Playgirl, Parties and Peacocks: My Friendship with Dirk Shafer

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I first set eyes on Dirk Shafer in 1995, when his mockumentary, Man of the Year, hit theaters. Dirk’s 1990 appearance in Playgirl Magazine turned into a “Man of the Year” cover story in 1992, and launched a year of appearances on talk shows like Donahue, Jenny Jones, and Sally Jesse Raphael to promote his “reign” as every woman’s dream. Although Dirk was gay, he remained in the closet to help float the Playgirl fantasy, and after he came out publicly, the movie was his way of telling what that experience was like for him.

Dirk was undeniably handsome and crazy photogenic, but what struck me most seeing him on screen, was his sense of humor. He wasn’t afraid to make fun of himself, and the circumstances surrounding Playgirl.

Man of the Year’s impact on gay culture was substantial, not only because Dirk was funny and easy on the eyes, but because it was a deeply personal story about living in the closet and choosing to come out in a very public way. This was 20+ years ago, before Will & Grace, before Ellen, and long before marriage equality was even a possibility. Over the years I’ve heard countless stories from gay men who were deeply moved by Dirk’s story, many of whom were even inspired to come out themselves because of him.

As a director, Dirk excelled at pinpointing what was funny and universal in a scene. This quick beat always makes me laugh, and exemplifies the comic sensibility we shared.

One of my favorite images of Dirk is the last scene of the movie. It’s an LA cliché, but for Dirk it was true — he was a clown at heart with a passion for directing.

Walking out of the theatre, I remember thinking wow — that is my ideal man. Not only gorgeous, but smart and most important, funny. I immediately wrote him into a pilot I was working on, called Enough About You. The character’s name was Dirk (groundbreaking), and he was the neighbor to Gunnar, a character based on me (my first personal trainer was Gunnar Peterson, who has since become an uber-celebrity trainer. I thought Gunnar was the coolest name ever).

The cover that started it all.

A few weeks after the screening, I ran into Dirk in person for the first time at the grocery store on my block, and had to introduce myself. He was as warm and funny in person as he was on screen, and we immediately hit it off. When we left the store, we walked together towards my house, and I told him I had written him into my pilot as the wacky neighbor, and we laughed at how much we both loved the wacky neighbor sitcom cliché. When we reached my house and I said “Well, this is me…” he pointed across the street and said “Well, this is me!” Turns out the man I had written in as my wacky neighbor had just become my actual wacky neighbor.

We both got such a kick out of that rom-com moment, and it was all the push we needed to become fast friends.

At the time, I was a student of the Law of Attraction, a decade before Oprah brought it to the mainstream, and writing Dirk into existence as my neighbor was more evidence of how the law was working in my life. Manifestation has since become a startling and predictable force in my life.

Enough about You became my first paid writing gig when it was re-purposed as a recurring column in Detour Magazine. It’s based on characters I love (my friends) and I am currently working to bring it to TV. Whoever ends up playing Dirk will have some huge clown shoes to fill.

With Dirk and his mom Patsy at the Grove.

It was easy to see why Dirk and I became friends – we had so much in common. I have a very close family, and Dirk was equally crazy about his — their support was an important part of his first film and his sister Deidra even played herself in it.

We were both writers, and both romantics — we both had Streisand’s “What’s Up, Doc?” in our Top 10 favorite movie lists.

Barbra Streisand in “What’s Up, Doc?”

We both grew up dancing, and both have embarrassing musical theater clips floating around.

Dirk had a healthy self-image for obvious reasons, and that’s one thing we did not have in common. Case in point: Dirk loved Halloween and always dressed up – I hated Halloween and never did. There are literally thousands of pictures out there of Dirk in costume – I don’t think I have ever taken a picture of myself on Halloween.

As a model, Dirk had to be into physical fitness so it made sense for him to get into personal training. He began training celebrity clients like Katy Perry, Lucy Lawless, and Amber Thiessen. He also trained me and my partner Sam off and on, and even though he never let us rest for more than 60 seconds, he always made us laugh.

Dirk began training Eric McCormack just as Will and Grace began to take off, and it was a joy to watch. He loved Eric to death and was so proud and excited to be a part of such a hit show – He even appeared on one episode as “Blaze.”

Dirk’s looks and charisma were always an undeniable presence, no matter what he was doing. When Dirk was dressed for a date, he looked like a promo for the next Bachelor. When he went skiing, he looked like an ad for skiwear. When he hung out at the pool, we could have been shooting a cologne ad. If he jumped on a horse, it looked like Rodeo Magazine.

We went to an awards show together once, and after I spent 2 hours getting ready with a face mask, Crest white strips, self-tanner, and a new outfit, I still looked like a Far Side character. Dirk took a breath mint and ran his fingers through his hair and was ready for Annie Leibovitz.

Eventually I got used to it, but every once in a while he’d pick me up for something and I’d look at him and just shake my head. Infuriating.

Dirk, as usual looking like stock art.

