but I’m already so tired

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If we hang out together more than once, you’ll undoubtedly hear me sigh, “My phone’s about to die.” If I work all day- “My phone’s about to die.” If you’re about to launch into a really good story- “My phone’s about to die.” How have you been? “My phone’s about to die.” What’s my go-to order at Popeyes? “My phone’s about to die.” It’s not personal. It’s just now at the every fabric of who I am.  Due to obsessive compulsive tweeting, general forgetfulness and a blissful laissez-faire that can’t be bothered to learn how to run fewer apps, my phone is always on the brink of near death. It’s so perpetually in low power mode, I often wonder if there’s a setting that can just alert me when it is actually charged instead of wasting its breath to always tell me that my phone’s days are numbered. Yet as with those phony tweets announcing Betty White’s death, my phone is alive and well. Just in a perpetual state of low energy. My phone battery, myself. Neither me or my phone is actually about to die but we’re certainly usually not running on full power.

Being gifted with an immune system that behaves like a dainty Southern belle who fans herself while her suitors fetch her lemonades means my baseline is just sort of exhausted. Like not exhausted in a way that actually dying people with hardcore active illnesses are but in a way that I’m certainly not gonna hustle just to prove that I can. Much like that phone battery, I gotta conserve my energy. When it comes to HIV and the meds they give you to handle it, exhaustion is a puzzle.  Like is it the HIV that makes you exhausted or is it the meds or is it the still stupid societal prejudice and misunderstanding of the disease that makes us positive people exhausted? Who knows and I’m too tired to even Google any of this. Truthfully, it’s probably all those things but what I know is that I’m not the only tired bitch with HIV roaming the Earth. This is comforting. We the people with teeny tiny immune systems march forward with coffees in hand and we’re too tired to put up with your bullshit. This right here is the ultimate gift of being tired all the time. “Tired All The Time” is the sequel to Eddie Murphy’s hit song “Party All The Time” but he was too tired to release it.  

When you have a smaller bandwidth, you have to be selective about the things you let ruffle your feathers. Admittedly, in an era with overt racism, contestant nuclear threat, sexual predators in positions of power and every known system collapsing, ruffling feathers seems like a delicate way to put it. Feathers ruffled feels like something we could easily get over. Most of this shit? I’m not too sure about that.  More accurately described as world in decline as per my talisman in black eyeliner Chrissie Hynde, society today could really flatten you if you let it all get to you. Therefore, I’m grateful that my rage, disgust and depression has to be selective. It’s express lane outrage, 9 items or less. The reality for me is that a lot of it is going to bother me and get me down. Congratulations to those folks who tell you any chance they get that they’ve stopped reading everything and that their lives are so much better and that you should really try it. I’m happy for them. But I am not them. The world bugs me and that feels healthy for me. After all, what would I write about if I didn’t sort of low-key hate everyone/everything? So I pick and choose what to angry about. Likewise, I get to pick who and what I put energy into.

I recently spent a lot of time chasing someone. Not romantically, mind you and certainly not literally as in running, dear god, no. But I was trying to a get friend to hang out with me, to spend time with me, hell to even call me back. It was an exhausting place to be. Like what the fuck was I doing? I’m already so tired and now I’m spending time running after a friend who clearly doesn’t want to spend time with me? Girl. What is this? Seventh grade? I eventually released this friend without a bunch of conversations or drama(shit I’m really way too tired to do). One way relationships of any kind fall firmly into the “I’m too tired for this shit” folder and I have to remember to keep them there. Also in that folder:

* people who dominate conversations

* late people

*flaky people

*standing in line for lame events

*entitled people

*arguing with people

*people in general. Kidding. Sort of.

