Sunday, March 6, 2016

I Dared To Be Me And I Feel Like A Bird Set Free

"The hardest part is being afraid. Afraid that people are going to find out the truth. [But] once you stop being afraid you're free." Steven Carrington, Dynasty circa 1987

It's amazing what a little honesty and eyeliner can do for one's psyche. I'm not talking about covering my face up "with lots of MAC makeup" as Jennifer Hudson sings in "All Dressed In Love." That’s not my thing (but if it’s yours…do it!). I’m talking about a little eyeliner to accentuate the eye, add a pop of color, help me express myself.
 
Since publishing “The Woman In Me” a little over seven weeks ago, my courage and confidence has grown by leaps and bounds. Admitting my truth and embracing myself has been so powerful. It's freedom. Being brave enough to be myself on the street when I'd only previously done so (without fear of judgment or retribution) behind closed doors has been life changing; liberating. I've noticed that I face my life differently. It's as if I take a breath and react in a more grounded less frustrated manner than previous. If you can believe it (because sometimes I still can’t) I'm less hard on myself.
 
I don't think any of us realize how much trauma we cause ourselves with our secrets.

When I embraced myself and started wearing eyeliner in public it was scary. That first step outside the door I would compare myself to a cat whose hackles are raised in a posture of defense. I was on guard -- prepared for even the slightest negative reaction -- even with sunglasses on to hide the liner. But the glasses had to come off and the eyeliner had to be exposed. I'm not Anna Wintour. Sunglasses are not an acceptable accessory at work. Within days of little to no reaction it began to not matter when I stepped outside of my apartment whether I was wearing sunglasses or not. I became less self conscious about wearing the eyeliner. It was merely a little paint on the canvas, an expression accentuating my style. The ease of incorporating a feminine bracelet, ring, boot, etc., followed immediately. And I become less self conscious of those items also.

I soon became aware that I was happier with me; less critical of me. Don't be fooled: I'm still my harshest critic, but I accept that I'm not perfect and never will be. That's hard for a perfectionist. I just have to be the best me I can be. What I've realized is that my courage to show myself with confidence has changed the way I face the challenges that life presents on a daily basis.
 
I first began to notice this difference by the way I reacted to the corrections my personal trainer would give me at the end of an exercise. I have long carried a pot of anger inside of me that boils over any time I feel vulnerable. And let’s face it, doing something new can be a very vulnerable situation. Before "outing" my authentic self in public I would get so angry because I wasn't able to execute an exercise perfectly. Even if i’d never done it before. That pot would boil over, and I would be angry, almost always, for the rest of the training session. Now I seem to accept his assessments less as failure's and more as challenges. Then I attempt again to execute properly a kettle bell swing, a single-arm press with squat, or the ever challenging Turkish Get-Up. It was a shock to me the day I realized I wasn’t getting angry in a situation when I would normally get angry. It began to sink in that by accepting, embracing, and exposing my true self to the world I had become more relaxed in navigating the ups, downs, twists, and turns of my life.
 
I had released myself from my self-made prison of fear and shame. Gilded as it may have been inside with all its pretty things (art, champagne, high heels, and shiny pieces of jewelry) it was still a prison. I had to get out of my own way, spread my wings, fly. I could no longer be contained behind the wall of my home.

On a recent Friday I paid a visit to the Gucci store on Fifth Avenue. It proved to be quite a positive experience. I don't know how many of you have seen the new studded leather navy (or red) and white striped platform pumps from Gucci's SS16 collection, but I have personally been obsessed with them since I first laid eyes on them in the pages of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. They’re art -- sculptural; stunning. Said visit was about seeing the shoes in person in all their beautiful, full-color, 3-D glory.

When I stepped off the top step, having arrived at the third floor of the Gucci store, I saw them sitting on a table. All the available color options from tan to green to silver & black to the aforementioned striped, which has pointed studs and a feline head detail. They were inviting me to come over and look at them, touch them. Never one to be content with admiring beautiful things from a distance I walked myself straight to that table and all but Carrie Bradshaw'd a "Hello Lover" at them all. Is it cheating if you've got hearts where your eyes should be and you've yet to truly commit to loving one more than the others even if you already know you like one more than the others?
 
Anyway, there I was in Gucci and a sales associate, Sherice, was asking me if she could be of assistance. Instead of just admiring the shoes I told her I wanted to try on a pair. She didn't blink an eye as she asked me what size I wear.
 
"I wear an 8 in men's," I responded.

"That's a 10," she replied quickly, which translates to a European 40.
 
I told her I was particularly drawn to the navy and white striped platforms. She promptly went to the back in search of my size.

Sadly, they didn't have the navy and white striped in a 40, but they did have the red and white striped. From the display we took the shoe for my right foot. I tried it on while she went in search of its mate. It fit perfectly. I was Cinderella...without the prince (as I’d put the shoe on my own foot). I bobbed up and down around the shoe salon admiring the reflection of my foot in that shoe in all the mirrors. Then I noticed that all the sales associates in the room were admiring too. They began to remark overwhelmingly with positive comments. Not "to-make-a-sale" comments either. Just positive, uplifting, judgement-free, comments.
 
Ava, another sales associate, chatted me up while Sherice was in the back searching for the mate to the shoe I had on my foot. I began to tell her about my current journey, about the above mentioned piece I had written and the favorable response to it. She listened with total interest then told me if I decided to buy the shoes I had to wear them out into the world. She applauded my co-workers for their support and applauded me for doing that little ol' thing of finally being myself in public.