Dirk began work on his second movie Circuit at the same time Sam and I started HERO magazine, and the next 20 years of friendship was a happy blur of El Coyote margaritas, Costco runs, and dinner parties in the hills. We both worked in gay media so there were endless film screenings and festivals, fundraisers and silent auctions, HRC and GLAAD awards, and Pride parades and festivals. We shared surreal celebrity moments like scrunching into a limo with Bruce Vilanch, or partying with Jennifer Tilly at the Montage Laguna Beach — Dirk took the notorious photo of me grabbing for Jennifer Tilly’s breast. I would explain this picture if I could, but I can’t.

Dirk continued to pitch scripts around town while building his personal training business, and ultimately fell in love with and got certified in Pilates. I love this interview one of his clients did — it captures Dirk’s warmth, humor and excitement about Pilates.

Ageism and obsession with youth is obviously prevalent in our society, but it’s significantly worse in the gay community. When I turned 40 I felt like I became invisible — I was no longer comfortable going out to clubs or even walking around West Hollywood because I didn’t feel like I belonged. In my 20s, gay culture gave me a home — the adolescence I had missed. But the WeHo scene was designed for that age group, and at 40 I had simply aged out.

Getting older wasn’t easy for Dirk either – even with his stunning looks. There was a whole new crop of hot guys on the scene, and Dirk was considered part of the “old guard.” So it’s hard to imagine the courage it took when Playgirl invited him to put himself back on the cover of the magazine that started it all, but this time shirtless and 50 years old. He worked his ass off to get his body cover ready again, and of course the cover looked amazing. But more than that, the image symbolized one man’s 50-year journey, from fear to love, from shame to acceptance, from the shadows to the light. The magazine may be a punchline, but that cover represented a hero’s journey for many gay men — including myself.

Dirk had a lot of fun with the new cover, and his pilates practice continued to thrive. Meanwhile I had been offered a position as a writer/producer for Ellen Degeneres, and by 2015 Dirk and I both seemed to be at the top of our game.

Nothing could prepare me for what was to come.


In 2012 I lost a very close friend of mine, Sam Brown, to pancreatic cancer. Sam was a successful comic and writer, and someone whom I cherished deeply because he could always make me laugh — even at the very end.

Whenever I’d leave Sam’s house, instead of saying goodbye, Sam would yell, “Stay white!”

It was just his inappropriate and racist way to crack me up. The day after Sam’s funeral, I was feeling especially empty. I went to the bathroom and noticed one of my Airbnb guests had left their Crest toothpaste on the counter when they checked out. In large letters, the package read “STAY WHITE.” My jaw dropped. For me, it was one of those magical moments — a glimpse behind the curtain of life.

I was not prepared to get another glimpse behind the curtain with Dirk.


In 2015, Dirk and I had been trying to get together for months, but kept rescheduling – we were both working so much and just couldn’t make it work.

One day I suddenly decided to digitize my DVD of Dirk’s Man of the Year. I had gone digital years earlier and didn’t even own a DVD player any more, so I fished out Dirk’s DVD and set it on my kitchen table as a reminder. Over the next 24 hours, everyone who came to the house saw the DVD and asked me about Dirk. Each time I told them Dirk’s story, how we had met, and what he was up to these days. I hadn’t seen Dirk in months but suddenly I had spent 24 hours talking about him. I made a mental note to joke with him about becoming his PR agent.

The next morning, I got a text from my cousin Evan: “Paul, tell me this isn’t true…” with a link to a story on a gossip site saying that Dirk had been found dead in his car.

I assumed it was a hoax, but felt instantly sick and fell to the couch. I clenched my phone and started texting friends we had in common — no one had heard anything. There was only the one story online, so I began to relax a bit. I sent a text to Dirk, and waited anxiously for a response to put the rumor to rest.

It never came.

A few hours later, the emails and texts began coming in, and a mutual friend confirmed the story was true. His family had been notified and were on their way to LA.

The next few days were a challenge, as his friends and family struggled to figure out what happened. Although sadly, many of us in the gay community have become accustomed to sudden, unexpected deaths from young, healthy men.

Recreational drug use from cocaine, weed, GHB, and ecstasy to the more insidious meth is pretty common in LA, and Dirk and I both had “partied” over the years — both together and apart. But for Dirk it was more of a struggle – and I am only comfortably sharing that now because Dirk openly discussed his own challenges with sobriety over the years, and because his cause of death is now public knowledge — a combination of cardiovascular disease and recreational drug use.

Since Dirk was a celebrity, his death was covered in both gay- and mainstream media, including LA Times, NY Times, Deadline, etc. so speculations as to cause of death were a primary focus. He ended up being on 3 different news cycles – first the day he died, then a few weeks later when the preliminary autopsy report was released, and then again 6 weeks later when the final results were in. So the reports on the cause of death seemed to just keep coming, and unfortunately it’s now even a part of his Wikipedia entry.

So why even mention it here, in what is meant to be a tribute to him?

My fear is that because the drug angle was compelling and “media friendly,” it’s how he would be remembered. I wanted to make sure that my experience with the tornado of joy and hilarity that was Dirk Shafer was shared not only with those of us who knew him, but also with those who never had the chance.

