Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Memoir

This is the age of the memoir.  Books about real people's lives are more popular than ever.  Just in the past few months, I've read books about Charles Schulz (creator of Peanuts); Anne Murray (legendary Canadian singer); and Ted Kennedy (long-time U.S. senator).  Currently, I'm reading Andre Agassi's Open, an extraordinarily well-written memoir about his life as one of the most celebrated tennis players of all time (and one of People's and Entertainment Weekly's top ten books of 2009).

Over a year ago, I finished writing the first draft of my own memoir, covering the period from when I was a little boy to when I met Chris, my partner for the past seventeen years.  What I was left with was an unruly 820 pages that had no focus and no rhyme or reason--but I got it all down.  As much as I could remember, anyway.  Since then, I cut my memoir in half, recognizing that I had two distinct sections to my life--before I came out as a man who is gay, and after.  Each section is about 400 pages, making them seem more manageable.  

Lately, I haven't spent much time editing either volume of my memoir.  I know I can whenever I want to, because it's always available for me to access on my hard-drive, but I haven't gotten there yet.  Instead, I've worked almost exclusively on this blog, because, as it turns out, I have much to understand about myself, and what it means to me to be gay.  I think from the insights and the perspective I've gained through writing this blog, if and when I decide to return to my memoirs, I'll have a deeper understanding of who I am and how I became who I am, which will inform any future work on my life story.

So, in the absence of a completed memoir, I've prepared this relatively brief synopsis of my life story.  While what I've written here could be seen as self-indulgent--as all memoirs ultimately are--I believe it will provide my readers with details about my background that will help them understand me a little better, and it will help them see the various stages involved in coming to terms with who I am and with being gay, which are not mutually exclusive by any means.      


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My life falls into several distinctive sections.  The first I call BC, or Before Chris, which takes place between when I was a boy to when I met Chris in 1992.  The second I call AC, or After Chris, which is everything that follows June 1992.

The BC period can be further broken down into two subsections:  boyhood to when I came out as a gay man on January 1, 1986, and from January 1, 1986 to June 13, 1992, the day I met Chris.

BC:  October 3, 1959 to January 1, 1986

Until October 1974, when my family moved to Kelowna, we lived in Dawson Creek, with short stints in Grimshaw, Alberta, and Trail, BC, when I was a very little boy.  I have almost no recollections of either or those places.

Dawson Creek, located in the northeast corner of BC, close to the Alberta border, is a small farming community that, at the time, had about 12,000 inhabitants.  I recall summers were usually short and could be blazing hot, with lots of nasty, large mosquitoes, and winters were long, very cold, and tough.  I remember temperatures often plummeted to -35 or -40 degrees F.  One school day, the principal came on the P.A. system to say that all of the kids who had bused in from the surrounding farmlands earlier that morning were being sent home.  Temperatures had fallen to below -50 degrees F.

My mother was just nineteen years old when I was born (my father was in his early twenties).  As far as I can tell, I was conceived in the back of an old Studebaker, in Pouce Coupe, a village ten kilometers southeast of Dawson Creek, and I entered the world in October 1959.  My parents were married in April of the same year.  You do the math.  At least my mother wasn't sequestered at some distant relative's until I was born and forced to give me up for adoption, as was common back in the day for unwed, pregnant, Catholic girls.

My mom and dad were not ready to be parents.  They had no idea how bringing a small baby into the world would affect their lives.  They were mere children themselves, and I think they resented being strapped down with me and, two years later, with my sister.

Dad was the sole provider, who, beyond that, didn't have a clue what being a good parent was (through the years, I've gotten hints that his parents didn't set a great example for him either).  We always had a place to stay, clothes on our backs, and food in our bellies--I'll give that to my father. But, through most of my life, Dad was physically absent.  When he wasn't at work--first, as a manager of the now defunct McLeods store; then, as owner of a Texaco service station; and, finally, as a real estate agent--he was at home in his leather recliner, in front of the TV, newspaper in hand, drawing on his pipe or the occasional cigar. I think for him, my sister and I were minor annoyances on the periphery of his consciousness. I remember when he was home, he interacted little with us, almost as though pretending we weren't there.

