easier than the painfully time-consuming process of writing a pitch and wooing an editor. But if you want a wider readership, if you want to get published and actually be, y’know, paid for your writing, you have to learn two basic tenets of life: it’s not all about you and things take time.

And, yes, I wrote this on a blog. Pretty ironic. I just couldn’t be bothered to write a pitch.