22 December 2018

AIDSiversary 21

That time of year again, already.

On this date 21 years ago, I was gasping for every breath, and my doctor sent me up the hill to the emergency room of the Montréal General Hospital with a note to tell them (and me, of course on the way) that he suspected that I had pneumonia, and a pneumonia that was an AIDS-defining illness.

I couldn’t have expected then, despite all of what my doctors (yes, they multiplied) told me in the months that followed, that I would still be here talking about this 21 years later. At the time, depleted of oxygen and having passed out at least twice on the weekend preceding the doctor visit, I really didn’t think I had the strength to fight anything.

When I tell my story these days, I always make a point of recognizing that I have lived my experience of HIV/AIDS with all of the privileges that one could hope to have. I’m an educated, middle-class white man in a developed country with ready access to healthcare and medication, and — probably most importantly of all — I have a solid support network of family and friends I did not hesitate to reach out to, and by which I have never been disappointed.

Far from taking my life away (that first gut reaction can be brutal, even in the face of all of the information and advice coming from the medical professionals), this path I am on has given me purpose, focused more than it ever might have been if I, and many, many of my friends, were not on this path.

I also have something else to celebrate at this point in the history of the epidemic. The knowledge, and probably more importantly the official acknowledgement, that a person with HIV treated successfully cannot transmit the virus sexually is a game-changer in how I and so many others feel about ourselves as “carriers” of a disease that still strikes fear into the hearts of those who have very little experience with it. I know that the fear of transmission is misplaced, and has been scientifically proven to be misplaced, and that is a big relief for me and many others. It is also a great incentive to carry on with treatments that are first and most importantly giving me relatively good health, but are also ensuring that I can’t transmit HIV.

But lest we think that it’s all over now, let’s just remember that it isn’t. I might have the additional advantage of being employed in an organization that wouldn’t fire me for being HIV positive, but I can’t say that my status wouldn’t be a barrier to seeking other employment elsewhere, as it is for many. The solidity of my support networks mean that I don’t have to worry about being very open about my status, because the people who really matter in my life know and accept me. I also have enough knowledge, confidence and resources to be able to insist on receiving the treatment that keeps me alive and healthy. 

I’m not so much on the sex and relationship market these days, so I don’t have to face that kind of rejection or discrimination. Actually, when you don’t feel you need something, it is surprising how much power and confidence you can have in managing situations that might arise. I do have several of those meeting applications on my phone, but it seems that I mostly use them for window-shopping and then occasionally to give information about HIV to people who might have questions, or to those I need to remind of my status that is clearly included in my profile.

There are many more battles to fight. Too many people lack access to treatment and to prevention tools, not only around the world, but here, too. And way too many people lack the kinds of support networks that I could take for granted until I needed them and received confirmation of their excellent state. Yes, many battles, and I am glad to be able to say with confidence that I will be around a bit longer to help fight them.

Cheers, 21st anniversary!

23 October 2018

Melvin Edward Monteith 1931-2018

Melvin Edward Monteith died on 23 October 2018 after a long illness. He was predeceased by his wife of 56 years, Enid Norah (Lucas) Monteith.

He is survived by his sister Doreen (Roy Baillargeon) of Kamloops, his children Mike (Linda), Brandy (Brenton Wilkie), Terry (John Pisarczyk), Ken, Syd (Tracy Baird), 8 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Mel grew up in Kamloops, graduating from the Senior Matriculation programme at Kamloops Senior Secondary School in 1952. In his final school years, he worked summers for the BC Forest Service and landed his first full-time position in Wells Grey Park in 1952. Before his retirement in 1994 he had attained the positions of Ranger and District Manager, and was well-liked by those he worked with, especially those who worked for him. His own superiors may have been less impressed by the application of his motto: it is better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.

Mel was a devoted husband and father. From his proposal to Enid at the time of his first post in Wells Grey Park to their marriage in 1953, through many job postings around the interior of BC, to his loving attention as Enid’s health declined after their retirement and he became her primary caregiver, theirs was a story of devotion and attention.