I remember no tenderness from my father, no sensitivity toward us, unless he'd had plenty to drink.  That's when he softened up, allowed himself to feel emotions and to be closer to us physically.  Unfortunately, I hated the smell of alcohol on his breath, and I resented that the only time he wanted to have anything to do with me was when he was liquored up.  During most of my years as a child, I feared my father.  I didn't want to be around him.  I felt no love from him whatsoever.  I only knew him as distant, as a cold man, and as a disciplinarian, quick to use his hand but not his heart.  My dad is still alive and lives in Dawson Creek, but I've had no communication with him over the past thirteen years.  Thus far, it's been better that way.    

My mom's life as a free and independent young woman ended when she had me.  Despite women of the '60s increasingly making their mark in the workplace, my dad wouldn't permit my mother to work outside the home, so she had to quit her job as a secretary at Fort St. John Lumber.  I remember my mother spent much of her life when I was a little boy in a state of bitterness.  I believe she resented my sister and me for ruining her life.  At least, that's what I've always felt.  She resented other women who worked outside the home for living the life she wanted.  She resented my father for isolating her with two little kids and for rarely sharing the day-to-day responsibilities that go along with having children.  She took out her bitterness on us.  She was usually impatient, aloof, and sometimes mean.

I don't remember a lot of happiness or levity or joy in our house.  Those words do not define my early home life.  I don't remember much tenderness between Mom and Dad.  I remember Mom's smart, persistent mouth, I remember the words that my parents often hurdled at each other, and I even remember Dad hitting Mom, just once, after we'd left in the car to go somewhere.  Mom was so upset that Dad turned the car around and brought her back home.  That's the one and only time I know of that Dad physically abused my mother.

School life was mostly miserable and hopeless.  In early grades, I kept to myself, and the other children left me alone.  My teachers wrote in my report cards that I didn't mix well with the other students, that I preferred to work by myself than in groups.  They encouraged me to open up a bit more, to realize the benefits in sharing the workload with others.

Kids, perhaps especially in a northern, farming community, where daily survival is tough, catch on to those who are different, particularly if they're boys.  The children who lived in our neighborhood, and who I attended school with, saw me play with dolls out on the street, something little boys didn't do then, and they teased me and called me a girl.  They threatened to hurt me physically, to beat me up in the field across from Canalta Elementary School after classes were done for the day.  Who knows how many times I hid out at the school helping a teacher (risking being called a teacher's pet), or in the library, long after the day's classes were over, until I was as certain as I could be that no one was waiting outside to beat me up.  

Everything I did seemed to prove that my classmates's assessment of me was right.  I looked and acted like a girl; I was hopelessly inept in Physical Education class; and I took subjects like art, drama, and typing.  Before long, the taunting progressed from calling me a girl to calling me a fem, then a fairy, and, finally, a fag or faggot, always said with venom, always sending the message that I was pathetic and contemptible.  By grade ten, I was terrified to go to school every day, fearful that I'd be cornered and assaulted.

In October 1974, my family moved seven hundred miles south to Kelowna.  Perhaps more than anything else, I needed a fresh start in school, so I had a fighting chance to get through it alive.  But some of the kids at Dr. Knox Junior Senior Secondary, where I finished grade ten, caught on to me quickly enough, and the teasing started all over again.  They pulled my books out of my hands and kicked them down the hallway, sending me after them while everyone stood around and laughed.  They threw the street clothes I'd changed out of in P.E. class into the shower so they were soaked when the class ended, forcing me to call Mom and to ask her to bring me a set of dry clothes.  And they tried to trip me when I walked by, or punched me hard in the arm, or called me insulting and unflattering names, laughing in my face.  I may have changed cities and schools, but I was still the same person, and, if anything, the teasing intensified and became more physical.