Those shoes nearly screamed "I belong on your feet! Buy me!" Every sales associate I encountered in Gucci that day was so supportive of me and thrilled when I chose to make the purchase. I couldn't have felt more at ease in a group of strangers.
 
Even more interesting was the fact that I initially wanted the navy and white striped (which was more subdued), but it was the red and white striped that truly made a statement. There was no other option. The navy and white striped could have been ordered for me, but I knew, as did everyone else watching me walk and smile and laugh, that it had to be the red.
 
Ava was right about wearing them out into the world. They're too beautiful to keep hidden behind the walls of my apartment. I didn’t know when I’d find the courage, but I knew I would, just as I’d found the courage to walk out into the world wearing eyeliner. I had to. I wanted to.

Two days later I was wearing those shoes at work.

It was a beautiful spring-like winter Sunday. I wore those shoes for every hour of my 6 hour shift. I opened myself up to the possibility of stares and laughter and even name calling. My hackles were up. I was prepared…and I wasn’t.

What I received was a generous outpouring of positive support. Comments ranging from, “Beautiful” to "How can you walk in those?” to "You are giving me life right now!" resulted in a dialogue of sorts, with no conversation or question shaded negatively. I knew I had chosen a safe space in which to experience my grand initiation of wearing unmistakably women’s shoes in public, but I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of joy that flooded my heart. I received hugs of encouragement and watched as faces masked with astonishment transformed into smiles. I can't begin to express my gratitude for the support of my co-workers. I thankfully work in an industry that embraces all of us -- human beings. And I have a set of core friends who support me no matter what. I basked in that encouragement and support; breathed it in; let it fill me up.
 

There were a couple of obvious (to me) straight men that I passed while walking through the building. I heard them laughing behind me. I'm not sure if the laughter was about seeing a grown man in a pair of women’s platform shoes or if it had nothing to do with me at all. I wasn’t necessarily the punchline to a joke. I just presumed I was. Regardless, I kept my shoulders back, my head held high, and walked, with nary a teeter, back to my office. If they were laughing at me then that's their own insecure shit rearing its ugly head. I rocked those shoes with ease, grace, and style.

I don't need to tell you how important it is to surround yourself with supportive people. What I may need to remind you of though is how important it is to be supportive. We're all in this life together. We have a choice: stand together or tear each other down. "United we stand, divided we fall."

The title of this piece comes partially from the song “Bird Set Free” from Sia’s new album This Is Acting. The album is filled with songs and lyrics that empower me, feed my courage, and make me want to be even more brave. It has become the soundtrack to my current journey. My walk has become a strut of confidence and her album is punctuating every step with positivity.

I’m still afraid but my fears are weakening. I'm freer. I’m supported. I dared to be me and it’s paying off. I’m surviving my own demons. You might even say I'm kicking them in the ass. I love myself more.

Remember that line from The Goonies, "It's our time down here."? Well, “down here” is right now, and it’s my time right now. It's all of our time right now. Be yourself...confidently. I dare you!

I'm here. I'm queer. I'm gay. I'm homosexual. I'm gender expansive. I'm feminine. I'm masculine. I’m pretty. I’m handsome. I'm alive. I'm a bird set free. I'm unstoppable. I'm me.
 
My journey continues.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Woman in Me

I want you to take a second and look at yourself in the mirror. You may be thinking: I do that everyday what’s different about today? Well, today I want you to really look at yourself. Who do you see staring back at you? Is it the real you or the mask of you, which you hide behind? Are you brave enough to be who you really are?

I was standing on the platform of my subway stop in New York City waiting for the train to take me to work. I remember feeling fabulous that day--to use an overused word. I was wearing a pair of camel-colored, wide-legged corduroy pants with vertical stripes in black, charcoal, blue, and teal; frayed edges where there should have been hems. The pants were a throwback to the 70s from the first time the 70s made a resurgence in fashion. I was wearing a jewel-toned teal button up with a wide brown belt and brown Frye boots. It was a bit chilly that day so I was also wearing my I-Feel-Like-Olivia-Pope-From-Scandal-when-I-wear-it charcoal gray trench and carrying a brown distressed Marc by Marc Jacobs tote. I was boldly and happily expressing myself in my personal style. I felt pretty.

My mind was adrift as I waited. I was listening to my iPod--lyrics running through my head, drum beats pounding in my ears, thoughts of “Where is the train” beginning to frustrate me. While my mind was wandering down its own path untethered, my subconscious took over. When mind and body reconnected I honed in on that word “pretty.” I didn’t feel handsome. I felt pretty. (I know there are men who are more pretty than handsome but societal gender rules tend to leave no room to call a man pretty.) This wasn’t the first time I’ve felt this womanly feeling. But as I'm finding myself more introspective about who I am, I became very aware that I was thinking of myself presenting more female than male. Everything about my clothing was decidedly male, but I wasn’t thinking of myself as male. It was a very strange moment to realize, connect with, and acknowledge that feeling. No one around me knew what was happening to me on the inside, but clarity was washing over me. 

Growing up in a small town I became aware very quickly that my appearance was very important to the adults around me. I remember a time specifically in the 80s when highlighted hair for men was very popular. I wanted highlights so badly I took the hydrogen peroxide bottle from the cabinet beneath the bathroom sink, poured the clear liquid into my hands, slicked it through my hair, then waited for my brunette strands to lighten. They didn’t lighten, of course. Wrong kind of peroxide. But hey, give me some credit for trying to be resourceful. 

