Saturday, February 6, 2010

Deleting the Profile and Loving the Feeling

I woke up in a surprisingly good mood today, full of energy in contrast to my usual winter blues. I picked up my computer, looked at it dubiously, and then connected to the internet. The MSN messenger window immediately popped up in that annoying way that it does, with a few ‘contacts’ already online. After years and years of not using it, I had reinstated MSN messenger about a year ago because my grandma wanted to keep in touch that way. For a while she was my only contact, and a zealous one at that. However, after beginning my online experiment I found my number of ‘friends’ increasing markedly, most of whom I’ve discussed in this blog at various points (and a few who certainly didn’t provide any revelations worth writing about). My MSN Messenger had seemingly become the virtual version of Omar Khayyam’s Caravanserai:

Think, in this batter'd Caravanserai
Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his destined hour, and went his way.

Each ‘sultan’ had certainly left his mark on my MSN account, with his little ‘buddy’ icon always visible on my list of contacts to remind me of my failed relationships. Every one of these ‘gay friends’ had at one point demonstrated a distinctly personal interest in me. At the beginning you would have thought that, all of a sudden, I was the very centre of their universe. I was always more restrained myself, but over time I usually outdid most of them in terms of thoughtful, friendly overtures, intended to consolidate the new friendship. To Jean-Marc and Damien I sent postcards from around the world when they had shown an interest in the places I traveled. I bought books at a university book sale for Robert on the subjects he was passionate about. I sincerely offered to help Pietro with his groceries when he was sick, and I’ve lost track of the number of times I invited Michel out (both before and after his coming out as HIV+) and informed him about events around town he might be interested in. And we won’t count the innumerable personal e-mails that I exchanged (thoughtful, judicious, and always in the best tastes). And I was always the last person to reciprocate, at the end usually twice without a response.

Clearly what I had to offer was never enough, and no one stuck. A few (like Jean-Marc, Pietro, and François) I never even got to meet out of their own laziness, yet their names pop up when they log onto MSN to taunt but never to talk to me. It was always awkward those last few times writing them and receiving no response. Everyone I did meet more or less outright rejected me or made the quick transition from romantic limboland to strict friendship. This was an acceptable outcome for me, but never a good feeling, and even though I should have been insulted I found myself having to do all the work to maintain the friendship as I felt the other person slowly slipping away. What’s going on here, and how do I justify my complete failure to be of interest to the men I meet, all from various backgrounds and walks of life? Why do they put so much effort into getting to know me, hour after hour after hour, and then throw it all away? Why go to all the effort of starting from scratch with someone new, without ever finishing what you started with the people you have already gotten to know and may enjoy?

I was fully aware that this outcome was likely, as I discussed in my post “Finding Social Connectedness: My Online Experiment.” Despite my pessimistic realism, I stayed true to my ethical oath as discussed in that particular article, in which I promised to treat every person who talked to me online as I would talking to them in person. I never not responded. I always kept my wits about me, always honest, always treated everyone I came across as a human being. My conversation was always good-natured, and I never rejected, ignored, or insulted anyone. Most importantly, I always kept in mind that there was a person with a potentially beautiful soul on the other end, no matter what they were seeking or what was said in their profile. I was able to see these individuals as real human beings, a pulse, people each with their own positive qualities and faults. Furthermore, I was always realistic; to me they never became fantastical online personas that I could accept, obsess over, and dispose of at whim. Nor could I really envision myself in a romantic situation with them if I had not spent real time with them. The fact of the matter is, it is the real person, the person with human failings that I eventually meet, that interests me most, not the person I would like them to be or become. I find the imperfect reality much more beautiful than the fantasy.

I like to think I keep a fairly good-natured personality most of the time (and no one I met ever seemed averse to it, in fact quite the contrary). And one thing that this experience has taught me is that quite a few people would take the title of this blog as a personal insult to their tastes! That is probably one of the best things about the experience—I can now look more confidently in the mirror, knowing that there are some very handsome men out there who seem to find my physical appearance irresistible for whatever reason. So if it’s not my personality and not my physical appearance that turns them off, what is it then?

