Thursday, September 29, 2016


The numbers continue to dwindle. AIDS isn’t what it used to be. There are buzzier causes: ALS, prostate cancer, refugee resettlement. Staffs at the past two schools where I’ve worked attend charity dinners and auctions each September to support research for medical conditions a few of our students have battled. There are other banners I want to get behind, like mental health, everything pertaining to animals and the environment and, yes, refugees.

But AIDS remains closest to my heart. I first grappled with coming out back when Geraldo Rivera reported about GRID—Gay-Related Immune Deficiency—on “20/20”. It was the acronym that preceded AIDS, with a heavy emphasis on “gay”. Gay men were getting sick; gay men were dying. I signed up to volunteer with the AIDS Resource Center in Dallas before I’d ever so much as kissed a boy. I was profoundly impacted by Randy Shilts’ agonizing account of the early years of the AIDS crisis (And the Band Played on) and the haunting, Oscar-winning documentary “Common Threads: Stories from the AIDS Quilt” before I’d ever had a date. Gay may technically be synonymous with happy, but in those days it was heavily weighted with fear, maybe even death. AIDS will always play a part in my identity as a gay man.

I made sure to avoid any proximity to this sign. Just not me.
And so I showed up at the Roundhouse Community Centre yesterday for yet another AIDS Walk. I first participated in a walk twenty-six years ago in Los Angeles, a decidedly grimmer time when the people with full-on AIDS sat in wheelchairs pushed by loved ones. Some bravely walked, with or without a cane. We knew who had it. Their faces were gaunt, unnaturally tanned and KS lesions dotted their skin. I remember trying to project hope. You can beat this. The AZT will work. The cure is coming. But my sunshiny disposition faded after seeing the ravaged bodies of so many men in their prime, from watching mothers push their thirty-year-old sons, from seeing the inequity as one healthy-looking “longtime companion” supported the weakened one.

So much has changed. In the past year I’ve briefly dated two HIV+ men, each “undetectable”. They are among the lucky few who were diagnosed thirty years ago and somehow managed to survive the darkest years. They take their meds but show none of what once were the telltale signs of AIDS. They manage their condition. The hope now is real. Still, it’s not like diabetes or epilepsy. There remains a sense of shame and even shunning from potential partners. As I listened to both of them tell their story, one was wracked with guilt while the other’s language was loaded with affirmations delivered defensively rather than convincingly. The mental toll remains great.

In truth, I’m out of touch about what it means to live with HIV or AIDS today. I don’t have a clue what the needs are. I don’t know what is within reach and what remains a loftier goal in terms of medical research. Where are things at in terms of a vaccine? Why won’t my medical insurance cover PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis)? What are the inequities regarding prevention, detection and treatment in developing countries?

How did I become so removed? Why did we stop rallying? Where did everyone go? Thousands turned out for AIDS Walks in the early ‘90s. In recent years, only a few hundred show up. Contrast this with the fact that, according to the CBC, “hundreds of thousands” showed up for the Pride parade in Vancouver only seven weeks ago. Something seems amiss.

I need to re-educate myself as to where things are at regarding AIDS. I need a better sense of how the donations help. Despite my ignorance, I know I must continue to participate in this annual event. For me, the AIDS Walk is a meditative time when I honor the thousands who died from AIDS in bleaker times. Knowing that HIV is no longer a death sentence makes it more critical that I remember friends whose bodies and minds battled desperately and ultimately futilely and who died at twenty-eight, at thirty-five, at forty-one. I continue to mourn the passing of Stephen, Don, Farrell, Steve, Greg and Jose. The anger is gone but the tragedy only feels greater. All their potential wiped away. All so unnecessary.

I keep hoping the number of walkers will stabilize and that more gay men will show up again to reflect and remember. Pride celebrations offer more opportunities to ogle glamorous drag queens and ripped studs in Speedos. Pride leaves many feeling good, but the AIDS Walk stirs trickier emotions and commemorates an era that must not be forgotten.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016


It’s uncomfortable. I’d much rather look down than stare straight ahead. But Vicky keeps admonishing me: “Head up, please.” I’m not sure I’ll ever master sitting in the barber’s chair. I’m still the antsy little kid; only now there’s no green sucker as a parting gift.

There’s no other time during the month when I’m forced to face a mirror for a prolonged period of time. It shouldn’t be so painful but I’m the polar opposite of Narcissus. My image spawns awkwardness, followed by a swell of self-hate.

That nose. So big.