When I asked permission to get the highlights done by a professional I was met with a response that still annoys me to this day: “What will the older ladies at church think when you get up to sing?” That question wasn’t so much about me as about the asker, but it was the spark that ignited my flame of apprehension. It wasn’t even my spark and yet it has consumed me for most of my life. For too long I have feared what other people think about me—what I’m wearing, what I’m doing, what I’m saying, how I live--and their response if they object. 

"In all our lives what we believe colors how we feel about ourselves..." Deepak Chopra.

I believed I had to act, dress, and present myself in society’s idea of a man because of the people around me. I struggled to do it, only presenting my authentic self behind closed doors because I was afraid and ashamed. All because I didn’t fit the mold someone else wanted me to fit into. 

My self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth were colored for years by the ideals of other people. As an adult, I have often stepped outside the expected boundaries but not without fear of rejection, retaliation, humiliation, and/or punishment. If I experienced none of those things from outsiders, then I’ve been known to heap one or more of them upon myself. The seeds of being ashamed of myself were planted so long ago in the garden of my youth, that no matter how much preening I’ve done there remain thorns sharper than ever in the landscape of my adulthood.

I had an epiphany that day on the subway platform. I don’t know why it took so long. I know I’ve always been more feminine than masculine. It’s in my mannerisms and style choices. Since the day I discovered fashion magazines I’ve been more drawn to the creativity and beauty of women’s fashion. To this day, I read Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and W to be inspired by what’s new in women’s fashion. I then take that inspiration and apply it to my own male based wardrobe: a color here, a ring there, a brooch on a lapel, a shoe with more of a heel; mixing masculine and feminine. This is not new information, but it was an Aha Moment--a turning point if you will--toward fully accepting who I am as a person and expressing who I am as a person with more courage and confidence than ever before. 

This has been a very thought provoking few weeks for me. I began to wonder if I was gender-fluid (is that preposterousness?). I don’t feel I’m transgendered. I’m not a transvestite. I don’t want to be a drag queen. Some days I simply feel more female than male, but ultimately I believe my inner and outer genders are a match. This questioning, however, led to some research and a deeply honest conversation with my dear friend, MJ, who considers herself gender-fluid. MJ let me talk about what I was feeling and ask questions, then without fear of judgment revealed details of her own life’s journey to me. It was personal and eye opening. I’m proud of her and respect her. She is one of the brave ones courageous enough to live her life in the light instead of just the shadows. I was searching for a label; a group to identify with (I probably fall somewhere on the spectrum between Metrosexual and Dandy), but I didn’t need that at all. I just needed to be brave enough to be myself, show myself. MJ helped me see that.

I am a man--a homosexual man. I present as a man. I’m attracted to men. I just happen to like to mix the masculine and feminine aesthetics in my everyday presentation. And what of it? It’s simply about having the courage to express my personal style. 

If I want to wear eyeliner, I wear eyeliner. It looks good on me. I'm more confidently embracing the fashionable embellishments with which I choose to adorn myself. I’m also more confidently embracing myself and living as a more authentic me than ever before.

My courage grew three sizes that day on the subway platform when I turned the corner of acceptance and found my own arms open to welcome me. I’m now less worried about other people’s reactions to my trying on women’s shoes or testing nude lipsticks. What does any of it really matter? It’s my life. I own it. Courage and confidence are key factors for any of us attempting to be a self that deviates from society’s norm. 

There’s a newfound joy in my heart. It’s a joy I’ve found because no matter how often I said I was being my authentic self, I realize I wasn’t until now. My journey has taken a turn down a flower-lined path that I’ve honestly been afraid to walk down. Blurring the lines between masculinity and femininity (though not being androgynous) is something I think I’ve been searching for the courage to do since I became aware of fashion and style back in high school.

“Be brave. No one remembers a coward.” 

That quote came to my attention in a story about Marigay McKee in the November issue of Harper’s Bazaar--the Daring issue. Daring is an appropriate word to be swirling around in the mixed bag of descriptor words in my head right now. As an adjective it means “bold or courageous; fearless; adventurous.” I’ve never quite seen myself as any of those things. I often sell myself short though. We are our own worst enemy; harder on ourselves than anyone else could possibly be.

Now back to the that request that opened this piece. The reflection in my mirror has often been distorted by cloudy black spots of fear and self-loathing revealing a dysmorphic, shadowy, confused image. Is that my truth? I think not. But I’m only now beginning to fully accept my truth and have the courage to see the man--his beard and his curled lashes--staring back at me.

In one of her trademark voice overs, Meredith Grey of Grey's Anatomy spoke this kernel of wisdom: "They say shame controls every aspect of human behavior. It's about who we believe we are. But in the end you can't hide. The truth is right there for the world to see. Our shame can choke us, kill us...if we decide to let it. Don't let that happen to you.”

I refuse to be ashamed of or scared to be myself any longer.

The time is now to find the courage to be who you truly are. I, for one, have wasted too much time worrying about the opinion of others. I refuse to waste another minute. There are heroes and role models and pioneers out there for you to glean courage from. Or you can be a pioneer and forge your own path. The world needs you. 

I’m brave enough to be me, to show the world the real me! Are you? Embrace yourself. Accept yourself. Express yourself. Be yourself. If I can find the courage, you can find the courage. We’ve got to be who we are, people.

“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit” E. E. Cummings.

(Here is where I end this chapter. It felt like the complete truth when I wrote it, yet somehow still feels less than fully honest. The journey (and the questioning) continues…)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Marked For Death: A Homosexual's Rant to His Would Be Executioners!

The story and its accompanying video first came to my attention, as so many factoids and headlines do these days, through my Facebook news feed. To say that I was surprised by the content would make me a fool.