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that people don’t treat their online experience with the same ethical standards and seriousness that I do. The virtual world for them is a world of personas, not people. There is a seemingly boundless sea of individuals, many of them beautiful, all potential lovers, and it’s easy to get caught up in the possibility of it all without ever establishing anything real at the end of the day. When engaging with someone online, it’s easy to stop listening to them and project onto them what you want them to be. You see someone who you think is beautiful, you contact them and find out that they have a nice personality, and suddenly they become the great white hope! In other words, fantasy takes over. The problem is when you meet the great white hope and realize that he is a real person with a dimple on his forehead and who sometimes slips on the icy sidewalk when he walks. Reality strikes—this is actually a physical person you’ve been talking to, not bad but not exactly living up to the standards of the fantasy. Even if he shows distinct interest in continuing the relationship, the once great hope, the fantasy, has already died. It seems easiest to cut your losses and go back to the drawing board, try to meet someone new, and dive back into the unknown to revive the fantasy. And the cycle repeats itself.

The “you” I’ve just described has always been one of my new ‘friends,’ and the serious “guy,” the one who is happy with his reality, has always been me in this formulaic scenario. As the one who is always being left behind in the frantic rush to the next great hope, I find the experience discouraging and off-putting. Why can’t anyone look at what is in front of them anymore, talk themselves down from the fantasy and appreciate and find beauty in their reality? I see myself discovering more and more beauty in the people I meet as I get to know them, but for the other party that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’d like to say that this only happens in the online world, but in reality I find that a lot of friendships made in the real world follow the same cycle: an initial period of interest, a courtship, then abandoning the friend (and reciprocation) for the excuse of being “busy” with something/someone else.

I recently had an experience that I thought was particularly telling, and I would like to recount it here. A man named Aurèle approached me online and started talking to me. I was disconcerted by his profile, in which he seemed to be showing off his bare chest. Although his chest was nothing to write home about (and I speak as someone for whom that is also true), even if it was I’m always worried about the message that the other person is trying to send by putting their torso on display. Having already lost something of my conviction for the process, I wrote him a meaningful note every week or so. By taking a while to respond, I usually ensure that most of the overly-eager fantasy builders have impatiently moved on to another person of interest, while maintaining my likeability in the whole affair. After all, I’m never outright or officially ignoring or rejecting anyone, I honestly do have a busy professional life, and in my spare time there are many other things I’d rather do. Despite my reservations about Aurèle’s chest display (which I have come to honestly expect as some sort of misdirected attempt at personal ‘advertisement’ in the world of gay men), I continued to contact him as his responses became more and more engaging with time. Finally we made the jump to e-mail and MSN, in which we had several interesting conversations. They were more awkward than many I was used to, however, because he clearly had a strong desire to get to know me in a romantic way and seemed rather insecure that I would reject him. I learned he was a painter, and we had a lot to exchange in that regard. Honestly, his own personal modesty and willingness to demonstrate his fear of failure only served to make me more open to him.

But I still had reservations—his MSN photo was the same shirtless scene from his profile. Furthermore, he had plastered there next to his MSN name, in rather awkward English, ‘Can I have your MSN? I am a hot male!’ He said it was a joke, but I had to wonder. I didn’t think he was massively hot, but I did honestly like his distinctive look with a bald head and a short, prematurely-grey beard. I was certainly open to getting to know him, but in any case, it was clear that he had been going at it with other men on MSN for a while. Furthermore, as we talked it became apparent that he was rapidly building a fantasy world with me at its centre. At one point I was complaining about the winter weather, and he offered to make me “forget the dull moments of winter.” He couldn’t understand why I had never had a relationship before and seemed rather eager to start one with me. After adding me to his MSN around midweek, he was ready and willing to go out on our first date for the weekend (a bit fast for my tastes), and he asked me out for a coffee or to go to a film. I knew in my heart that it was a waste of time and thought to myself, “oh, well, at least we can get this over with quickly and efficiently.”

We exchanged a couple of light-hearted calls to make plans, but the planning process was a little unorganized. He refused, like so many gay men before him (one example from this blog: Robert), to make plans for a specific time and place until an hour or so before the scheduled meeting. Then when that hour arrived, he wanted to reschedule for the next day. Robert didn’t give an explicit excuse when he did this with me, but Aurèle was honest—he was going to try to take a nap because he was tired from not sleeping well the night before, but he’d call me back in two hours to tell me if he felt up for meeting me that night. I could tell that he was actively on MSN the whole time he was supposedly trying to nap. He called back and said he failed to take a nap and was just too tired to go out with me that night and wanted to ‘recover/rest himself’ (se reposer). It’s not just him; I’ve noticed since beginning this ‘gay life’ experience that a lot of gay men seem to require a frightening amount of recovery time (and honestly, I can’t figure out what they’re doing to exhaust themselves so thoroughly). I was taken aback and thought it was rude, but I had lived through the same experience before with Robert and figured it was just an inconsiderate gay male thing (heterosexual men would NEVER be able to get away with such behaviour, and honestly I shouldn’t be so accepting of it either). He wanted to meet for a walk in Parc Lafontaine the next day, but warned me ahead of time it had to be a short visit because he had to go get car parts.

