Category Archives: Life

“Cocktail Lounge, 1962″…or…”I Was a Middle-Aged Drag Queen”

On February 8, 2012, my older brother, Stephen, turned 50.  (Happy Birthday, Bro’!!!)  I’m still having trouble grasping that concept; because it seems only yesterday that I was celebrating my PARENTS’ 50th birthdays in 1995, dancing my butt off with friends and family at the bar atop the Army Air Force Exchange Service’s World Headquarters in Dallas…and not long before that, I swear, that my sister Malia and I baked a chocolate cake in Honolulu one late August night in 1979 for my GRANDMOTHER’S 50th!!  Time has zipped by at warp speed.

In 1962, the “Rainbow Tribe”, as my parents used to call their gaggle of 5 children, began.  (Our mixed-race heritage manifested itself in a brood sporting both dark and light skin tones, straight and kinky hair textures, thin and broad noses…hence, our collective nickname.)  Stephen Robert Lanakila Mahelona, my parents’ firstborn…and an amazing big brother to Malia, Kawika, Kelli and me…arrived in style.  In celebration of his half-century mark this year, he and his wife, Stacie, decide to throw a big bash at their home in Dallas – a 1962 cocktail-lounge party.  A perfect time setting, as that time period, the early- to mid-1960’s, is a time period that my siblings and I adore.  It conjures a dramatically-changing, booming period in Hawaii’s history, when jet travel brought the masses to the islands, hotels and skyscrapers shot up in Waikiki, and tiki-bars and ultra-stylized, “Polynesian” architecture had their shining moments.  Having had a somewhat avant-garde upbringing by my parents, I remember Martin Denny’s “exotica” music and Brazilian Bossa Nova grooves sexily emanating from our old record player, not the Top-40 sounds of the Beatles or Beach Boys.  Stephen can attest to the parties hosted by our parents as the ultimate in COOL – evenings when our livingroom was aglow with candles dripping their wax down empty Chianti and sangria bottles, our lullabies consisting of drunken artist-musicians banging on bongos, tambourines, guitars and ukuleles, howling out Dylan and Baez ballads.  (That is, when we kiddoes weren’t banging on tambourines along with everyone else!)  My Dad can attest to his mischievous little rugrats tiptoeing, the mornings after, over passed-out bodies in our livingroom, sipping all the leftover cocktails.  This is our “nostalgia”.

Stephen and Stacie bring it all back to life, brilliantly, in their mid-century home in East Dallas.  A glowing, tiki/outer-space style bar, dirty martinis shaken non-stop, kitschy hors d’oeuvres on toothpicks, radiating, Sputnik-style, from whole pineapples…all of this amidst their 1960’s collection of furniture and artwork, against the lilting backdrop of the music of the age…send us back 50 years.  Not to mention all the revelers in every shade of 1960’s dress – hippie, beachboy, go-go girl, beatnik, Twiggy wanna-be, Andy Warhol groupie, Vietnam soldier, girl-group singer…they are all here, dancing, laughing, conversing, noshing, sloshing, celebrating an amazing man, my brother.

When the Evite went out for the party with its call for costuming, there was NO question I was going to do this party in drag.  It has been nearly 10 years since I held my last, annual Halloween costume party in Dallas.  These were great parties, with glow-in-the-dark apple martinis, amazingly creative costumes, great conversation and laughter, and the mandatory, after-party trip down to Dallas’ annual gay Halloween street party on Cedar Springs Road.  And the hostess, yours truly, unfailingly hosted the soiree in diva-drag.  It’s been too long…

Drag.  It’s such an interesting, fascinating, misunderstood thing.  For gay men, it can be a rite of passage, part of our counter-culture.  Not everyone partakes; but those gay men who have never once gone to a party in drag have missed a part of our evolution as gay men.  (I also think every straight man should go out, at least once, in drag…it’ll give him insight into how much his female partner has to go through to present herself to the world…the shaving, moisturizing, painting, camouflaging, tucking, squeezing, pushing up, pulling in…all the manipulation of skin, muscle, body fat, hair and nail…the crunching compression of feet and toes and precarious balancing on stilts.  The female body as construction site and daredevil act.  Women are, no question, the stronger sex!)  Contrary to popular belief, drag rarely ever means, “I wish I was born female”.  It is, in fact, dressing up as something else…but to the nth degree; for the hardest thing a man can do convincingly is BE a woman, his exact, physical opposite.  Dressing as a clown, a vampire or the Village People is hardly a stretch for a man; but gliding gracefully on 6-inch stilletos, in a corset that has squeezed his internal organs together with carbon-to-diamond pressure, while maintaining a natural smile that won’t crack the layers and layers of makeup – now that’s a challenge for a man…and Lord knows I like a challenge.  Bring it!