It seems Pastor Kevin Swanson of the Reformation Church of Elizabeth, Colorado, went on quite a tear this past weekend at the National Religious Liberties Conference held in Des Moines, Iowa. He said:

"There are instances in which both the Old and New Testament speak to the matter with unbelievable clarity. You know what that sin is--it's the sin of homosexuality. In fact in Romans 1 Paul affirms that this particular sin is worthy of death. The Old and New Testament, I believe both speak with authority and we outta receive it."


Give me a Wow, an Ouch, and an Oh My on that one. I found myself shaking my head in disbelief that yet another pastor--a professed Christian in a leadership position--believes that homosexual people should be put to death. The other (one in a long line of many, I'm sure) is Arizona pastor Steven Anderson who back in December 2014 said the cure for AIDS was right there in the Bible all along. He turned to Leviticus 20:13 and read this cure: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them," He suggested that if people followed God's word and "executed the homos" we could be free of AIDS or at least "90something%" free of AIDS by Christmas 2014.

That's some radical thinking you've got going on there pastors Swanson and Anderson.

Here's where it gets personal. Those two pastors are talking about me. Even though I'm HIV negative I'm still a homosexual that would be executed if either of these men had their way. They're chips off Hitler's block.

2015-11-10-1447164096-534277-Versailles.jpg

You see that picture above this paragraph? That's me. I'm a person. I'm someone's child, someone's brother, someone's uncle. I'm a cousin, a nephew, a friend. I'm a human being. I deserve to live my life to the fullest just like anybody else.

The scary thing about people like these pastors is that, while they individually may not be the voice of the masses, they each have followers who are listening to their hateful words...and agreeing. Maybe you're saying: I don't feel like that but I agree that homosexuality is wrong. Hooray for you! And even if you don't believe in their extremes yet you choose to believe what the Bible says about homosexuality over say, your own homosexual child, that doesn't change the fact that these men are out there in the world spouting this garbage. One bad apple spoils the whole bunch, right? It's hard to get past the stench of those who continue to vomit such disgusting exhortations.

To boil this down in simple terms, they would have ME put to death. ME. The guy in the picture above. They don't even know me and yet because I'm a man who is homosexual they believe I should be put to death.

My existence as a human being--a homosexual, a man--is worthy of life, worthy of breath, worthy of opportunity to live and thrive and create and love and fight back against these men in leadership positions who would take it all away from me because they believe my life--my very existence--is worthy of nothing more than death. And all because the writer Paul says so in the book of Romans in the Bible, which should not be cited for making laws in this country.

When I saw the piece on Mr. Swanson (and the politicians' names connected to it) I couldn't stop myself from taking to Facebook, posting the following status: "As a human being who had the great fortune of being born gay, I find it terribly distressing that there's even a remote possibility that Cruz, Huckabee, or Jindal could be President of my country. #equality #LGBTQ"

This is America. Land of the free. Home of the brave. We are so blessed here with the freedom of speech and the freedom of (or from) religion. Thank goodness. Because you know why? Men have taken it upon themselves to interpret the Bible to fulfill their own discriminatory, fear-inducing needs. I wasn't at the National Religious Liberties Conference, but do you know who was reportedly there? Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Bobby Jindal. Those stalwart American politicians who want to be President of this great nation called America. (Hence the Facebook status). Again, I shake my head.

I am never more angry when religion and sexuality collide than when self-righteous Christian leaders spout death to the homosexuals from their pulpits to a congregation of blind faith followers who simply choose to agree rather than call them out on their acerbic hate speech!

What can I say that hasn't already been said by me and multitudes of others about the picking and choosing of verses in the Bible--verses which many Christians believe should be law and followed to the letter? Nothing new. What I can do is ask: How can anyone call himself a Christian and be so filled with hate for a minority of human beings? How can he stand in front of people--impressionistic children, for instance--and spew such rhetoric? I was one of those children. I'm still trying to live a life that isn't consumed with the fear of fire and brimstone. It's not an easy lesson to unlearn when it's been drilled into one's head at such an early age. Words that heinous make me very angry.

Not one more child should have to hear words like the above preached from the pulpit in his church. Not one more child should have to grow up with the fear of burning in hell for eternity because of the way he was born. Not one more child should be afraid to be himself. Not one more child should feel less than anyone else. Not one more child should be subjected to this kind of mental abuse. Oh yes, it's definitely harmful, injurious, offensive i.e. abuse.

Here's another question I could pose: Are there instances where homosexuals are standing on platforms in front of people saying that Christians should be put to death? Are there? I haven't witnessed that either in person or in print or via video. Yet I've seen the video proof more than once of professed Christians calling for the death of homosexuals.

Hmm???

"Death doesn't discriminate between the sinners and the saints." So says the brilliant lyric from the song "Wait For It" from the even more brilliant musical Hamilton. (For the record, there's no distinction between the sinners and the saints in this story). There's truth in those nine words. Death doesn't discriminate. But man discriminates. And he discriminates until he feels he's high enough on his pedestal to sit in judgment of anyone who doesn't agree with him; anyone he feels doesn't deserve to breathe the air that for some reason he has deemed only worthy of consumption by the godly, the righteous, the morally superior.

Read your Bible's, pastors. Peter writes in Acts 10:34 that God was no respecter of persons. That means God (unlike man) shows no one favoritism over the other. Even the Declaration of Independence says, "All men are created equal."

Join us in the 21st Century, on the right side of history, ye condemners of death to the homosexuals. If you can't, at least wash the reek of manure off your shoes where you keep digging in your heels.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The American Political Stage: A Theatrical Extravaganza

When did religious views and opinions become the standard political platform for the GOP? When did believing in the God of the Bible and following what the Bible says become the one and only right way to live ones life? This is America, right? Freedom of (from) religion!! Has it always been this way? Or is it now simply more pronounced than ever before? When did shouting your religious views from the rooftops become as second nature as, say, who you're attracted to? 