A walk in a park during the winter, a leap downward from the café or film that he had proposed earlier. I was averse to the idea, but because it was going to be a fairly warm and sunny day I agreed to a noon-time walk (but certainly NOT a colder morning stroll as he would have preferred). He called me the next morning to confirm. I was pleased to see him when we met and extended a welcoming smile. We talked about light-hearted subjects. He was curious about my work, and I played off his interests. I felt more ebullient and charming than ever in my enthusiastic, deliberative, and pensive French, more fluent, good-humoured, and nuanced than ever before. We discussed his paintings for a little while as well. I was appreciating the moment as much as ever, forgetting my former reservations. For that period of time, we were just two guys walking through a park, sharing our time together. I also let him know that I would have more time to get together the following weekend if he were available. He seemed engaged and happy, although he was modest while we were discussing him and his interests. But as soon as it started, it was over. Only 25 minutes after meeting (if that) he said that he unfortunately had to leave to buy car parts. I practically had to force him to shake my hand goodbye. I thought it was a ridiculously short visit (not worth the trip out to the park), but I went ahead and sent him an enthusiastic e-mail with an attachment of the Francis Bacon painting that we were discussing during our walk (he really likes Bacon). He was back on MSN messenger less than two hours later; clearly the car parts excursion wasn’t as taxing and time-consuming as he had made it out to be. It was at that point that it really sank in how massively impolite he had been, and I certainly didn’t feel like I had gotten to know him very well or much about his interests in the 25 minutes we were together. I didn’t know whether I could really like him or not. The only conclusion that I could make about him was that he had been rather impolite (and that I didn’t like).

Apparently Aurèle had, however, seen and heard enough. The fantasy was shattered, the reality was not terrible but clearly not what he expected. He responded to my e-mail on Francis Bacon, but only with a couple of terse, uninspired, cold sentences. A few days later, I tried to contact him on MSN (as he had been the primary initiator before), and after a couple of minutes he wanted to return to watching TV (at least these guys, in their abruptness, are honest). I decided to leave him alone; he certainly knew where to find me. Later he wrote a message on my profile that he had fun during our walk in the park together, but he was "not ready to engage" himself. Then I noticed that Aurèle, who was always popping up on MSN when he wasn’t at work, went days without appearing online. At that point I knew that he had blocked me, or rather weeded me out of his list. I, in turn, blocked him. There was no point keeping someone like that around as a contact, an inconsiderate person who was neither a potential romantic partner nor a friend. He was just another shiftless person, off to chase after the next opportunity. Disappointing, yes, but I was not surprised and honestly somewhat relieved.

It was probably at that time that I realized I needed a break from the website. The endless possibility seems rather drab when reality is never an option. Correspondingly, interacting with people in this way no longer interested me as much; I seemed to have lost my positive attitude toward it, and I was finding it harder and harder to keep my ‘oath of humanity.’ When people did contact me, often with that familiar earnestness, I honestly didn’t want to bother to respond and had to force myself to. The idea of investing time to go through yet another one of these cycles didn’t seem worth the hassle. For now I’m fine with what I’ve gained from the experience—perhaps a little more confidence and, quite honestly, a contentedness with myself and my very single life. I’m rather happy as the complete individual that I am, and my life in Montréal is my own fantasy become reality. No, I’m not perfect, but I accept that imperfection in both myself and others. Furthermore, I’d rather not be someone else’s fantasy but instead live my own reality. In addition, for the first time in my life, I have a few friends who reciprocate and seem to want to spend time with me, and from my online experience I’m going to try to salvage what I can out of my friendship with Robert. That’s not to say I won’t go back to the website because, sad as it is, it’s virtually my only connection to the gay community and the only place where anyone has ever showed an interest in me. But given my current attitudes, I’ve had enough for now and am content to just let myself be who I am, content with the way my life is going and the people who are in it at present. I want to take the time to appreciate what I have in my real world, leaving behind the virtual world for another day.