For my final two years of school, I transferred to Kelowna Senior Secondary, but, by then, my reputation preceded me.  The population of KSS was huge, and I encountered many other students with interests similar to mine, but word spread that I was gay, and a freak.  The verbal and physical abuse continued.  I never knew when I'd run into someone who hated me in the hallway, when I'd be embarrassed in front of everyone who was around me, when I'd be brought to tears but would never cry them because I couldn't let them see they'd gotten to me.

At my graduation ceremony in June 1977, as I walked down a long elevated ramp from having picked up my diploma, my peers attired in their grad gowns and suits seated on both sides of me, some male threw his voice at me and yelled out, "Faggot."  What should have been a moment of triumph and relief for me shrank into the same deep darkness I'd experienced most of my school life.  I couldn't escape the epithets, even at my graduation.

Just a few months later, I attended Okanagan College in a general arts program.  Along with how seriously students took their studies there, I appreciated many of the male students, who seemed to have transformed from gawky teenagers into handsome, masculine, young men, igniting in me intense feelings of attraction.  Fortunately, I didn't face any overt teasing and taunting on the campus, but I still recall times when I walked through Orchard Park, Kelowna's largest and best shopping centre, and heard some male voice coming at me from some unknown direction calling me a faggot.  This would continue for years to come.

The period from mid 1979 to January 1, 1986 was one of isolation and loneliness and feeling lost.  As I began my twenty-eight-year career working for CIBC, I went into denial about my sexual orientation.  By then, I knew that I was probably gay--in my heart, I'd first faced the possibility of being gay in high school, which is the reason why I never dated any young ladies, so I wouldn't bugger up their lives like mine was--but, as it was for society in general, being gay was utterly unacceptable to me.  For years, the message that being gay was vile and disgusting and repugnant had been reinforced over and over and over again, in so many ways.  I internalized it and turned it off, preferring to become asexual and to deny that I needed companionship and love, even sex, from anyone.

It didn't help that any interactions I had with gay men in the community were deplorable too.  From an older man wanting to "show me a few things" when I was just fourteen years old; to being leered at from across the street; to hearing rude and suggestive comments from the owner of a photo development shop; to older and unattractive men coming on to me repeatedly when I was in denial of who I was--all of these reinforced the message that being gay, and everything associated with it, was vulgar and repulsive, and I could no more be gay than I could be a murderer.

Then, I had my first experience at a gay dance, on New Years Eve 1986, which I wrote about in detail in the post entitled "Coming Out," dated July 17, 2009.  While this experience didn't undo everything that had happened to me under the heading of being gay since back in grade school--I would have self-esteem issues to deal with for many, many years to come--I felt better about myself and about being gay than I ever had, enough to prompt me to come out to my first family member.  Needless to say, my mother was very upset when I told her that her only son was gay (but she was going through some rough things in her own life at the time, with the dissolution of her marriage to my father, and she eventually came around and became one of my biggest supporters).                      


BC:  January 1, 1986 to June 13, 1992

For six months after attending my first gay dance, I was busy every Saturday evening, attending the club, meeting new and interesting people, learning there were different shades to being gay (that is, it wasn't all bad), and coming to terms with who I was.  Then, for the following year and a half, I volunteered at the gay club to provide the dance music every second Saturday night.  I met my first partner there (Adrian), as well as a few subsequent ones; I encountered numerous terrific people just like me who reinforced that I wasn't such a bad person after all, just because I was gay; and I finally had a network of friends that ended my isolation in the community and the long and painful loneliness I'd felt since grade school.

Then, in early 1988, I moved to Vancouver.  I knew my career with CIBC wouldn't go anywhere in Kelowna, since most of the supervisory positions were filled by people who would be in them either until they asked for a transfer (which was unlikely), until they retired, or until they died.  So I decided to move to the big city where I assumed opportunity awaited, both professionally and personally.