Remember when discussing politics and/or religion was simply not gauche? We kept our views to ourselves or at least we only shared them when we were in the right setting. Sure, there were instances where coherent, informative discussions with differing opinions could be had then walked away from without one party dismissing the others opinions as ignorant and uninformed. But for the most part I remember people keeping most of those thoughts to themselves. 

In today's high-trafficked internet world, one can't seem to escape the constant barrage of I'm-right-you're-wrong rhetoric spewed from the asshole's of opinionated people (myself included) that becomes more blah, blah, blah than useful information. The news cycle, which is now endless, is filled with politicians who use strong, conservative, Christian views to pander to the religious right merely to gain voter support. Many of those politicians are off-their-rocker Christians themselves who want the laws of our land to reflect the laws of a book written for a different time. We progress. We change. Stop standing in the way. Broaden your mind to the possibilities and changes or step aside.

Many of our politicians don't have the rights, fair treatment, and just concerns of our nation's citizens in their best interests. They have their own wants, desires, and agendas in their best interests. 

Abortion, same-sex marriage, the Affordable Care Act should all be moot points at this point, but no, they are used to rile the conservative masses almost daily, be it through interviews, political debates, or rallies held around the country. This season's targets seem to be Planned Parenthood and Immigration. Again, pandering to the morals and fears of the Right.

How is it possible that a woman can blatantly break the law in this country, keep her job, and be considered a hero by so many? How is it possible that a former congresswoman can continue to spread fear, suggesting God will destroy our nation because our Supreme Court voted for equality? (As if we're the ONLY nation in the world who believes in equal rights for all!) How is it possible that a former Governor (and beauty queen) still has a platform in this country for her incoherent, uninformed ramblings that stoke the fires of the lowest common denominator? How does a crass, no-filter billionaire with no real political background become the front runner for the GOP Presidential nomination? Answer for all: by catering to the morality police and conservative Christians! It's a fuck-everyone-else, I'm-right-and-you're-wrong mentality. These people are filling their followers' heads with lies and no one knows what lies at the bottom of that rabbit hole, yet so many are blindly jumping in. No thanks!

And for that matter, how is it possible we live in a country where men and women would rather shut down the government than hammer out the details in a compromise that could and should benefit all people? Who shuts down the government? Two years ago when our government shut down I was stunned. And now we're on the verge again. Figure it out people! We put our trust in you, voted to elect you to lead us, and many of you are too busy playing childish games, making the political stage look like one hell of a theatrical production. When is the Phantom going to make the chandelier crash down in the middle of congress? Seriously! I want my money's worth. 

The conservative right will say the country has lost its way. I beg to differ. The country hasn't lost its way, but many have forgotten "All men are created equal" and many of those with this memory loss wish to keep those of us they don't agree with -- those of us they find less than, those of us they find morally bankrupt (according to the laws of their God) -- held under foot so we have no voice. To quote from the fantastic new musical Hamilton let me say that we continue to "Rise Up" and we refuse to not be seen and heard. "We hold these truths to be self-evident." 


Many of our leaders today are on the wrong side of history. Time will validate same-sex marriage as the best thing to happen in 2015. Time will prove that we can all live together with differing political and religious views (as we've been doing for years) if we love, support, and respect one another without the "I'm right and you're wrong" attitude. 

Grow up. Stop quibbling over not getting your way. Be leaders. Stop acting like children who never learned the basic principle of sharing. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Chaque petit détail joue un rôle"

The gray clouds purged themselves once more today as the City of Lights remained dimmed and dampened by the rain that, like me, hung around for another day.  

The chill of fall was in the air as the breeze blew through the City, no sun to warm it's gentle sting...er...caress. Scarves and trench coats were as normal a sight as, say, long lines at the Eiffel Tower. 

Aside from the positive aspect of getting to spend an extra day in Paris, there was the excitement of what that extra meant for me. If you've kept up with these adventures of a solo traveler (I finished reading The Phantom of the Opera during my crépe and cafè crème this morning), you know that the Water Lillies rooms in the Musée de l'Orangerie were closed through 12 Septembre. If you've seen your calendar today you know it's 13 Septembre. That means...you guessed it...I got to see the Water Lillies. As frustrating as a cancelled flight can be, this circumstance certainly had more than one upside. 

I was not prepared for the beauty that awaited me just beyond the concrete opening that led to the two oval rooms that housed the Lillies. The cold gray of the sky -- and the structure's interior -- gave way to the delicate warmth of Monet's Water Lillies as they hung, panoramic around the rooms, forever caught in their tranquil grace. Morning. Afternoon. Evening. There is color. And then there is Monet's use of color. Dark purples, sea green-blues, blue-greens, sea foam green, burgundy, brilliant blue, pink, yellow. Blends. Swirls. Up close you can see the brush strokes and maybe not quite put into focus the picture. But stepping away brings it all together. One can actually see ripples in the water. There's truth, illusion, and beauty from a distance. 

I was like a child on Christmas morning; running into the family room, starring at all the packages under the tree. I walked round and round the oval rooms, marveling at what hung in front of me. My eyes observed and absorbed. I soaked in it and soaked it in. Does it get any better than seeing art hanging in the rooms it which it was designed to hang? The scope and size of these paintings was unlike anything I can recall seeing before. I've seen large painings, but nothing quite as majestic. Even with the lack of skylight illumination (gray skies be damned) they were stunning.