Drag is also an act of rebellion, of daring, of pushing buttons, of usurping power.  If I walk into a room in drag, I can instantly see, feel and recognize the whirlwind of emotions it creates…the fascination, the intrigue, the desire, the envy, the confusion, the discomfort, the fear, the repulsion.  It is interesting to me how it is impossible not to be affected by, or react to, good or bad, the presence of a man in drag.  There is no question that whoever is in command in the room at any given moment will instantly have their thunder stolen by the entree of the dreaded Drag Queen.  For me, though, it was just plain fun to do once a year at Halloween.  It’s silly; it’s a caricature; it’s an alter-ego that lets me do or say things I might ordinarily not.  And anyone who knows me well knows how I LOVE to push people out of their comfort zones!  (Evil Queen!)

So, that decision having been made, Ralph and I spend the days before the party running around Manhattan, rummaging through the cocktail dresses, skinny neckties and open-toed pumps of the Goodwill Store and Housing Works Thrift Store, the wigs and accessories of the Abacadabra costume store, the baubles and beads of all the cheap-import-costume-jewelry shops in the Garment District, and the makeup section of the Duane Reade drugstore, where we find the accoutrements necessary to bring to life his 1960’s college-student/young professional persona, and my 1960’s, Jackie-O-inspired, middle-aged-socialite persona.  My dear friend, Anna (who, by the way, is constantly pushing ME out of MY comfort zone), double-dog-dares me to post photos of my physical transition to this drag persona in my blog.  When she does, it gives me butterflies in my stomach.  For some reason, posting this in my blog IS a stretch for me.  I know right then and there it must be done.  (Stay tuned, if you dare!)

The evening’s celebration was the party of the century…or half-century, at least!  Having flown in from Honolulu as a surprise for Stephen, my younger brother, Kawika, completed the family gathering.  It’s a rare occasion for all 5 of us siblings to be together…and when we are…it’s always a party!  Hanging out with old friends, new friends, extended family, drink in hand, platters of food everywhere, we had a chance to let our hair down and reflect on our younger days.  We danced in the livingroom and hung out in the “retro lounge”…and cameras went wild!

1962 was a pivotal time in American history.  With the upcoming assassination of our President and our deadly plunge into Vietnam, America lost its innocence.  A new generation shifted from the grip of its parents values and mores; and a uniquely American counter-culture was born.  We would never be the same.  But on this night, we reveled in our innocence, grooved and go-go’d…we laughed as we spilled our martinis.  We posed for snapshots, emulated our mothers and fathers in their heyday, and strutted our stuff in their honor.  Party on, Stephen….here’s to your next “fitty”!!

And now…the middle-aged-socialite-diva emerges…

                                                                                          Step 1:  Nair for smoothing the legs, forearms and underarms and a thorough moisturizing of the entire body.  Walk around hotel room in stilleto heels for a couple of hours to practice balance and grace.  Iron black Liz Claiborne cocktail dress found at Goodwill for $9.99.

                                                                                           Step 2:  Time to get this construction project started…

                                                                                                Step 3:  A good facial shave, plucking of any stray/unruly eyebrow hairs, moisturizing of the face and lips and a strong slick-back of the hair…

Turning 40…again…

Well, today is my 47th birthday (ouch!)…and all the birthday wishes from friends and family have made it a GREAT day!!!  When I first started the blog, I made myself a promise that I would post new entries on a somewhat regular basis; and, at the request of several of my friends (and my blogging guru, Anna Brindley), I would put up some of my older “blogs” from years past.  Kinda like watching old reruns on TV.  Today, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone by posting an old rerun with a birthday theme.  Below is the “blog” I wrote when I turned 40, a major turning point in my life, as I was preparing to step into middle age and move away from Dallas to start a new life in New York City.  I have several friends who turned 40 this year or will turn 40 next year.  This is in celebration of them…enjoy!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

November 28, 2004

2004.  What a year to turn 40….

I turned 40 the year my sister was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, breast cancer; the shock and fear seared my insides as if the chemotherapy and radiation had been accidentally turned on me .

