Wednesday, December 30, 2009

When Embracing Technology Makes You Look Ridiculous

I love Wii Fit because the shiny graphics distract me from the fact that I'm sweating profusely and panting and it will be hours before I've obliterated hamburger patty meat fat from my veins. HOWEVER, the HOOLA HOOP activity on Wii Fit involves a boogying / humping movement that can only be described as "slomo seizure / sex with a ghost". Which is fine (because who cares? and dead people were hot once) but maybe a little bit confusing for a lawn-raking neighbor. I should have invited him in.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Wolf Boy

First, you have to imagine you're watching television really late at night. Maybe you just realized, after dozing off, that you've been watching a knife infomercial for the last hour and a half, so you switch the channel. A boy - around 5'7, gangly, hairy - is running through a field with a stick in his hand, darting out from behind tree trunks. The booming, authoritative narrator asks "is this a child or has he devolved into an animal?"

The boy / animal is me. My cable television acting career began and ended when I was still in school in D.C. At the time I was going to the George Washington University, which stretched a meager four blocks in the northwest corner of the district and cost 50,000 dollars a year. The least I could do for my mother was come back with a dream resume - the kind that wouldn't even need a shpritz of Versace cologne to convey its importance and sophistication. It would say, proudly, that I worked at National Geographic. Maybe I'd even bold that part, or use italics, or the graphic of a golden picture frame. No one would ever have to know I worked for the television branch, spending hours on three sentence emails and taping my boss's Frappacino receipts on pieces of paper to be copied in the copy machine.

One day, for some inexplicable reason, I was invited by my boss to sit in a board room with the head of the National Geographic Television Science department to talk shop about the next episode in a series called "Is it Real? The show was a pseudo-science program that explored "the gulf between fact and fiction." "Is it Real?" is a question asked to viewers of the show...a question that is answered in every episode with a resounding "no." Ancient astronauts? Not real. Psychic pets? Not real. Spontaneous human combustion? It's actually called sleeping while smoking. The show's promotional materials showed a dark figure stalking the woods, his frame blurred by a shaky camera. Was this man bigfoot or a boom mic operator? The point was not to ask too many questions, but rather succumb to the mania of conspiracy theories knowing they would all be debunked.

The name of the particular episode we were discussing, stressfully, was "feral children" and the topic of feral children is actually not funny so let us pause to not laugh and feel guilty. The idea of feral children is a myth we've created to distract ourselves from the fact that there are sometimes abused children who are abandoned in forests. They usually do not end up adopting the characteristics of gorillas, except in television shows like "Is it Real?"

So far, the producers had found two creepy parents on craigslist willing to let their newborn babies be filmed for the "pre-wolf" part of the show. But they'd been weirdly unable to find a child actor to play Victor; a French boy neglected by his parents and left in the woods. They'd found grainy, supposedly authentic, footage of Victor howling at the moon and breaking his parent's china, but they needed an actor to re-create the very real moments when Victor survives in the forest on his own by hunting for bears and deer using only a large stick and his manly, hairy hands.

"I'll do it," I blurted to my supervisor. Then I deleted my google appointment with anthropology class on Friday and practiced knocking my head against a wall and drooling on myself.

My obsession with embarrassing myself began in childhood. I began life staging humiliating musical spectacles for my mother. When I was ten, I would set up a stage lined with books in our upstairs, turn the lights on and off, fall off chairs of various heights, and perform a seizure on our oriental rug. My mother was confused, but usually pleased. "Yay!" she'd say at the end of every show "But what did it mean?" In elementary school, I was the one on the sidelines at the soccer game holding a make believe microphone and narrating the game to an invisible cameraman. From far away, I probably looked schizophrenic but up close I hope I at least sounded professional.

But after trying out for a few plays in college, I felt discouraged about my future acting career. I'd tried out for a part in a nouveau musical by Jason Robert Brown and was told by the casting director at my school that I was "too Jewish" and "too gay" as I hung my head and thought "well, Christ, that's all I got." I actually thought East Coast people would appreciate my faux-new-york-Jewish-mother accent in a male protagonist.

But I had deleted the bad auditions and painful childhood from my brain the very moment I had accepted the part of Victor of France, wolf-child. I was in D.C. and soon I was going to be on TV. Suck it, C-SPAN. See you in hell, 700 club. Hello late night cable stardom.

That Friday I arrived extra early at National Geographic wearing a Victor wig and a black t-shirt, because I thought it looked actorly. My producer squeeled. We packed into a van and left for the fields of West Virgina.

Up until this point, I'd always thought of D.C. as the boring, ugly J-Crew sweater-wearing brother to New York City and gave no thought to the hick land surrounding the city. But as soon as the van left National Geographic International Headquarters, I realized we were actually just a hop and a skip away from red-blooded heartland Americuh. General Stores, swamps and Lyme-disease abound. "What if someone sees me running and yells 'there's a gay!' and shoots me?" I asked my boss. "I dunno, try not to swish?" she said.

We stopped our van next to a generic field and my boss handed me a loincloth, a tub of Nesquik and a bottle of Dasani. I was instructed to go to the gas station bathroom and drench my loin-clothed body in clumpy cocoa powder. The image of blackface came immediately to my mind, but I immediately dismissed it. I took off my glasses, because wolf children don't wear glasses, and poured the fake-dirt-water all over my body.