Downstairs there was a long wall full of Renoir. That place. That museum. It was the one that inspired me. The pieces were hung in the open (no protective glass Mona) for close examination (no protective stanchions, Venus). The paintings seemed truly to be art for the people; for us, the visitors, to admire and enjoy. 

Matisse was there. And Picasso; Cézanne. Works by great artists that were close enough to touch. (That action would be discouraged and frowned upon.) 

I often find myself wondering why some art is considered so fabulous or important. Then I remember beauty is in the eye of the beholder and an artist's particular style can change the art form. Not everyone can do what some of these artists did. Not everyone can sing, dance, act, or write. Not everyone can paint. Not everyone can be a creative artist. 

To be an artist takes vulnerability. One has to put himself -- his vision, his point of view -- on display for all the world to admire, gawk at, or possibly, loathe. We humans are fickle, opinionated creatures. We can love you one minute then leave you the next. We might then have a change of heart and find a reason you were important all along. Or maybe we just pretend you never really mattered at all. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. And opinions, positive and negative, really don't matter as long as the artist is pleased with his finished product.

Upon exiting Musée de l'Orangerie, the sun had broken through the gray clouds. Even as sprinkles continued to fall from the stranglers, patches of blue sky were beginning to reveal themselves, daring you not to see them. "Look up! Look. Up."

Art dares you to see it. It challenges you. It makes you question what you're seeing, reading, watching. It begs you to feel something. Like any artist, the Universe is no different. It begs you to open your eyes and see, inhale deeply and smell, savor the taste of the wine, hear the music in the sounds around you.

I accepted your challenge, dear Universe. I survived the rain and smiled at the sunshine and blue sky. I saw it. I knew how happy I should be and I was. I listened, and I savored. 

Merci, Paris pour le plaisir de votre compagnie.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

"Il est notre temps ici-bas."

The sound of the steamer heating the milk was loud. Almost overwhelming. Yet perfect noise for the scene in which I was a background player. The setting: a café in Paris (Café du Marche des Enfants Rouges). The time: a Septembre day in the 21st Century. 

The solo traveler took himself on a stroll down the rain soaked streets of Paris in search of a neighborhood café to enjoy a bit of vin rouge and fromage. The rain fell in fits and spurts from the gray clouds that hovered above the City of Lights. 

It was all about atmosphere. The rain. The café. Paris. It was all about being alive in that particular moment and being aware of how happy I was. I was eating cheese, drinking wine, and (still) reading The Phantom of the Opera. It was heaven on Earth. Time didn't matter. There was no where to be; no work to be done; no appointments to keep; no agenda whatsoever. This was my time. To quote from The Goonies: "It's our time down here." 

What led me to that moment in the café was something that would normally have sent me down a panic spiral, but ended up being something that I had to Be An Adult and handle. And once it was "...handled" (thank you, Olivia Pope) I was able to relax and enjoy the time still in front of me.

This morning I woke up around 8am and had an alert from Expedia that I could now check in for my flight. Departing Paris tomorrow afternoon (Sunday, 9/13 @ 2pm) en route to JFK in New York City. The check in went beautifully; smoothe. Passport number entered. Name confirmed. Flight number and time confirmed. Boarding pass sent to mobile. I was checked in. It was time to get up and get on with my final day in Paris. 

I showered and dressed and took myself out into the sprinkling rain of the morning on a journey toward Père Lachaise Cemetery. As you know, a Metro snafu and a stop at Hermès deterred me long enough to miss my opportunity to walk through Père Lachaise yesterday. No regrets!! Those Hermès purchases were so worth it! So today, even though it was raining, I was determined to walk through this City of the Dead. Honestly, it was a pretty cool idea to me to walk through the cemetery under the cover of gray rain clouds. It seemed the right atmospheric setting for an eerie mood of melancholy. About halfway to the cemetery -- a near two mile walk -- I received an email from Air France followed quickly by an email from Expedia. I didn't think anything about either email. I was checked in; confirmed. The flight was scheduled to depart on time. Eventually, however, something told me to look at the email. "Following an operational problem, we regret to inform you that we were not able to accommodate you on your original flight. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience." Well, those are not the words a man wants to hear in a foreign country, so far from home, on the day before his departure back to home, while trying to enjoy his cafè crème and stay under his umbrella at the same time. I felt the panic rise. Then I realized I needed to take care of this situation. According to the email, I was already booked on another flight departing on Monday morning. Okay. So I didn't need to panic about that. And on the plus side, I was getting one more day in Paris. I continued walking toward Père Lachaise Cemetery until I realized that I would not enjoy the stroll at all until this extra day wrench that was thrown into my spinning wheel of life was taken care of completely. I immediately turned around and walked back to the hotel. Today didn't seem to be the day to commune with the dead either. I had to find out if the hotel could accommodate me for one more night. I had to notify the private car service scheduled to transfer me to the airport tomorrow morning. Changes had to be made. The largest one -- the flight -- having already been changed for me. 

It turned out that the hotel could accommodate me even though it meant switching rooms for the last night. That's not really that big of a deal. So, I checked that off the list. The concierge at my hotel called my car service for me and told them of my change and ended the call with a "Merci" to them and a "You're all set" to me. Of course, I emailed the car service anyway just to give the details in writing and to have a confirmation of the change myself. I'm used to having everything in writing. It's hard to trust that it's just going to happen. Yes, I have trust issues. "Who are you to judge me?" (Yes, I'm using the Dorothy Zbornak quote a second time this week.) 