I turned 40 the year I decided to move to New York City, extracting myself from a closely-knit family and dear friends, straining to pull up roots that had grown strong and deep through years of nurturing, years of loving.

I turned 40 the year I felt personally and profoundly defeated in the presidential election, the most crucial one ever for gay people like me fighting for true equality in our country.

What a year, 2004……..

But “be careful not to confuse the year with the age,” I reminded myself.  For most of 2004, and through all the sad events above, I was 39, not 40.

So today, I sit here as a 40-year old, gay, Hawchigermiriguese American man (made that up…that’s Hawaiian-Chinese-German-Irish-Portuguese), “feeling my forty-ness”.

At 40, I feel more “at home” in my body than I ever have in my entire life, finally accepting its limitations and imperfections, curiously (not fearfully, nor eagerly) awaiting the next gray hair…”sparkles”, I call ‘em.

At 40, I don’t mind the fact that I’m a little thicker around the waist than I was at 38.  (I’m not jumping for joy about it either; but I’m not grossed out by it, nor ready to join the carb-repulsed masses.)  Besides, at 40, I can stand comfortably in the yoga asana Natarajasana – on one leg, reaching behind to grab the opposite ankle, and bringing it up and behind, level with my head.  At 20, I would’ve injured myself even trying.

At 40, I no longer define myself by my status in my profession or the company that I work for.  Those things that seemed so important in my 30s now completely (and in good conscience) get put to bed when I leave the office.

At 40, I read mostly for pleasure, secondly for information….but no longer to feed someone back “the right answer”.  I no longer follow one genre or read the bestseller list.  I read what good friends and loved ones recommend…it’s always the best bet.  I also feel absolutely no pressure to finish a book that’s just not rockin’ my world.

At 40, the “old school” music of my childhood and adolescence groove me even more than they did back then…in addition to the bad-ass rhythms of soul, disco, funk and new wave, this music washes me in wonderful memories of growing up with my parents, my siblings, my friends…memories of shakin’ my groove thang in some awesome 70’s bell bottoms or some fabulous, bleached-out, jacked-up 80s hairdo…and eyeliner…of course.

At 40, I no longer watch TV and rarely read the newspaper.  I feel released from the claws of corporate advertising moguls trying to coerce me into liking things I really don’t, believing in things I really don’t, wanting things I really don’t.  I feel liberated from the endless news chatter, of the media making mountains out of molehills, of everything being the latest, biggest story…”this just in”.  I feel excused from reality TV, from becoming addicted to the everyday moments in the lives of people I don’t even know.

At 40, I have learned the meaning of TRUE friends.  The ones that were there in my 20s and 30s and are still here at 40 are the ones that will be there forever…the lasting ones.    The ones who accept me as I am, and love me anyway.  My “short list”.  You know who you are…this letter went out to you.

At 40, I’m finally beginning to understand a relationship.  My track record was never that good…and boy, have I had a track record!  But I know now that the common denominator in all those failed relationships was…well…me.  Not that it was all my fault; but it took me 2 decades to realize that I needed to look at “me” closely before I could even begin to visualize “us”.  I’m in a good one now, one that feels loving and wonderful and happy and sad and tough and all kinds of things…and I hope it always feels that way…ripe and raw and unexpected and warm and scary and safe.

In my 30s, as I watched my niece and nephews grow up, I realized how short a childhood is….mine seemed so, so long!  At 40, I realize how short adulthood is.  It’s kinda spooky, a bit humbling.  But it has made me appreciate each year, each month, each day so much more.  “Spend it while you got it”…”Eat the good part first instead of saving it for last”…”You can’t take it with you”…at 40, I finally “get” those things.

At 40, I finally feel like I know exactly who I am…what I like and don’t like, what I believe in and don’t believe.  I know my faults, my talents, my strengths and my weaknesses…and I accept them equally…my different colors.  Just as blue is bluest when there is red or yellow to highlight its blueness, the things I love best about myself are heightened by the presence of the things I like least about myself.  I care less about whether anyone likes me or not…as long as I do.  I wouldn’t trade the experiences I’ve had, the things I’ve learned, the loves I’ve lost and gained for anything, even the youth, vigor (and smooth skin) of my 20s and 30s.