Dirk was a gifted artist — he was passionate about his life and his relationships, and about helping people. He would give his friends the shirt off his back (honestly any excuse to be shirtless). He chose to face his biggest fears when he came out as gay under extreme public scrutiny, and then wrote, directed, and starred in a movie to help document the experience and help others who were facing the same fears. His second film Circuit explored the circuit party scene, the dangers of drug abuse, and the gay community’s delayed adolescence and struggle for self-acceptance. He didn’t have the answers, never claimed to, and never judged — he used his art to ask questions of his audience, and to get people talking — and it worked. He wrote about the issues that he himself struggled with, but he wasn’t preachy — if he could entertain people and make them laugh and think, he was happy.

He dedicated the last 20 years of his life to helping others on their journey to heath – through personal training and later through Pilates. And at 50, he once again overcame his own insecurities and put himself on the cover of a magazine known for its worship of young and beautiful male bodies. He showed the rest of us that we don’t have to disappear as we get older – we just have to remind people that we’re still here.

It’s always painful and surreal to visit a loved one’s house after they’ve passed — it took me a few weeks to finally get up the courage. Thankfully, Dirk’s best friend and soulmate Alex was there to make the visit easier. I helped move some furniture, and as Alex was cleaning and sorting and boxing, he told me to help myself to anything of Dirk’s I could use. After grabbing a frame, pilates mat, Man of the Year poster, and some books, I ambitiously pickup up a pair of Dirk’s jeans.

I should have known better. When I got home I tried them on and it was like trying to stuff a watermelon into a condom. These have now become my “target weight” jeans, and Dirk would be thrilled to know that even in death he’s still pushing me to lose weight.

We had a private memorial for Dirk at Hollywood Forever, just blocks from my house. It’s a spectacular setting — I still can’t believe the setup. His ashes are literally interred next to Mickey Rooney’s, overlooking a swan filled pond with the Hollywood sign in the distance. 20 feet away is a tombstone for Toto, the dog from the Wizard of Oz. I mean, if you asked Dirk to describe his ideal (and possibly gayest) resting place, this would have been it.

That was obviously a tough day, and I fell apart during the service, seeing the slideshow of photos of my friend as Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Over the Rainbow” played. After, as we were walking along the pond to Dirk’s final resting place, I noticed several cemetery staff members walking parallel to us in a sort of spread out line. When I asked what they were doing, one of them gave me this gift of a response: “It’s mating season and sometimes the peacocks can become aggressive.”

Attacked by horny peacocks at a funeral? God how I wish Dirk could have heard that — it’s exactly the kind of scene he would have written.

According to shamanic traditions, the peacock represents immortality, grace, and dignity, and their absurd cries serve as a reminder to not take anything seriously — even beauty and death. What a beautiful lesson to show up for the loss of my dear friend.

We all have people in our lives that we instantly fall in love with. There is a connection that transcends space and time so we feel together even when we are apart. To me they join a panel of people in my head — Alex, Derek, Andrew, Laura, Sam, Todd, Rachel.

My college roommate Devon who moved to England and I didn’t see for 25 years, and when we finally reconnected in London over a 6-hour dinner and drinks and hookah it was like no time had passed. I felt as connected to him at that dinner as I was when we lived together 20 years prior. These are the people I’ve internalized that make up a part of who I am. They are permanently seated in the panel in my head, bearing internal witness to every terrible decision I make.

Dirk was one of those people and suddenly it was like the architecture of my mind had collapsed — the whole panel was out of whack.

Dirk and I also shared an undeniable spiritual connection. As it turns out, after not seeing him for months I felt compelled to suddenly pull out Dirk’s movie the morning he died, before anyone even knew. How could that have been anything else but a visit from Dirk telling me goodbye?

My last conversation with Dirk was funny, surreal, and very Hollywood. In 2013 I had won 2 Daytime Emmys as part of the writing/producing team at the Ellen show. And even though I do find a way to drop that sentence into just about every interaction I have in LA, in this case it’s actually relevant to the story. It was my first job in TV, and that 2013 ceremony was obviously a thrilling and unforgettable night. In 2014 however, I was no longer on the show, but had been nominated again in the writer and producer categories. What most people don’t know is that if you’re nominated for an Emmy, you have to buy your own tickets ($900 to attend both ceremonies), and since I wasn’t working in 2014 I couldn’t afford to attend (if we won again I’d have to pay an additional $900 for the statues. I know, #FirstWorldProblems, but still — when you’re not working, $1800 is a lot).

This is why during the Daytime Emmys ceremony in 2014, the year they decided not to air it on television, I was eating dinner alone at a sushi restaurant, watching Twitter to find out if we had won. It was such a bizarre Hollywood moment, and Dirk was the person I wanted to share it with. He had a last-minute training session and had to cancel dinner, so he kept me company by texting me as I ate sushi, drank wine, and waited for the results.

We won.

And now the win seemed even more ridiculous. Dirk had been on countless talk shows and magazine covers, directed 2 award-winning films and was now hustling for Pilates clients to pay rent. I had 4 Emmys and couldn’t afford a ticket to the ceremony. More than 20 years after we’d met we were still in total alignment, joking about how fucked up Hollywood was — and how we were even more fucked up to still wanna be here.

It was the last real communication I’d have with Dirk, but one I’ll never forget.

I kept procrastinating writing this tribute, because nothing I could write could possibly sum up who Dirk was to me, and to so many people in his life. And I don’t want to end it, because I just don’t know how to say goodbye.