New flight booked: check. One more night at the hotel reserved: check. Car service pick up day and time changed: check. An extra day in Paris: OUI!

Hence the cafè, the vin rouge, the fromage, and The Phantom

To sit in a café in Paris and read or write is a most exhilarating experience for me. Neither seems out of place surrounded by conversations, laughter, wine and coffee consumption. And the cigarette smoke. I can't leave out the smokers. They are part of the Paris café atmosphere; the fabric of the City. Without them sitting at the café tables that line the sidewalks of the café fronts, the cafés wouldn't quit feel the same. This normal part of life in Paris would be so detested and frowned upon in New York City. I can hear the old men complaining now. How is it that the French smoke more and enjoy more wine than we Americans yet live longer? Maybe they've got it right. Eat, drink, and be merry...and work less. Enjoy life! Yes, maybe they've figured something out that we're too busy working to realize.  

One of my favorite people in the world -- a former roommate, and teacher when I was in desperate need of emotional growth -- moved to Washington D. C. seven years ago. I don't think we've seen each other since. We live four hours apart and never see each other. How ridiculous is that? She saw one of my Facebook posts this week about Paris and realized I was actually currently on holiday there. She reached out with a comment on a picture I'd posted that she was traveling to Paris by speed train from Barcelona the next day. What are the odds? This beautiful, young-spirited, wise, centered, happy, spiritual woman and I got to reconnect in Paris over dinner and a bottle of wine. As we played catch up after seven years (it didn't even seem like a day we fell back into our flow so quickly) I became aware of the signage outside the window across the street. We could have been getting reacquainted in the West Village for the way the street looked. But we weren't. We were around the world, on another continent, in a bistro in Paris. Two old (don't get snarky) friends telling stories about life as it is and life as we knew it.

The day that could have been didn't end up being the day that was. The crises were averted. The rain eventually ended. Words were read, written, and spoken. Time was enjoyed, not wasted, in a café. And divine intervention brought someone back into my life at a moment when I least expected it. 



Friday, September 11, 2015

Où le Bossu sonne le glas et la couleur du luxe est orange

A feeling of contentment washed over me as I waited in line to buy a ticket to go inside Notre-Dame. It was peaceful in the shade as I leaned up against the concrete that held the spike-topped wrought iron fence surrounding the Cathedral. Tourists were wandering around looking at their maps. Locals were going about their afternoon business. I stood observing. Life was hustle, bustle, and wait in line in my vicinity. A beggar woman straight out of that other Disney film, Beauty and the Beast, hobbled by with her crutch and cup, begging for change. The sounds of City life were alive all around me: sirens, traffic, chatter, Cathedral bells. After four days, I know where I am when I wake up, but it still seems so surreal to be here. 

Italian speakers to my left. Spanish speakers to my right. I recognized their language as they spoke to each other, but none of us spoke each other's. Gestures and single words helped us find common ground for communication. You know, you can't just speak louder to try to communicate. You've got to break it down and find other ways. It's a challenge. I did my best to figure out how. I was outside of my box; my comfort zone. It's supposed to be a good thing. It's supposed to help me grow. I think it has. I've tried to take stock every now and then and assess myself: how is my patience; tolerance; courage? Is my fuse quick or slow? At home I would say my fuse is much quicker than it has been here. I'm much quicker to lose patience there. In my line of work, I will be interested to see how this vacation translates when I'm back behind that glass selling those tickets to people who are visiting, merely trying to enjoy their experience in New York City. The amount of people I've encountered who have shown me kindness have greatly added to my experience. Hopefully I'll carry that home with me and remember the people who helped with a smile instead of doing it begrudgingly.

One has to accept himself. One has to be able to see the reflection in the mirror and stare into the eyes staring back at him and accept the failings, shortcomings, successes, idiosyncrasies that he knows are hidden beneath the surface. Sometimes I see him and I accept him even though I don't like him. Other times I stare at him and only see the superficial. I'm a tourist in a foreign country...alone. As strange as it sounds, I always try to look like I belong wherever I am even though one of my strongest desires is to stand out from the crowd. I like to be noticed; to be different than everyone else; to be chic, stylish, and unique. However, I have had to fight to accept that what makes me stand out in Paris is the fact that I am a tourist...well, my clothes, shoes, accessories, and personality do come into play also, but... I haven't really figured out what makes me so uncomfortable with being perceived as a tourist. Guess it's that not being in control of the unknown thing that plays hard and fast with my ability to function. My name is Michael and I'm a tourist. This City is filled with us. "Soap opera says One Life To Live." I'm living, I'm living!! To accept this me who is experiencing himself as a solo traveler is a challenge I've taken on even if I don't always like the result of my actions.

Two hours of observing, pondering, and sitting with myself (and my non English speaking companions) later I was finally at the front the line and my passage into the "symbol of medieval Paris" was about to begin. 

The views were, in a word, breathtaking. So were the stairs that I had to climb to get to the top so I could see those views. Merde! I don't know that any amount of physical training would prepare one for those stairs that spiraled to the top, getting more and more narrow the higher I went. I was breathless for two reasons (the views, the stairs). Merde! (It bears repeating). The view of Paris from atop Notre-Dame was C'est magnifique!! I marveled at the City laid out before me. I guess I've done the same thing anytime I've been high enough to see NYC spread out in all of her concrete and steel glory. For this view, however, the pinpoints of the Chrysler Building and One World Trade were replaced by the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Sacré-Coeur, and the Seine. "Spectacular Spectacular"! 