I woke up thinking that this morning, and staring at my MSN list, I blocked several people one by one (including Michel), all abandoned friendships that I knew were never going to go anywhere. I then went to the website to close down my account, only to discover that I was more popular there than ever. It seemed to be my lucky day for finally getting the attention of the PhDs—an engineer, a medical doctor, and a very exotic man with several PhDs. All of them were alluring individuals and could potentially interact with me on the more intellectual level I have often wanted in friendships and relationships. With the engineer I found myself exchanging poetry, which I admit was somewhat exhilarating. The medical doctor seemed to think that I was ‘super handsome’ (whatever). The one with several PhDs had some grand idea that intellectual passion and physical sensuality should not be mutually exclusive, indicating that he would enjoy getting together with me for some eventual ‘dodo collé’ (that is to say, sleeping while pressed up against each other). To this latter individual, using his own philosophical language, I made it clear to him that I was instead a stoic, and ‘dodo collé’ was not something I did outside of a stable, well-established, long-term relationship. I was also amazed at how these three doctors, all very bright, seem to have forgotten to put on their shirts. At the same time, an attractive man with a bachelor’s education told me exactly what he wanted—“I’m in the mood for pressing up against a hairy body this morning,” and I gave him a recommendation for someone else on the site who I knew was looking for the same thing (which he thanked me for). I told all of these last-minute sycophants that I was leaving the website, and I gave them my e-mail in case they were interested in continuing a conversation (knowing good and well they wouldn’t bother). Then I deleted my profile. These last few sultans had abode, literally, their destined hour with me, and then I sent them on their way.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Finding Our Way: My Friend’s Story

“You’re going to meet the most extraordinary men, the sexiest, brightest, funniest men, and you’re going to fall in love with so many of them, and you won’t know until the end of your life who your greatest friends were or your greatest love was.”

When Sean Penn, acting in the character of Harvey Milk, said this to one of his young gay assistants in the award-winning 2008 film Milk, I was deeply disturbed. I was watching the movie with a friend, and he seemed to be particularly taken by this line: “that’s a beautiful thought,” he said. I was similarly struck by it, but in quite a different way. I said, “Wow, that’s depressing!”

The vision Penn describes is that of a life of love, one filled with filled with friendship, romance, and joy. It’s a fluffy, light-hearted, attractive sentiment, and it probably closely corresponds to the attitudes of many in the gay community. Yet, digging deeper, his statement also connotes a life of shiftless, inconstant, probably misdirected love, one of serial monogamy or polyamory, at the end of which there is nothing and no one left. All that remains is “you,” contemplating indecisively on the past. In a life like Milk describes, we can’t even figure out which loves were the greatest, which friends were the dearest--they all blend into the whirlwind of our existence and eventually disappear. Is that really the kind of life we should all aspire to, hopping from one bed to another, never finding a true, ‘greatest’ love, never settling on and keeping one true friend?

For many people, that kind of lifestyle works well for them, and kudos to them for having figured out how to enjoy what seems to have become the accepted norm. For me and some of the people I know, however, Milk’s vision may be (or become) their reality but not reflective of their values or their goals.

I’m thinking of one gay friend in particular; his name is Farid. We are fairly new friends, having NOT met on the website I have described in many previous posts (and as such I was notably more intrigued and relaxed in getting to know him). When we started talking, I felt instantly connected to him. He is not only one of the most physically beautiful men I’ve had the pleasure to meet, but he also has a wonderful personality. With time he modestly revealed to me a very rich and contemplative intelligence. Over the last few months, I have gladly let many hours slip by while talking to him, happy to lose track of time while learning about him and his life and soaking up what he has to say. He is in his forties (like most of my friends, quite frankly), a man with many life experiences and the philosophic spirit to show for them. His eyes, full of tenderness and friendship, also betray a haunting discontent and sadness.