Those eyes. Look at the bags under them. So dark. Coon eyes.

Vicky combs my wet hair back. It’s a rough gesture that jolts my whole head. Is she frustrated? Does she hate her job? Is she wishing she could be pickier about her clientele?

Oh, god. I’m face to face with me again. Aack!* When did my hair recede so far? And the bigger question: WHEN DID I GET SO OLD?

Just last week, my younger cousin—he’s 44, I’m 51—blurted in both exasperation and envy, “How do you keep getting younger?! You look 30.” I hear it from others, too. There’s a consensus that I look considerably younger than my age. But objects in the mirror at close range and under bright lighting look harsh. Every year shows. Every trauma leaves a souvenir.

If only I could look away.

Torture for me would be a room full of mirrors. It’s a good thing I’m not privy to top-secret anything. I’d crumble minutes. Forget waterboarding and cocked pistols; just hold a hand mirror to my head. Aack! What Canadians really mean when they say “sorry” would be known to all. (Sorry ‘bout that, Mr. Trudeau.)

This is a touch-and-go period. It’s only my second appointment with Vicky. As noted in a recent post, I’ve had to find a new stylist now that I am finally living and working in the Vancouver area once again. Maybe I should have been pickier, maybe I should have done more research but my hair was overgrown and verging on becoming a home to paper clips and dryer lint, not to mention a snake or two. Vicky’s salon is but a few blocks from home. It was the perfect confluence of convenience and urgency. The rest is up to the two of us. How’s her chair-side manner? Can she avoid nicking that mole at the back on my head more than once? Can I adjust to twice the price for the same service?

There are, of course, other options. Plenty of salons. For a while, it seemed that Vancouver’s nearby Yaletown was solely comprised of salons and storage warehouses. But most of the places in the downtown area have a certain level of pretentiousness. I always have to fight off the too-cool-for-me complex and I’ve already acclimated to the salon where Vicky works. There is no receptionist, no clear sense of where to announce your arrival and where to stand or sit while you wait. Little dogs that belong to the stylists dart between chairs on a mission they don’t seem to have defined. They have no interest in my gestures to pat them. They’ve mastered salon aloofness.

Barber shops are out. I’m not the kind of guy who can drop, take a seat and wait for the next available groomer to snip and shave. I like my hair—what’s left of it—and I can’t bear to have it butchered. “It’ll grow back” isn’t much comfort in the weeks of waiting. I have bad memories of succumbing to an overeager razor back when I lived in Malibu. And, if I’m being honest, I feel uneasy about how much cheaper a cut is at the barber’s. While I may have gasped internally at what I had to pay the first time I saw Vicky, a price too low makes me feel I’ve gotten a hatchet job…even if I can’t spot the flaws. (This admission would make my father cry. Where did he go wrong?!)

I suppose I’m hair-obsessed. Like Pamela Anderson and her boobs. Newman and his eyes. That Crawford guy and his body. Not that I’m anywhere near the Anderson/Newman/Crawford zone in anything (unless penmanship counts). But most of us are aware of a feature that gets the most—or only—compliments. Naturally, we want to highlight it or at least preserve it.

At 51, preserving is becoming a challenge. Summer toning at the gym doesn’t get the same results. The stomach protrudes too much no matter how many laps I swim. But the hair, well, it was always supposed to be there. I blocked out the history of baldness in the family. I let past hairstylists reassure me that my follicular fountain wouldn’t run dry. (Never trust anyone whose livelihood depends on a healthy tip.)

After the cut...I survived.
The vibrant curls and waves in my hair now look like thinning frizz. I keep switching hair products in a state of desperation I haven’t had since I heavily invested in the acne cream industry in my youth. Alas, the body has a mind of its own.

As Vicky finishes—Oh god, not the blow dryer! We haven’t had that talk yet. Extra frizz!—she offers a hand mirror for me to glance at the back. Are you kidding me?! I already know there’s a spot at the top where hair can’t grow because of a cyst I had removed two years ago. I don’t want to do any more spot checking.

I don’t raise my arms. I shake my head. At this point, after fifty minutes of mirror scrutiny, I’m too despondent to speak. Let it be over. Please just set me free.

Before I leave, I book my next appointment. I suspect it wasn’t any better for her than it was for me, but it’s harder to say no in person. Besides, I retain a foolish sense of denial. No one else sees my head up close. No one else sees how my asset has become a liability. Vicky and I mark our calendars for the next ordeal.

Maybe she’s the one who deserves the green sucker.