The spiral back down was less of a workout for the legs, although my right one was quivering a bit (this vacation has include a lot of walking. "Who are you to judge me?"). I stopped across the street for a tourist-priced café crème and my first street vendor crépe made with what all you people kept telling me to try...Nutella! Mon Dieu! (OMG for the Anglophiles.) It was amazing: rich, creamy, almost too much so to consume. Fear not. I ate the whole thing. "He likes it. Hey Mikey!" Sitting outside at the café, I met a lovely couple from Texas, Karen and Kent, who had enjoyed an early morning bike tour around Paris. They were kind and open and I'm so glad that I introduced myself after hearing their English. It was nice to have a conversation without worrying about the translation. 

I next set off to visit the dead at Père Lachaise Cemetery. After visiting a church, a cemetery seemed liked the logical sequel. The final resting place of Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein (with the unmarked grave of her lover Alice B. Toklas next to her), Chopin, Colette, Molière, even Jim Morrison, was a must see on my list the minute I knew I was going to visit Paris. It may seem macabre for some, but for me a cemetery is one of the most interesting places to wander/wonder in. Take a stroll through one and look at the age of the stones, how long the people lived, how long they've been dead. There is so much history right there beneath your feet. I was never one for history in school, but walking through a cemetery can open your eyes to the the lives of people who arrived and left before you got here. Cemeteries really are quite beautiful Cities of the Dead.

I didn't make it to Père Lachaise Cemetery next, however. I made a snafu that I still haven't quite figured out with the Metro after I finished the crêpe. I started walking in the direction of my hotel and found myself lost then back on track then right near a Metro stop. Even though I was now back on the right track I thought that instead of walking back to the hotel I should save a little time and get on the Metro and take myself nearer to Père Lachaise Cemetery. It seemed a better choice than if I walked back to the hotel and then navigated from there. I still don't know what coordinates I put into my Paris Metro app, but I followed them to the tee and found myself smack in the middle of Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Seriously?!? I couldn't imagine this location was going to have me anywhere near a cemetery even if I had to walk a short distance. Can you imagine a cemetery just off Fifth or Madison? Or, God forbid, 42nd Street? I couldn't get my Google maps app to load my route (Verizon has not made me a happy customer during this trip) so I was kind of stuck wondering what to do, where to go from there. Then it struck me. I wanted to find Hermès. I hadn't found it the day I'd wondered down the Champs-Élysées. One of my map apps was working and told me it was merely across the street and down a side road. I quickly forgot about my trip to see where the dead were resting and made my way toward the gleaming orange of luxury leather goods...and scarves. 

There was no champagne offered to me at Hermès Paris like at Saint Laurent Paris, but that didn't change the fantastic experience one bit. Alexandra was perfect for me. She spoke a bit of English and not once made me feel inadequate when I used my French with her. Okay, some might say it's her job to be nice because she's working on commission. Who cares. I connected with her and she connected to my excitement at being in the store and we fit together like Cinderella and that glass slipper. On a side note: there were some beautiful men, in suits (IN SUITS!) working, whose attention I would have enjoyed, but knowing myself as I do (remember I'm looking at the eyes staring back at me in that mirror) I know I would have been a little timid, a little coquettish with them. Handsome men in suits put me a flutter in all kinds of ways. So while I was happy to be able to observe them while I waited, Alexandra was perfect for me. 

I knew I wanted the classic "H" belt buckle. It screams Hermès to me. When I see it, I know. The only choice, for me, was silver for the buckle. Classic. I wanted something in Hermès-orange and would have purchased the reversible orange/black if they had had my size. Alas, they did not. What I went for was a beautiful blue, that should coordinate beautifully with my Cole Haan blue Chukkas, which reverses to black. I have a black belt already and also a blue belt, so I didn't really need this belt. But it's a beautiful belt and the leather is in a word...supple. And it has the status symbol "H" buckle. And it's pretty! Hi, my name is Michael and I'm a label whore. 

Alexandra helped me figure out the perfect size belt. Then she helped me choose the perfect colored enamel bracelet. I didn't want black or brown. I wanted orange. Hermès-orange! The orange one was a little too tight on my wrist, though. Not to be deterred, Alexandra brought out a beautiful deep red-colored enamel bracelet with a more modern "H" clasp than the classic "H" of the buckle. It was brushed silver instead of shiny. I would have taken the shiny in a heartbeat, but as I said it didn't fit. Alexandra had one more thought. I was finding the idea of the deep red enamel intriguing, but she wanted to check her inventory for the possible arrival of the more pumpkin shaded orange-colored enamel with the brushed silver clasp. While she was checking the inventory I met a lovely couple from North Carolina. The accent was unmistakably from "back home" and I couldn't resist an introduction. Super nice people. Again, so glad I said hello.

I had resigned myself to the idea of buying the deep red-colored enamel bracelet if the more muted orange one was not in stock. I needn't have worried at all. It was in stock. She came back to me wearing a large smile and I knew. It was the perfect choice. Alexandra, the belt, the buckle, the bracelet...all things meant for Michael at that particular moment. 

I might never have purchased a piece of Hermès in New York City no matter how badly I wanted to. But in Paris, the only option was immediately clear. I provided the man at the register with my Venture card and signed my name to the slip. 

The list of things I wanted to see on this trip included touristy things: Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées, Versailles, Notre Dame, Palaise Garnier, Père Lachaise Cemetery (ok, maybe that last one's not for every tourist, but it is listed in my guidebook). But it also included Louis Vuitton, Ladurée, Chanel, Dior, and Hermès. As I review the week so far, I seem to have put a check mark next to all but one of these. 

Maybe I'll see that city of the dead tomorrow if it doesn't rain. As for tonight, I tried foie gras. Si bon!