I always knew that Farid was both something of an optimist and a pessimist about gay life. He came here as a mature adult from a culture where homosexuality was strongly suppressed and gay life virtually nonexistent. Unable to confront his sexuality in this environment, he never had an opportunity to explore his love for men until he came to Canada. He’s an optimist in that he continues to put himself out there, fully out there, not ever hesitating to love. While opposed to the drugs and drinking scene, he enjoys going out to gay establishments (one in particular) to dance, and he has formed some truly great friendships with people he’s met in the gay community. As a consequence, his romantic/sexual identity has, whether he admit it or not, become a significant part of who he is. He genuinely wants a life of love, one with another man to cherish. No matter how discouraged he may be when things don’t work out, he knows he’s meant to love another man, and this fact continues to motivate him. The ‘right person’ is out there, Farid believes, and he won’t stop until he finds that special guy. Whoever he is, he will be a very lucky man.

All of this I’ve known for a while. However, Farid’s feelings of anger and despair, the pessimism that I am more inclined to prescribe to myself, was something I didn’t expect to hear out of him. Recently, he described to me, in more detail than ever before, the story of his romantic life, one that closely reflects the lifestyle Milk/Penn so proudly offered to his gay followers. He told me how, when he first got involved with a man, he thought that his “chum” would be the person he would cultivate a relationship with for the rest of his life. Farid had sex with this first boyfriend, but things eventually fell apart, and Farid couldn’t understand why. The disappointment was real and penetrating but not daunting, for eventually Farid was back on the playing field. He would meet a man, become his ‘chum,’ have sex with him, enjoy his company, even sometimes move in with him. And each time they would drift apart, often in a matter of months (max a year or two) for one reason or another. He told me that this happened so many times (and continued until recently), to the point that it became all he expected. The strongly sex-centred nature of the gay community/culture, and its members while enveloped in it, he believes encourages this kind of romantic superficiality. At a point, he found himself meeting guys and being persuaded to have sex almost immediately, followed by a complete collapse of the incipient relationship after one or two rolls in the hay. A religious man with a strong appreciation for tradition, he was disgusted by his behaviour and that of the people around him. These were not his values or beliefs, which he felt had been debased. In fact, he used that same haunting expression that Michel (see “A Virus with a Face”) employed to describe the night he was infected with HIV—“I lost myself.” But unlike Michel, there was a clear sense of regret in Farid’s crisp, intense, fast-paced French. He repeated it over and over again—“I lost myself, I really lost myself, my values, the very person that I am. I couldn’t continue like that.”

One of his great passions and goals in life was to love a man, but instead he was having sex without ever knowing the closeness and lasting intimacy that he sought. On recounting his story, he went so far as to conclude that he’s “had enough of sex.” To qualify this sentiment, Farid noted that the few times he was able to establish a longer-term relationship, he was happy to have less sex so as to work on building a deeper connection. He further expressed a great appreciation for heterosexual lifestyle, in which children often form a strong foundation to a relationship and force both parties to mature and redefine their priorities. He correspondingly posed the question, “what is there between two guys to make them grow and evolve similarly with each other?” Furthermore, after years of experience, he has come to the conclusion that it is nearly impossible to build the kind of relationship he was looking for in the gay culture that he knows, which focuses too much on the “sex” in sexual orientation/identity (of course, I must qualify that he is referring more to the gay male culture). He went on to say, “the gay culture is truly the poorest and most miserable on this earth; it isn’t even a culture, it’s an attitude, and an ugly one at that. You and me, we’re not lucky.”

Normally I’d argue, rationalize, and grapple with what Farid has to say, picking apart his arguments and putting them to greater scrutiny. However, this time I want his story stand alone in this article, just as he describes it. His words are true to his experience, something that he has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about. Gay life has been cruel to him in many ways, from his inability to live freely before coming to Canada to the maddening disappointment once he was finally able to express his love for men. However, what I find most striking is the paradox between his words and his actions. While his story suggests that he has lost hope for finding a meaningful relationship in the gay community, he hasn’t. In fact, he told me, “I am like you, a scientist, I’m testing a new hypothesis.” He’s now trying to forge a common bond with romantic partners on a spiritual and intellectual (values) basis first, putting these above other considerations. And he has found a new romantic interest in this regard, a kind Mexican man he hopes to start a relationship one day! If that strategy toward building a relationship doesn’t work out, he said “I’ll move on to the next hypothesis.”

To conclude with a neo-Platonist sentiment, his passionate desire has clearly pushed him to continue the good fight and strive toward that higher love he has in his mind's eye and deep in his heart. As for me, I too cannot resolutely condemn my sexual identity, even after absorbing his story (and others’) and experiencing my own disappointments. If I and he weren’t gay, we would never have met and become friends, and to me that would have been a far greater travesty.