Dirk was one of my longest adult relationships, and saying goodbye to Dirk is acknowledging my own mortality. There are so many experiences I wanted to share with him that I know now will never happen.

And that’s a hard pill to swallow.

One of Dirk’s last text messages to me.

My sweet, beautiful Dirk. I will never forget your kindness, your compassion, and your talent. You were a big part of the reason I loved LA, and why I returned again after a 3-year break. I miss your laugh and the ever-present sparkle in your eye. Thank you for your friendship, your boundless joy, and for being such a powerful light in my life for so many years. You will always be my brother, and I will carry your spirit within me until the day I die.

And if there is an afterlife, I have no doubt you’ll be my wacky neighbor.

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Memories may be beautiful and yet

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2 men and a baby

While traveling with my mom years ago she asked if she could borrow my drow blyer. But she didn’t say “Can I use your drow blyer–I mean blow dryer,” she just said “Can I use your drow blyer?” and stared at me blankly.

And I was lost in my thoughts.

Did she mean drow blyer? Why isn’t she correcting herself? Maybe she can’t hear herself anymore… Is this where I’m headed? Should I call it a drow blyer when I give it to her? Maybe it really is a drow blyer and I’ve been mistakenly calling it a blow dryer…

Getting older is fun because your brain just starts breaking down. Or rather, intelligence and wisdom combine with such intensity that it short-circuits normal brain function.

For me, it started with the little things. Answering the remote when the phone rang. Texting my cousin Laura that I couldn’t find my phone. The phone I was texting her from (never mind — found it!).

The other day an Airbnb guest came into the kitchen and instead of saying good morning I blurted out happy birthday.

I was as confused as he was. It was so ridiculous that I wasn’t even sure I had said it. I popped a coffee into the Keurig, thinking Did I just say happy birthday? Why aren’t I acknowledging it? And why isn’t he? Oh god – it’s drow blyer all over again.

I fantasized about trying to cover with “That’s right — I bought this coffee maker 2 years ago today. Happy birthday, Keurig!”

But then I’d be the guy who keeps track of his appliance birthdays. So to remedy the situation I just started coughing hard to indicate that we were going to the next scene — like adding a dissolve in Final Cut.

It didn’t work. He asked if I needed some water, and then asked if it was my birthday.

Last week I went to Target and realized in the parking structure I had left my shoes at home. I went back to check my car three times thinking there’s no way I walked out of the house and got in the car and drove to Target in bare feet. My sandals must have slipped off my feet and were in the car under the seat somewhere.

They were not. And of course I’m not gonna drive all the way home to get them, so then I was just THAT GUY. Walking bare foot across the disgusting parking garage floor. Standing barefoot in the elevator as nervous parents pulled their children in closer. Padding across the cold vinyl flooring inside Target, collecting dirt and hair on my bare feet like a Swiffer.

I get so enraged when I tell Siri “Call mom” and she replies with something random like “The time in Perth, Australia is 11:20pm.” But I’m becoming as non-sensical as Siri. I’m broken.

If I were a toaster, I’d take myself back to Best Buy. “This thing is broken. I just got it half a century ago but now when I press toast it just starts playing the Star Spangled Banner.”

It doesn’t help my memory problems that I have an irrational fear of forgetting people’s names during an introduction— especially if they’re a close friend or family member. The fear has turned into a kind of power surge that instantly clears my memory the moment I begin to introduce someone, making it impossible to remember ANYONE’S name, ever.

“Bob, this is my sister… the uh… daughter of my mom… and they call her… it’s a funny story – she was named after a river in Butte County… but we just call her…. Sestra.”

“Hi – I’m Kelley.”

“KELLEY – yes. You can also call her by her actual name, Kelley.”

It happens even when I do something as mundane as sending a text to a friend. I create a new text, and then rack my brain trying to come up with their name.

“Come on, Paul – you know this. Tall… Korean.. my closest friend… Kimchi? That sounds wrong. Kim Jong-un? I know it starts with Kim…. ALEX! So close…”

A couple weeks ago I got together with Alex and Derek, my two closest friends in all the world. Derek abandoned us years ago when he moved to New York to take a job as a greeter at Banana Republic. Or something like that — he always tells me what he does but I don’t listen. I know he’s famous, but I’m not sure why. I assume he’s just really good at folding shirts. Derek’s been doing some kind of sketchy injections for years that he refuses to discuss but it’s why he still looks 14. Alex is the actual baby of the group, and he’s Asian. I like to point out that he’s Asian, because having an Asian best friend makes me seem less racist.

Anyway, as we sat together eating frozen yogurt I shared with them how the other day I couldn’t remember my age. I knew it was one of two numbers, and I was either going to be really happy or really bummed when I found out which was correct. I finally had to look at my drivers license, which stupidly doesn’t even tell you how old you are unless you do the math (Millennials: math was a kind of number science we had to do in our heads before Google could think for us).

At that point, Alex confessed that he has to sing what he’s doing or he’ll forget it by the time he gets to the other room.

On Derek and my confused look, he continued.