Writing this list, it doesn’t escape me that most of these things that make me more tired are things that I myself am guilty of. Whomp, whomp. Naturally, the bullshit that I am the most sick of and that makes me the most tired is my own. Oh self-awareness. Way to fuck things up once again. Nevertheless, it’s true. I am very tired of my own flakiness, my own entitlement, my impulse to argue with people even when I know better. While the president, the people of planet earth and basically any time I have to go to a store like Home Depot can make me exhausted, it’s my own stuff that really gets tiresome.

Of course, it’s also the stuff that’s easiest to change. Like, Sean, maybe not argue ? Maybe not open your mouth for five minutes? Maybe let someone go ahead of you in line? While my phone is currently at 53%, my energy is considerably less than that. Yet I’m actually okay. Maybe running on half a battery provides me the reflection that I can be less horrible and conserve personal energy. It certainly can’t hurt. I can take the focus of my own exhaustion and try to mediate on being a spiritual being that doesn’t make other people tired.  I need to be the enlightened, tired being I want to see in the world!

But I’ll take a nap first.

Written in summer 2018, this essay, along with other brand new works, will appear in the collection Now That You’ve Stopped Dying, available soon!

POZiversary

30420-birthday-candles1 2.jpgWell, that’ll do it. Nobody will love me ever again.

It was an overly dramatic train of thought to be sure but don’t blame me. I didn’t come up with it. As far back as forever, people have been saying they’d never fall in love again(Dionne Warwick) or that they were unloveable (Morrissey) or that they’d never love this way again (Dionne Warwick redux, just sub Burt Bacharach for Barry Manilow). These poor saps usually made these statements after having a broken heart. But people are whores so I’m sure Dionne, Morrissey and countless others indeed did fall in love again. My problem was different. Nobody would love ever again because I was broken. Love just wasn’t something my life would be full of because nine years ago today I found that I was HIV Positive.

I’m gonna go ahead and stop you from writing a comment that includes phrases like, “my cousin’s neighbor is positive and he plays on a softball team and is really happy!” or “they have great drugs for that now and so it’s not really a huge deal anymore!” These things are all true and really great but it’s hard not to feel broken in a zillion pieces when you get that kind of news. It’s fucking weird that since HIV still has the “well, you did it to yourself!” stigma attached to it that we don’t let people feel grief around it. We don’t let people have a journey of acceptance around it because it no longer kills millions of people. We do in fact have wonder drugs that keep people alive so let’s not talk about the difficulty those people still might have and just move on, shall we? So yeah I went through it in August 2009 when I got the news. I felt ripped in half. I felt like it was yet another shitty thing I had to “learn to live with.” But mainly I felt like the timing was really bad.

See, I was only 7 months sober at the time and was using everything short of Scotch tape to just hold my shit together at the time. This kind of news was really inconvenient. The same people who would write those comments are the same ones who would tell you when you get this kind of news, “God never gives you more than you can handle!” Well fuck those people because I could barely as handle being sober and I was given another ball to juggle.  Besides, how does God know what I can handle? I think handling things is overrated anyway. I never signed up for this life gig to “handle shit”. Anyway, there we were and it was something I could accept or drink over. How I didn’t drink over it is anyone’s guess seeing as I drank over (and over drank) everything. So I stayed sober and it was people who helped me, not Scotch tape, keep it together. Still, there was a nagging feeling that love was something that might not ever be in the cards.

But as with all the best parts of my life, I was wrong. Completely wrong on every level and ain’t that a wonderful thing? No, seriously.  In boastful, bullshitter times, there’s something wonderfully, punk rock about being totally, fucking wrong. Because once I’ve shut up and stop being convinced that I know what the outcome on every thing is, magic can happen. And magic did happen. I met a guy who didn’t care about me being HIV positive. Beyond this something else happened- love. Love not just from my beautiful husband but love from family members (even the ones who said shit like, “Well you knew this might happen when you decided to be gay” oy fucking vey). Love happened from other addicts and alcoholics who told they were sorry I was going through a tough time. They gave me permission to cry, they brought me burritos, they took me to meetings and they told me not to drink or use no matter what.  Even more amazing, love happened from other people with HIV.