The idea of running, glasses-less, through a forest was actually not that scary to me. I'm fine with looking out at the world and seeing a Seurat painting. In fact, when I first got contacts I was depressed at how ugly everything looked. But running doesn't make sense to me. I've never understood how to jog. Where does one find the motivation? It's not like someone is chasing you. It just looks silly, and think about it: you could die. What if your shoelace comes untied? What if you have a heart attack?

But, alas, I summoned the passion, the creative gods and yaweh and Drew Barrymore in Scream and the monsters in Where The Wild Things Are and this naked lady and I ran. And I ran and I ran...

Then came the fishing scene. I reached my hands into a stream and pretended to grab fish. "Gotcha, water! I'mma come and getchu, rocks!" The funny thing about method acting is that I absolutely have no fucking idea what I'm talking about.

Eventually, of course, the show ended up on cable. I gathered together my three college friends and the dude from down the hall and hyperventilated all over myself. My mom called me frantically five minutes before the show and asked, "would you say you're on for fifteen seconds or more like thirty seconds?" "Mom, I don't know, I didn't edit it." "Was it fun? Did you have fun?"

The show started. My face flashed on the screen for less than a milisecond. A gajilliosecound, maybe. "That could be anyone," the dude from down the hall said. "Yeah, but it's obviously me. Can't you tell?" "I guess. The dude is running awkwardly."

My mother called. "We're so proud of you." My five seconds of television exposure was treated with greater reverence than my last report card. Which was fine. I'd left acting to become an academic and what had it actually given me except a sense of my own intellectual inferiority? I was not riding above the commoners on a carpet composed of thesis papers. I was just a cog in a machine. Or a prisoner, being watched by Michel Foucault's panopticon. Or some other analogy that reveals my intellectual inferiority. In any case, it wasn't pretty.

But this was something tangible, something real that I had accomplished. I had run, I had hit my head against a tree, I had plunged my hands into a stream. Flies had followed my cocoa powdered loincloth. Maybe I even had lyme disease. I finally felt like a productive member of society.

"Thanks mom," I said just as someone in the background said "He runs kind of gay." I said goodbye to my mom and joined my starter friends gathered around the TV. They had already changed the channel to Jon Stewart.

Friday, December 4, 2009

On Euro Gays

Before I moved to Berlin permanently, I spent a winter there in 2008. The weather was the same as Seattle (rainy, hazy, full of bleak) but everything else around me was different. I was dating one of those mythical, sophisticated European gay men. His name was David, and he thought I was crazy.

David wore Capris and smelled like magic. He lived in a white modernist cube in a crumbling building above a major intersection in Mitte, near his Yogi friend "Greg". On weekends, he'd leave the apartment around midnight and come back at four or five am, at which point he would make bok choy with soy sauce and sleep until 2 in the afternoon. He was 35. I was 21 and terrified of life. We were an odd match.

David was completely over everything I was still under. He wasn't pretentious at all about his job (he was an editor at Reuters). He wasn't paranoid about sex. He was an "independent thinker." Talking to him was like being stripped naked. He'd make you see all your silly biases and petty fears for what they really was both painful and exhilarating.

David took me everywhere. We'd go to abandoned warehouses filled with paper mache and dancing. We'd go to strobe-lit caves of wonder. I tried dancing like a German (there's less irony involved) and I definitely tried drinking like a German. I felt awe at this adult amusement park of art and leisure. On the drive back to his apartment, I'd stare out the rain-streaked window at all the grafitied and crumbling buildings, wondering what crazy, naked art projects were going on inside.

David was different than most of the gay men I'd met in America. He wasn't a bitch but he wasn't afraid of being a smartass. He was incredibly secure in himself. He had a confidence I feel so many young gay people in America lack. In short, I was mesmerized by him.

One night, David and I got into a fight. We were at a bar, talking to an old flame of his, and I began to feel like a used, snot-encrusted hankie. I suddenly believed he had slept with the entire city. "I've lived here a long time!" he responded. "So, of course I've known a lot of people." The necessary expiration date on this age-imbalanced relationship came into sharp focus. The next day, I wrote him an email apologizing for essentially calling him a slut, but it was clear we weren't cut out for each other at that stage in my life.

I left Berlin soon after; not because of David but because of money. But before that, I went to the aquarium. The aquarium in Berlin is in the middle of a big hotel. It's an odd place because it's a tourist trap in one of the least tourist-trappy places in Europe. At the end of the tour, you take a long elevator up through an enormous cylinder of water and fishies. They call it "the Aquadome." As the elevator rose, I watched as all the little goldfish swim around, casually humping each other, makin' babies, laying their eggs on make-believe coral. I thought of David. I'd been harsh. What he'd done was more of what being gay men begs us to do: sleep around. He'd followed his loves, and lusts, and I'd judged. "I'm such an American," I sighed to myself.

Back in Seattle, the gay bars were the same. The caste system based on looks prevailed. But I began to let go, just a little bit. I was more open to meeting new people. I didn't sleep around a lot, but I began to let go of some of my preconceptions. Berlin had relaxed me, and David had inspired me. His confidence brought a whole new meaning to the now antiquated and hollow term "gay pride." I truly felt proud of my sexuality when I was around him. Thinking back, one of the reasons I moved back to Berlin was because of how he changed the way I looked at the world. I wanted his life, and now -- in some ways -- I have it.