When my partner, Ralph, told me last year that he wanted to take me on a 40th birthday trip somewhere and asked me where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, I asked for 2 things:  to wake up next to him and to do yoga someplace amazing, high on a hilltop or cliff or pyramid.  This year, as my 40th birthday approached, he told me the destination for the trip would be a surprise until the moment we arrived there; that both criteria would be met; and that they would take place somewhere beginning with a “B”.

B? Berlin?  Too cold in November.  Boston?  We already went there this summer.  Brazil?  Belize?  Bali?  Too far for a short trip.  I was so tempted to get out a world map and comb the globe for “B” destinations…surely, it’s not Ralph’s hometown of Beaumont,Texas!

We arrived at DFW airport.  As I checked in at the self-service kiosk at the terminal, I learned of our destination: San Jose, California.  “B?” I thought.  “Oh, by the way…we still have a 2-hour drive from there,” Ralph mentioned.  Sneaky-deaky.

From San Jose, we drove South along the California coast for 2 hours, half of it making dark, twisting turns on the edges of cliffs that dropped to the sea…hmmmm…cliffs!

We arrived for the night in Big Sur…at the most beautiful resort nestled in the redwood forest, Ventana.  I won’t make you too envious with all the details of the 4 luxurious days there.  Let it suffice to say that we spent the days and nights surrounded by hummingbirds, soaking in hot Japanese baths, taking amazing hikes through ancient redwood forest and enjoying breathtaking views of the ocean.

At 40, I learned that coastal redwood trees grow in families.  They grow in a perfect circle; and each tree in the circle has the exact same bark pattern as every other tree in the circle.  Trees in a different circle have a totally different bark pattern; but each tree in that circle has the same.  It was so awesome…no longer like looking at just trees…but like looking at a family that has been together longer than this country is old…a family that has stood as one and witnessed countless historical events,  that has withstood the deaths and cutting of members among them…a family whose members all resemble one another, standing in a circle, holding hands.  It was like my own family.  It was beautiful!

At 25, at 30, at 35, the earlier milestone years, I never experienced the depression or anxiety I often hear about.  Those birthdays weren’t that different from my others.  But the day before I turned 40, I hit a wall.  I was silent; I was sad…I was, I guess, depressed?(!)  I didn’t know what was wrong…and everything was wrong.  I was sad about moving to New York.  I was sad about my sister.  I was sad about my parents getting older.  I was sad about what I had for lunch.  I was just plain pathetic.  Poor Ralph.

I took a walk on my own that evening and went to lay down in the middle of the family circle of redwoods on the Ventana property.  The sun was close to setting.  The dense carpet of redwood needles was soft and comforting.  Birds flitted back and forth from tree to tree within the circle.  There was power within that circle.  The Esalen Indians who lived in the area married and had their children within this circle.  I looked up at the sky through the ring of trees, listening to the quiet of the forest; and the tears began running down my cheeks.  I just closed my eyes and let myself cry, not trying to figure out why I was crying…for nothing…for everything.  After about a half hour, I opened my eyes.  I felt healed…completely refreshed and relaxed, yet energized…smiling.

I walked back to our room to apologize to Ralph for being so distant the entire day.  He hugged me and reassured me, saying, “Sometimes you just have to get away from it all, to slow down enough so that you can deal with all the things you haven’t had time to deal with.  You’ve had a lot to deal with lately…you just had to go through the sadness.”  He put the words, clearly and concisely, to what I had been feeling the entire day.  He amazes me.

The next day, my 40th birthday, was wonderful.  I got to wake up next to Ralph; and I got to do yoga with him someplace amazing.  I got to climb up to a cliff and sit, overlooking the ocean.  I got to walk through a grove of eucalyptus trees covered in thousands of monarch butterflies, on their way to Mexico from Canada.  I got to stand under the oldest living coastal redwood tree, 1,540 years old.  As we stood in awe, looking up from the base of this great, living being, Ralph whispered to me, “Fifteen hundred and 40 years?  Now, 40 doesn’t seem so bad, does it?”

Not so bad at all…it feels pretty damned good, actually!

So, how does my “forty-ness” feel?

For me, 40 feels like this:

And 40 feels like this:

Life: “Spend” It Wisely