Other people who maybe felt like they’d never feel loved again too, loved me, no questions asked. I shared about it and they showed up for me. They drove me home from meetings and told me it was gonna be okay and I believed them because they were like me. Even more amazingly, the universe put brave beautiful people with HIV in my life without me ever having to say a word. At four years sober, I met somebody days after being in a coma who I got to watch sobriety change his whole world. He turned out to be HIV positive too. We didn’t know this when we met each other but it was just one of a zillion things that latched our hearts together. But it wasn’t just him. Over the years there’s been lots of “him.” People I loved immediately would later share that they were positive too.  Again, we never planned on meeting. Something bigger just put us together and aren’t we lucky? That happened to me just the other day with a new friend who I instantly adored but who got even closer once we knew what we had in common. We exhaled when we shared it with each other. I feel less alone, less damaged, more lovable the more this happens. The thing is we’re able to fill in the blank spaces that the world, society and our broken selves tell us won’t ever be filled with love.

It’s even happened recently at my day job where I get to help other addicts and alcoholics. Again, it’s unplanned and not manipulated but I have certainly come out to my coworkers as HIV positive. In my field, this is an asset. When patients come in with HIV they know that I’ve been there and they can lean on me, no questions asked. Recently, a patient shared his rage that he felt discriminated against at his treatment center when a fellow patient said people like him shouldn’t be allowed in there. I told him that would have pissed me off too. I also offered to come down there and drag this asshole out of the rehab by the hair. We laughed and he said the staff was on his side and the drama subsided. My offer, however, still stands.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that nine years later, the news I got on August 11th 2009, the news that I thought would ruin my existence or make me go out and use again, turned out to be the news that changed my life. Now, when I think about the day and all of the days since, the only thing I can think of is love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

something there that wasn’t there before

If I was that writer I would have called this post “Things Your Kids Love Because of AIDS.” If I was that writer, I’d probably also be selling my soul to some clickbaity site that would be good for my career but would also increase my chances of stepping in front of a bus. Alas, I am not that writer. I am, however, someone who loves fairy tales and really loves Disney versions of fairytales. I know, I know it’s not cool or woke or hipster to like Disney movies. The Disney machine, and not wrongly in most cases, is accused of turning entertainment into a machine and stripping away real character and depth from darker, childhood stories. They are also cited for snatching up beloved properties and sucking the life out of them. Likewise, Disney is notorious for problematic imagery for children and hideous employment practices. Yet the heart wants what it wants and my big gay heart loves a Disney fairytale.

I hesitate to own this statement in print because it feels so permanent and the movie in question has now become bland and basic due to a live-action remake that I refused to see. Seriously, do not get me started on this onslaught of live-action Disney remakes which by the way can hardly be called live action when 80% of them is done in CGI. I’m still annoyed/traumatized/baffled by that hideous Jungle Book everyone seemed to love but me. I digress but Beauty and the Beast is my favorite of the Disney fairytale canon. There. I said it. And I stand by it. Properly dark, great characters, beautiful animation and knockout songs, it swept Oscar nominations the year it was released and rightfully so. A smart heroine who happens to be a giant book nerd and who gets along with her family plus Angela Lansbury as a tea kettle? Sign me up. However here in 2017 in my forties this movie means something else to me today and mainly because of the film’s lyricist Howard Ashman.