To say that I was scared of the gay community in Vancouver is an understatement.  There were things about the gay community in Kelowna I didn't like--for example, how incestuous it was, with everyone seemingly having sex with everyone else--and I could only imagine, incorporated into a much larger and more diverse gay community, how living in Vancouver would present a whole list of other challenges, not the least of which was a more difficult time connecting with people and eventually finding the person I'd spend the rest of my life with.  The threat of HIV and AIDS also played a role in my trepidation, since a large number of gay men around the world were infected and dying, and there were still some myths circulating about how one contracted what was thought to be "the gay plague."

The period from 1988 to 1992 was one of making my way for the first time on my own (even though I'd moved out of my parents's house when I was twenty-three), and of searching for who I was in a completely different environment.  Along the way, I met some wonderful people, including Dale, who became my best friend and who, with great wit and humor, invited me into his lusty and uninhibited celebration of life in Vancouver. Had Dale not come into my life at the time he did, I have to believe someone of a similar caliber would have, but his decency, sensibility, and joie de vive will forever define a difficult yet exhilarating period, during which I came into my own as a gay man and sought my place in the world.

Then, on June 13, 1992, about a month after I'd had jaw surgery to correct a severe overbite, full braces on my teeth, I met the most wonderful young man who would become the love of my life.  By then, I'd faced enough disappointment trying to find the right person to share my life with. I'd submitted and responded to personal ads in "The WestEnder," and I'd frequented my favorite gay bars downtown virtually every Friday and Saturday night for years, meeting several young men with whom I'd have brief affairs, believing that enduring connection with a soulmate would elude me forever.

Certain, at the age of thirty-two, I would be alone for the rest of my life, and, feeling satisfied for the first time if that were indeed my fate, I went to the Odyssey for the music and the atmosphere, but ended up watching a cute, young man lean against a column much of the night, bottle of beer in hand, eventually getting up the nerve to ask him to dance, after he saw me accept an offer to dance from a total stranger, which seemed to piss him off.  From that point on, we've danced together ever since.

      
AC:  June 13, 1992 to the Present

My relationship with Chris hasn't been perfect.  We met when he was just twenty-three years old, nearly ten years my junior.  When Chris had walked into the Odyssey that night, after having several beer in a nearby straight bar and walking around the block numerous times to get up the nerve, all he'd been looking for was a coffee buddy, someone to spend time with on a social basis.  He never counted on finding a life partner.

I was ready for a life partner.  I'd been alone long enough, and I wasn't getting any younger (which is not a good thing in the gay community). Chris and I hit it off immediately.  I knew from the beginning that he was a special individual, that his parents had raised him well, and that his heart was as big as the Canadian prairies.  Outside of work, we spent almost every waking moment together.  Eventually, when I was certain I could trust him, I gave him a key to my Beach Avenue apartment, liking nothing more than the belief that I'd started down the road to housekeeping with a sweet, wonderful, young man.  

Everything went so well between us, that, just ten months after we met, we moved in together.  Rental suites in a brand new high-rise apartment building in Yaletown had come available.  We made enquiries, found out we could afford the monthly rent payment together, and consolidated our two lives into one.

But all was not perfect in Wonderland.  Less than a year after we moved in together, I surprised Chris with the intensity of my feelings for him by telling him over and over that I loved him (which I still wasn't 100% sure about, because I'd never experienced that kind of love before), and by asking him if he saw us staying together forever and ever, amen.  Spooked, Chris panicked, got upset, and, for the next months and even years, despite his assurances that everything was fine between us, and that, as a couple, we were back on track, I worried incessantly that my one chance at love could fall apart at any time.  I pulled back, kept my feelings for Chris more to myself, and gave him the room and the time to come to the realization on his own terms that we were meant to be together.