“Like I’ll start singing ‘I’m going to the dining room to get myself some scissors…’ as I’m walking, and the melody helps me remember…”

I honestly don’t know if that’s better than just standing there with your mind racing. Also who keeps scissors in the dining room?

Derek refused to admit he’s having memory problems, then launched into his annual complaint that in 15 years I had never come to visit him in New York.

“Are you serious? I just saw you there last year.”

“What are you talking about?”

“A year ago I came to New York and saw your office. I stayed with you at your home upstate.”

Nothing.

“I had to take a train to get there. We took the train together both ways. You made us breakfast every day.”

He squinted. “It’s beginning to sound familiar…”

“OMG I have to write this down.” I picked up my iPhone, opened the Notes app, and stared at it.

No. Not now. Don’t do this.

“What. Was. The story. What am I writing? You JUST told me.”

They stared at me with blank faces, chewing slowly, like 2 dairy cows that had just been asked for directions to the Grove.

Realizing that the three of us are all becoming dim as dairy cows was unsettling, but also somewhat comforting. At least if we’re going down, we’re going down together.

So we sat together in silence, licking our spoons and watching the sun set. In so many ways.

Then a piano fell out of a 10th floor apt. killing us instantly.

(I decided to punch up the ending – that sunset line was too depressing).

How to handle a noisy neighbor (Streisand edition)

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There’s 3-4 Middle Eastern guys that live directly behind me, so their balcony looks down on me (as does anyone under 30). They’re insanely loud when they talk in Arabic to each other, which is often on the balcony, even after midnight. I lie in bed at night, half seething about how disrespectful they are, and half baffled that even inches apart they have to yell to communicate.

I usually run through the angry old man things to do, like call the police or complain to their building manager, but sometimes I fantasize about walking out beneath their balcony and just having an insanely loud fake phone call for 20 minutes. When our eyes finally meet and their arms are up in the air like “WTF???” I’d just smile and give them a neighborly wave, then get back to yelling on the phone.

Plan B has me facing a giant flat screen playing gay porn out my bedroom window, in plain view of their balcony, which I’m assuming would make the balcony less enticing to a group of Middle Eastern guys. Although this is Hollywood and the neighboring balconies would probably be stacked with shirtless guys sipping mojitos and jockeying for position.

I’ve also considered facing a speaker out my bedroom window, and looping Streisand’s “Don’t Rain on my Parade” until they go insane and fling themselves off the balcony. The downside is that it may make them declare Jihad on me — or worse, on Barbra.

(I just noticed the only tools in my revenge arsenal are gay clichés. Maybe I should try to hairdress them to death.)

Today’s yelling started early — and for a moment I considered doing the neighborly thing. What if I just brought them over some homemade cookies, and nicely asked them to keep it down on the back balcony – at least after midnight? What if they were friendly and cool and apologetic? What a breakthrough that would be.

Or what if I brought them a bottle of Patrón and made them do tequila shots with me, as I explained the problem? Then I’m just the fun, party neighbor who gets them, but also likes to sleep at night. We’d be drunk and laughing and they’d give me some crazy nickname in Arabic that’s probably offensive but I’d never find out. An hour later when I finally leave we’d be laughing and hugging goodbye, and one of the hugs goes on a little longer than it should have and when I pull away our eyes meet and — well at this point, the fantasy starts going in a direction I hadn’t even considered but the point is we’re all getting along REALLY well, and the noise is never again a problem.

I wonder – will I finally do the right thing – reach out and communicate? Or just internalize my rage, have a glass of wine, and blog about it?

The suspense is killing me.

I am my mother

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Mother and son at a wedding at the Plaza in NYC.

My mom is obsessed with getting the perfect table in a restaurant. The joke was that the first sitting was just so she could have a moment to look around the restaurant and find a more ideal table before requesting to switch. Growing up we were used to this so we just let her drive that train whenever we went out. To me it was always a funny anecdote about my mom, until I started dating Sam.

We sat down at a cafe once, and I noticed he didn’t take off his jacket and was only half sitting in the chair. When I asked if he was going somewhere he didn’t stop texting but added “I’m just waiting for you to choose a better table.”

“What are you talking about? I don’t do that. My mom does that.”

“OK.”

His patience with it was even more infuriating. He was not complaining, he had no issue with it, he had just completely accepted it, and was apparently living in “reality.”

“We’re not done talking about this,” I pouted, quickly scanning the restaurant. “And if you’d like to finish you can join me at the table by the window which just opened up.”

I was driving with my mom once — of course she was driving and I was in the passenger seat, with the window cracked a few inches for air. Suddenly she closed my window from the driver side. When I asked what she was doing she replied matter-of-factly, “you’re cold.”

Thank God she was with me – I hadn’t even realized.

As an Airbnb host, I can see my mother’s influence on a daily basis.

If a guest is reading in a dimly lit room they may as well be a drowning child. Thankfully I’m there to swoop in and turn on the lamp that is right next to them.

I’ve also gone into the guest room WHILE THEY WERE IN IT and opened the blinds for them or cracked the window, biting my lip to not add “it’s so stuffy in here – I don’t know how you stand it.”