Ashman, the openly gay songwriter and genius also behind Little Shop of Horrors and The Little Mermaid, was dying from AIDS as Beauty and the Beast was being completed. According to film lore, Ashman worked from his home in New York while his songwriting partner Alan Menken and the film’s directors Gary Torusdale and Kirk Wise flew back and forth from Los Angeles during the making of the movie. There’s no question that the movie wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for Ashman’s lyrics. It’s impossible to think of it without singing the title track which also allows you the bonus option of doing either an Angela Lansbury or Celine Dion impression. Rooted in musical theater, the songs seamlessly bridged the gap between Broadway and animation and I’d ventured to say we’ve never gone back. Specifically, however, it’s impossible to deny AIDS when it comes to Beauty and the Beast and its iconic songs. According to the live-action film’s director Bill Condon in Vanity Fair:

“It was his idea, not only to make it into a musical but also to make Beast one of the two central characters. Until then, it had mostly been Belle’s story that they had been telling. Specifically for him, it was a metaphor for AIDS. He was cursed, and this curse had brought sorrow on all those people who loved him, and maybe there was a chance for a miracle—and a way for the curse to be lifted. It was a very concrete thing that he was doing.”

Songs like “Kill the Beast” are more overt in reference to AIDS.  In a few bars, Ashman slyly nails the paranoia and prejudice of the AIDS era. “We don’t like what we don’t…understand and in fact it scares us, and this monster is mysterious at least.
Bring your guns, bring your knives, save children and your wives, we’ll save our village and our lives!,” the song warns. The metaphor is so clear now but at the time no one knew. The lyrics fall in line with Ashman’s other astute observations of the human condition. Songs like “Skid Row” from Little Shop of Horrors and “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid surely tap into the feelings of not belonging and wanting to escape that gay people have always felt. But given his skill as a songwriter, he tapped into emotions that anyone, especially children can identify with.

Beauty and the Beast really resonates with folks who feel like they don’t belong. The hideous and withdrawn Beast and the bookish and imaginative Belle are square pegs and outcasts. Fate brings them together and we are all the better for it. Ashman’s songs particularly, “Something There” really capture how unlikely people who don’t fit anywhere else sometimes find and fall in love with one another, despite their own misconceptions and prejudices. Talk to any queer person and they’ll relate a similar story when they tell you about finally finding their people. To think that Beauty and the Beast is his last completed project (he also wrote a few songs for Aladdin)is profound to say the least.

As a person living with HIV and in a very different era, it’s hard not to get chills and feel emotional when reading about Ashman and the horrors that artists like him faced at the time. I started thinking about him this week when it was announced that a new documentary about his legacy was coming out later this year. The film looks to shine a light on his artistry as well as last his days dying from AIDS. Despite extreme hatred and isolation, Ashman and other great artists were able to produce works that people are still enjoying to this day.

This August, it will be 8 years since my own HIV diagnosis. While I’m grateful that times have changed and that I can have meds to help me stay alive with relative ease and low-cost, I’d be lying if I said that I still didn’t think we had a long way to go. Sure, we’re now acknowledging Ashman and his legacy. But look elsewhere, like the new movie about Freddie Mercury, and the story of AIDS is all about erased.  To ignore such a vital part of Mercury’s story and it’s impact seems like a mistake. I guess my point of writing is this to remind myself of artists like Ashman and Mercury and what they contributed as people with AIDS and to know they are not forgotten.

Maybe my clickbait idea at the top was correct. I mean, if you love The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, then you love Howard Ashman, a man who died from AIDS.  But also if your kids love the literary adventures of Frog and Toad,  they also love a story of AIDS. If you’ve watched Dreamgirls and sang along, you are enjoying a story that is not just a black story or a musical story but the story of AIDS.   So maybe your kids love something dearly like Beauty and the Beast and that’s partially because of AIDS, a monster whose horrors they’ll hopefully never know. Talk about a real life fairy tale ending.

‘Strike a Pose’ Strikes a Chord

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“Look, around. Everywhere you turn is heartache. It’s everywhere that you go.” Madonna,Vogue, 1990

It wasn’t the scene of Madonna simulating oral sex on a bottle. Nor was it the many scenes of her openly discussing her love life. It wasn’t even the scene where she turned “Like a Virgin” into a masturbating with a crucifix blasphemy filled ballad that people were talking about when they talked about 1991’s Truth or Dare. It was the scene where two of her male dancers kissed each other while playing the game in the title of the film. The sight of two men making out on the big screen was so nonexistent in 1991 that jaws dropped around the world when the film was released. Now over 25 years later, the story behind that kiss as well as the all the dirt on the tour, the film and the diva herself can be seen in the new documentary Strike a Pose, now on Netflix.