About three years later, we bought our first condo.  Our relationship had become more secure, the Vancouver real estate market was red hot (as it was for many subsequent years), and we rightly believed we should buy a home of our own.  We bought a top-floor suite in a four-storey structure on W. 7th Avenue, just off Cambie, and we lived there for nearly four years until a big opportunity came up for me at work.

The manager's position had become available at our Victoria office, and I was keenly interested in it.  I'd developed in the team leader roles I'd held in our Vancouver office, and, professionally, I was ready for a change and for the challenge of more responsibility.  Plus, Chris and I had talked numerous times about moving to Victoria, a city I've always loved for its size, its beautiful geographic location, and its old world charm.

But Chris wasn't as enamored about moving to our provincial capital city as I'd hoped he might be.  Around the time I had to apply for the job or let the opportunity pass by, Chris and I looked as if we might not agree on the course of our future together.  In fact, at that point, had we both been stubborn enough over what we wanted, we could have gone our separate ways (which many other gay couples have done under similar circumstances).  I wanted to move to Victoria, but Chris didn't.  I understood his position.  His mother lived in the Lower Mainland, as did his sister, and his niece and two nephews, who had only just arrived back in Canada after living in New Zealand for several years.  Chris had a lot to lose if he went with me to Victoria, but a decision had to be made.

In the end, I told Chris that if he didn't move with me, we'd both remain in Vancouver, and everything would stay as it was.  Worse things could have happened.  While the job opportunity in Victoria was outstanding, and the money I'd earn would be appreciably more, I knew there was no point embarking on a new life without Chris.  I'd waited too long to share my life with someone as special as him, and I wasn't prepared to lose him over a job.  The thought of being without him was utterly unacceptable, even if I had a prestigious new job in a wonderful city that I loved.

Fortunately, I didn't need to worry about that.  Chris recognized what a great job opportunity awaited me in Victoria, and we made the decision to move there together.  Chris transferred with his job, and, ultimately, I was the successful candidate for the manager's position at our Victoria office.  We lived on the Island from August 2000 until April 2009.

In July 2007, I retired from my job of twenty-eight years with the CIBC Group of Companies.  Among my initial tasks after leaving was to renovate the condo we'd bought together in Vancouver so we could sell it (it had been a rental property for about seven years while we lived in Victoria). Chris and I sold the condo at the peak of the real estate market and made a nice chunk of cash.  This allowed us to pay off all of our debit, including the mortgage on a townhouse we'd bought in Victoria six or so years earlier.  Debt-free, we were able to live on Chris's income alone, while I took care of our household and pursued my childhood dream of being a writer.

In late 2008, Chris applied for a management position at his old Vancouver office and was selected.  Once, he had moved to Victoria for me, so I knew it was my turn to reciprocate and allow him to develop and progress in his career.  But I was not happy about the move because I didn't want to leave Victoria; I loved our lifestyle there.  And I was even less happy about moving to __________, which felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, in a sea of young families with children.

In late April 2009, Chris and I moved to __________.  It's where we could afford to buy a house with a yard and remain debt-free, which was important to both of us so my quality of life didn't change, allowing me to continue working on my writing career.  

And that brings us to the present.  Over the past seven months, Chris and I have put a lot of work into making the house we bought our own, and, more than ever, it feels like home.  We've settled into our lifestyle here, appreciating the peace and quiet in our new residential area while knowing we are not far by car to anywhere in the Lower Mainland that we want to be. Our plan is to stay here for a number of years, making continuous improvements to the house and to the yard, and growing old together.  Upon Chris's retirement, probably when he reaches the age of fifty-six, fifteen years from now, we hope to settle into our final home together in Kelowna (although, if our financial situation improves substantially, we could end up somewhere else, like Whistler, Hawaii, or Paris, places we've visited and dreamed about moving to).

That's the plan, although we don't know where life will take us.  If the past is any indication, we should be in for quite an adventure.

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