I’ve brought an unrequested blanket out to a guest watching TV, literally laid it over them, and walked away. You’d think I’d feel the need to add something like “Don’t worry — I’ve inherited my mother’s magical abilities to assess other people’s body temperatures.” But no — I’m just a total stranger, swaddling them in a blanket and leaving the room.

Honestly, I’m lucky to have inherited even a tiny portion of who my mom is — she’s truly a superhero.

After my parent’s divorce, my mom raised 3 kids on her own, worked a full-time day job while getting a business degree at night, and after graduation started her own biotech recruiting company.

She’s a natural beauty with a spectacular wardrobe and always dressed to kill. Parents’ night at school was usually a gaggle of frumpy, middle-aged women left slack-jawed when the door burst open and in walked Alexis Carrington – even my teachers were intimidated.

Daphne Lewis – my beautiful mom.

But she didn’t just rely on her appearance — she was successful because she always put others first, both personally and professionally. She still invites every single person she knows to Thanksgiving to ensure no one is spending a holiday alone. She refuses to hang up on telemarketers, and will spend 5 minutes apologizing for not wanting what they’re selling. She has literally taken a homeless women to an ATM so she could withdraw more money for her. When I finally came out to her over the phone at 27, she insisted on flying to LA the next day to meet my boyfriend.

My friend Derek loves to tell the story of walking with my mom and I on a cold San Francisco morning. When Derek mentioned getting something to eat, mom said “I’ve got muffins,” and handed one to each of us. After a moment, Derek pulled me aside and whispered, “Paul, the muffins are still warm. She just pulled a hot meal out of her purse.”

I could only shrug. “I know. She’s like that.”

Over the years she’s tried in vain to instill in me some kind of work ethic — as a child I can still hear her trying to teach me the phrase “elbow grease” as it pertains to scrubbing a bathtub.

Can you imagine me “scrubbing” something? 40 years later, my idea of hard work is spending a week at a luxury spa, writing a one-paragraph review for a travel magazine, and then complaining about my “exhausting” travel schedule.

At 66 mom was featured in Divas, Dames & Dolls, a book about remarkable women, because OF COURSE SHE WAS.

Even retirement (or “re-wirement” as she called it) didn’t slow her down. She began to volunteer full time at the Red Cross in San Francisco, and in her 70s still spends her vacation every year building houses around the world for Habitat for Humanity.

Her commitment to volunteering is one thing I don’t have — at least not yet. While my 79-year-old mother is mixing cement and lugging rebar in Tibet, I’m in sunny LA wearing sandals because my back hurts if I have to bend over to tie my shoe.

But seeing these little Daphne-isms in myself today just reminds me how lucky I am to have her as a mom. The compassion she taught me has informed my writing, drove my career at HERO Magazine, Pallotta Teamworks, and the Ellen Show, and made me a great Airbnb host. The truth is, I may never become the superhero my mom is, but I do occasionally get to borrow the cape.

And while I may be my father in my head, my heart is pure mom.

I am my father

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Sitting in the diner at Galpin Ford waiting for my car to be tuned up, and I’m suddenly flooded with memories of my father. Diners were his world. It’s where he’d go to brainstorm business ideas, write lyrics on napkins, and entertain waitresses. He lived to make people laugh, and most people who knew my dad called him the funniest guy they knew. Diners were the place he’d go to try out new material.

Many of my favorite dad memories took place at Bob’s Big Boy in Cupertino. My parents divorced when I was 9, and dad was clueless in the kitchen — the only food items in his bachelor kitchen were milk, cashews, Pepsi, and Oreos. (He only ate food that was black or white. Hard to believe he died young). If he was feeding me, it thankfully wasn’t at his house. So we both loved eating out — dad was in his element and I was witness to the man at his best, making jokes and blatantly flirting with waitresses.

Ray Horne

One of his go to jokes when the kids were all slumped forward waiting for our food, was to look behind us and suddenly sit up and clear away anything in front of him to make way for the food. This prompted us all to excitedly sit up and clear our placemats, then look behind us to see… Nothing.

He must have found the disappointment on our faces endlessly amusing because he did this almost every time we ate out, and we always fell for it. It’s a trick I still whip out now and again.

Bob’s Big Boy used to advertise that their shakes were so thick you could hold them upside down and they wouldn’t pour out. Can you see where this is headed? Once I decided to show dad this miracle with my own thick, freshly delivered shake by holding it straight out, a foot above the table, and turning it upside down.

It worked! Even though the shake was over-filled into an ice cream swirl above the top of the silver goblet, nothing spilled out. Unfortunately, dad was joking with the waitress and missed it. I reset the shake and tried again.

“Dad — look!”

When dad turned around I stretched my arm out directly in front of him, and turned the shake upside down in mid-air. The contents hit the table so hard the splash hit both our faces, covered the entire table, and slowly poured onto both our laps.

With shake dripping from our hair and noses, we just stared at each other in disbelief. Me at Bob’s misleading ad campaign, and dad at the realization that his son was most likely mildly retarded.

My first thought in the diner this morning, as I saw the old men drinking coffee and joking with the waitresses, and remembering my father, was – what is it with old guys and diners?

Then I realized I am now older than my father was when he died.

It’s 40 years later in a diner that looks and feels exactly the same as it did with my father. Just as he did, I’m writing and brainstorming – although the napkin is now an iPad. And I’m getting paid to do what my father did for free.