As a Madonna fan, I’ve been dying to see Strike a Pose since I read about it last year. The main reason being that Truth or Dare was seminal in my life as a gay teen trying to find the courage to come out. What that seemingly simple scene did for me and others like me was show that who we were was okay. Madonna and her dancers were presenting a life where you could be yourself and not give a fuck about what people thought. Sure sounded good to me, the terminally effeminate and unique soul that I was. Yet according to the film, that scene and the glamorous carefree life that came with it also came at a price.

Strike a Pose profiles the lives of six of Madonna’s dancers from the Blonde Ambition tour who were also featured in the “Vogue” music video. Luis, Jose, Salim, Carlton, Kevin and Oliver became instant stars during the tour and their fame exploded when moviegoers met them a year later in Truth or Dare. The movie takes an unflinching look at the past and pulls no punches especially when talking about the AIDS crisis. Two of the dancers, Carlton and Luis, tell heart-wrenching stories about how they were terrified to tell Madonna and other members of the company that they were HIV positive. Carlton found out in Japan while Blonde Ambition was getting ready to take over the world and Salim was diagnosed in 1987 but kept it hidden. Their stories are incredibly sad and ironic given that Madonna was vocal advocate for HIV and AIDS, having just lost her friend artist Keith Haring to the disease. These dancers were very young and I can’t imagine how terrifying that world was back then. Thus the story of Strike a Pose, after it gets done dishing the showbiz details, quickly becomes to a story I can really relate to: a story of survival.

How do you deal with the fall outs of instant fame? If we are to believe Strike a Pose, the answer is, not very well. These kids thrust into the spotlight were given all the drugs, booze and VIP access that they could handle and they rightfully took advantage of it. Naturally, things got ugly pretty quickly. Jose and Luis, who became minor club sensations with a record of their own, both got hooked on heroin and parted ways with Madonna after their addictions got out of control. For Carlton and Salim, the battle to stay well in a society where everyone with your condition is dying is a very real one, not helped by collective shaming and ignorance. In one of the films, more devastating segments, we’re introduced to Gabriel, the dancer featured, along with Salim, in that famous kiss. Gabriel died from complications of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 26. According to his mother, Gabriel wanted Madonna to cut the kiss from the film and after she told him to “Get over it”, he  went on to sue her for forcing him to come out. It’s an unsavory moment but not the only one. Kevin and Oliver also sued Madonna for compensation from the film. Yet the movie goes surprisingly lite on the Madonna bashing which is surprising given that her reputation as a difficult  boss and coworker is legendary.

It’s because of this however that Strike a Pose is effective and moving. By avoiding being a victim, bitchfest, Strike Pose turns into a portrait of growth. It isn’t about Madonna anymore. It’s about the six dancers and what happened since their worlds were turned upside down. Against the odds, these men have somehow stayed well, gotten sober and survived. Salim’s story, for me, is the center of the films’ heart and message of resilience. Still dancing and living in New York, Salim speaks  publicly for the first time about being positive and the result is a raw, tear-jerking emotional moment.

As a fan of Madonna and Truth or Dare, the movie delivers on the serving the desired nostalgia of the time. With clips of the film and access to the songs, the movie gives a fan what they want. But as somebody sober with HIV, the movie goes a lot deeper and soon becomes relatable and courageous. Gay men like myself have always been attracted to women who survive. Cher, Elizabeth Taylor and Tina Turner all had been through the ringer and counted out but somehow came back. It’s a glamour and toughness that we as gay men latch onto and find aspirational. Yet what Strike a Pose does beautifully is finally give gay men the fierce, empowered, truthful comeback story of their own.