Thanks dad — guess I’m a Big Boy now.

Don’t touch me there. Or anywhere.

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Being an Airbnb host is a crash course in multiculturalism, as you may be suddenly living with guests who have never been to America, seen a Western toilet, or know what a Bloomin Onion is.

One guest insisted I remove the plant from her room, because she was positive the plant would “eat up all the oxygen” and she would suffocate in the night. I tried to explain to her how photosynthesis works, and even showed her some articles, but she was not having it. Although this may not have been a cultural thing — it’s more likely she was just an idiot.

But there are things we do in America that simply aren’t done in other countries. Giving a thumbs-up in the Middle East, Latin America, and Western Africa has the same meaning as holding up a middle finger in the U.S. — or more literally, I’m going to jam my thumb in your anus. I’m guessing this is why Siskel & Ebert never caught on in Pakistan.

When a Persian couple successfully backed their car into the guest parking spot a few months ago, I came outside and gave them an enthusiastic thumbs up. Which I now realize was the equivalent of yelling “Welcome — I’m going to anally rape you!”

They took their time getting out of the car.

I’m also a pretty touchy-feely hugger, and in many cultures hugging is not appropriate — especially for a man to hug a single woman who’s not a family member. In my mind, we’ve been living together for a week, sharing a bathroom, discussing our days and eating together… when that guest leaves my impulse is to give them a big California liberal hug. Most of the time it’s natural and reciprocated, but if they suddenly tense up or shrink into their shoes, I know I’ve overstepped. While my thought bubble is “I am warm and affectionate and wish you well,” they’re reading “I want to give you a thumbs up in the name of Satan.”

Some countries just have different rituals than we do – especially in the bathroom. For example, guests from one particular country often do something I can’t figure out. I won’t tell you which country, because then you’ll think people from China are weird.

After these guests take a shower and dry off, they often carefully fold the wet towel and set it back on top of the folded/dry towels. At first I thought it was just an anomaly, but it began happening so often I actually had to post a sign that said “Please hang wet towels to dry – do not fold and put back on shelf.”

I somehow refrained from adding the word “O B V I O U S L Y” which my friend Alex points out I always add to emails when I’m angry (which is 100% of the time).

Even with the sign, more than half of these guests continue to do this (just happened again this morning!). Does anyone have any cultural insight to this? It now fascinates me. And infuriates me.

Obviously.

How to smile in Hollywood

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My smile routine on my morning walk goes like this:

  1. see stranger in the distance
  2. assess how and whether I’m going to smile at them
  3. look down and carefully study sidewalk
  4. on stranger approach, look up and see them as if for the first time
  5. deliver seemingly spontaneous smile or a noncommittal lip-pinch

The lip pinch says “I might smile if I knew more about you.” You can’t just keep looking at them the whole time, or they’ll think you’re insane, so it’s important to look at the ground until you’re close enough to pinch or smile at them for a brief but bearable length of time.

I thought of this today as I was passing a tranny hooker. They’re pretty common in my hood — Las Palmas gets a lot of squirrels, feral cats and trannies. And I tend to not smile at them, because a) they’re often fierce and I’m afraid they might yell at me, and b) I don’t want them to think I’m looking for sex. Even though I love shopping in any form, I’d rather spend my money at HSN. On the other hand, I don’t want to add to the oppression they’re probably already feeling. So if a noncommittal lip-pinch would be oppressive and ignoring them would be insensitive and a smile might be misconstrued, I had to whip out a totally expressionless face. Which I didn’t even know how to do until I remembered this smiley: 😐

It seemed to work — she passed me with the baffled look that any tranny passing a life-like mannequin on the street would have. And I think everybody won.

(Note: if you’re one of those angry people who don’t like the term tranny, imagine I’m saying trainee. “Hi I’m Methany, and I’ll be your hooker tonight. Candida will be shadowing me — she’s a trainee. Also she has a penis.”)

Next up was an Indian guy (dot not feather), who seemed nice enough in the distance but combed his hair straight down all around leaving vertical comb paths, like a garden that hadn’t been planted yet. And my thought was that giving him a smile would be a tacit endorsement of someone who in his 40s still hasn’t learned how to comb his hair.

But he was smiling in the distance so I don’t want to hit him with a suspicious lip pinch if he’s gonna be all smiley, because then I’M the asshole. So I decided to throw caution to the wind and bust out a smile, because I want to be a light in the world and I should just smile at everyone, even when their hair is a disaster.

When I looked up he was already smiling and downright wide-eyed about it, but his hair was even more chaotic than I had first noticed. I fantasized about saying “Good morning! You know, if you just take a half second to run your fingers through your hair like a normal, you won’t have those insane lines and I bet a lot more people would smile at you.” And he’d do it and say “Wow – what a difference! How can I ever thank you?” And I’d just laugh and say “Please — it’s what I do!” and we’d high-five and they’d tell that story in his family for generations.

Or else he’d say “It’s just a wig I’m wearing because the chemo made my hair fall out. It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but my mom bought it for me before she died last month, so wearing it is my way of remembering her on this morning walk that we used to take together.”

As his eyes well up he’d continue. “The doctors say it doesn’t look good, so I’ll be joining my mom in Heaven soon where hopefully we’ll be able to walk together again. Life is such a gift.”

And I’d say “Look even if it’s a wig it’s not gonna kill you to just push the strands back a bit with your fingers. Anyway this is my PowerSong so I gotta go — tell your mom I said hi.”

Actually I’m glad I didn’t say anything.

A mental trip to the ER

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Yesterday while watching TV on the couch, I suddenly felt a cold feeling on my shoulder. When it began spreading from my shoulder to my chest, I said out loud “here we go” and began to emotionally prepare for death.

Before the big sleep came I tried to get up but realized it would be easier to die already reclined on the couch. If I were standing I might fall and hit my head. Plus if I knocked over that lit candle and my body were charred beyond recognition they’d have to identify me by my dental records and then the whole world would know that I never actually paid for that porcelain crown because honestly it was too expensive and who has that kind of money to waste on something as extravagant as chewing?

I touched my shoulder — it was still cold and wet and I gasped when I saw bright red blood on my fingers. What the serious fuck? Apparently I’ve been shot in a gang-related drive-by and I didn’t even feel it because I’m too in shock and/or fat.

I was going to Google aneurysm symptoms but my iPad was all the way over by my feet, so I began frantically patting my chest trying to figure out why it was so cold.

Had I lost so much blood that my body temperature was dropping?

Or is cold and wet just how an aneurysm feels?

Or did I not notice a piece of the cherry Popsicle I was eating earlier had dropped off and landed on my shoulder, where it had been slowly melting?

Look we’ll never know what really happened – so be careful out there, people.

Charming racism and fish

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What fishing looks like in my head.

Today I had a sweet couple from China, who had just arrived from Vegas on a typical West Coast tour. After losing $100 in Vegas and visiting the outlet shops, they asked for my advice on a fish tackle shop to find a gift for the girl’s fisherman father. I said “If you want to find the perfect gift for a fisherman, you are talking to the right guy!” Then I looked up fishing store on Yelp because they were talking to the wrong guy. I’ve never fished for anything but a compliment.

So anyway, adorable and charming little couple, describing their journey and asking for recommendations on where to go next. Their eyes lit up about New York, Boston, and Miami, but when I suggested Chicago, they visibly recoiled.

“Oh, no… too many black people…”

“Oh…,” I said nodding and wide-eyed, like you do when you’re being supportive and overly-affirming to a foreigner struggling with the language.

To a native English speaker, I’d have nervous laughed and said something like “Did you just say too many blacks?” But to someone with a thick Chinese accent struggling to speak English, I just smiled and said “Yes but just the right amount of deep dish pizza…”

In my mind I wanted to add “But New York also has a buttload of blacks, and honestly if you’re avoiding blacks you should probably steer clear of every major city in the U.S. And PS: how many is too many? Also you can’t say stuff like that, because it’s actually pretty racist and offensive. Especially coming from a Chinese couple — because you’re terrible drivers but I wouldn’t say that out loud because that’s racist. I mean I said it right there, because I was making a point.”

But seriously, can you imagine rush hour in Shanghai?

I probably should have taken a stand or at least pressed for clarification — I feel like I missed out on a potential Rosa Parks moment. (Although frankly, I don’t know Rosa Parks’ whole backstory on her back of the bus story. Maybe she took a shine to the married bus driver and wanted to sit in front because she’s a slutty home wrecker. Maybe she saw a spider in the back of the bus and moved to the front because she’s just a fraidy-cat. We’ll never know the real story).

All I know is that if I had suggested San Francisco and they had said “Oh no — too many gays…” I would have gone OFF. (And by gone off, I mean watched TV with a glass of wine).

Anyway, I just shrugged and withdrew to my bedroom, as my charming but racist guests headed up to discover the Walk of Fame.

I probably should’ve given them a heads-up…

Apparently Yanni is some kind of drug

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I was just channel surfing and accidentally ran aground on PBS, a network built on the principle that begging for money 24/7 is morally superior to airing commercials. PBS primarily alternates between 3 shows: Yanni in concert, Wayne Dyer, and begging for money. Today it was Yanni in Concert, or Yawni as I used to call him in college – although that joke only works when it’s written, or if you do a yawning hand emotion when you’re saying it. Since Yanni has always been the David Copperfield of music to me, I thought it would be fun to see how terrible he had become.

After a minute it was kind of ok, so while I was waiting for the terrible I started tapping my foot, just to pass the time. The concert is like a circuit party for old straight people whose only drug is Chardonnay. As the music kept building and more instruments and singers joined in, audience members began hugging each other, openly weeping, and generally falling apart.

Suddenly the song became so exciting I felt like the whole Universe was opening up to me and I was a flower bud that had just discovered sunlight. Packs of wolves were circling and howling and stars began shooting across the sky and the music continued to build until I wanted to stretch my arms out wide like Christ the Redeemer (if that Christ is just posing to be awesome and not being nailed to a cross or whatever), and yell “Yes! Yes! We are alive and we all are one!”

Thankfully the song finally ended and I quickly changed the channel to something that is a better reflection of how young and hip I am.

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