His children all remember the countless ways he showed his love of the family — the summer camping trips, the winter skating rinks, tobogganing, skiing, a swing and a climbing rope at every home they lived in, the attendance at countless sporting events and much, much more. Mel and Enid built and maintained a family that sticks together, despite geographical distance and differences of opinion. A loving home and support for the hopes and dreams of all are the legacy Mel and Enid leave behind as parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

Mel was hard-working, intelligent, practical and caring. He was fair and open-minded, a ravenous reader of science-fiction and overall a very likeable man, right to the end. His children were endlessly amazed by his capacity to complete complex mathematical calculations in his head faster than they could do the same with their calculators.

One of Mel’s great accomplishments was the building of the family’s log home. He worked hard on weekends and holidays to accomplish this work, largely by hand, from felling the trees, to peeling the logs and winching them atop the structure to carrying rocks and mortar up ladders to build an immense central fireplace. The result was a beautiful home fitting for the loving family he had created.

Mel will be remembered in a private family gathering. There will be no service by request.

In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the Kamloops Hospice Association, Marjorie Willoughby Snowden Hospice Home, 72 Whiteshield Crescent South, Kamloops, BC V2E 2S9. Their web site here.

You have all our love and appreciation for being the best father a family could have, Dad. We miss you terribly.

16 September 2018

Rigoletto: It’s all good fun until somebody gets stabbed

Okay, we’ll just start with the usual warning — that I am no musical or operatic expert — and add another about the time and place and the horrible place of women at the time of the penning of the opera, the time it was set and…well…even today. Yes, #GildaToo.

All of that said, the Opéra de Montréal’s production of Rigoletto was a delight and an excellent way to start off the new season. I have a personal penchant for bouncy Italian music, soaring duets and solos, and even for a good rollicking chorus, and I got them all. Those and the bonus of soprano Myriam Leblanc treating us to some exceptionally beautiful high notes and bass baritone Vartan Gabrielian setting my little gay heart aflutter with some lovely low notes. And I believe those two are both locals, or at least Canadians! Lovely!

The story is, of course, completely awful. The lascivious Duke has his way with any woman he wants and tends to punish the men who dare to stand up to him about that. Very little opportunity to hear what the women involved might want, of course. A carelessly broad curse tossed out by Monterone following the “seduction” of his daughter, the Countess Ceprano, seems to have stricken Rigoletto, the court jester, even more than the Duke who did the “seducing”. (Yes, those quotation marks are an expression of doubt around the issue of consent.) Rigoletto, for all his mocking of the male “victims” of the Duke’s philandering with “their” women, wants very much to protect his daughter from his employer.

The crowd will have none of that, thinking that Gilda is Rigoletto’s mistress, not his daughter, and they set out to kidnap her, involving a strangely unsuspecting Rigoletto in the plot, blindfolded of course. Gilda is delivered to the Duke, who she already knows as “a poor student” who spied her in church and has professed his love to her. The crowd’s recounting of the kidnapping of Gilda to the Duke is one of the delightful musical moments (crowd edition) of the production for me.

Rigoletto gets Gilda back and arranges for her to escape to Verona disguised as a man while he takes advantage of an offer from the assassin/innkeeper Sparafucile (Gabrielian — swoon — beautiful voice AND dangerous!) to be done with the Duke forever. Rigoletto pays half up front after he and the yet-undisguised Gilda overhear the Duke’s overtures to Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena (and he sings that women are fickle!), to return with the second installment when the deed is done. He insists on being the one who will throw the body into the river.

Maddalena develops a soft spot for the Duke and proposes that her brother instead kill Rigoletto when he returns, thereby getting the whole sum anyway, but Sparfucile has scruples and will not betray his client. Not until version two of the ruse presents itself in the form of a beggar who knocks at the door. Killing the beggar instead of the Duke to fool Rigoletto is just fine, apparently. Alas, the beggar is Gilda in her man drag and she is stabbed from behind by our dangerous hitman.

Sparafucile delivers the body to Rigoletto as arranged and collects his final payment. Rigoletto is unable to resist looking at the corpse — especially after hearing the Duke in the distance singing La dona è mobile — and discovers his daughter, who seems to come back to life for a bit to sing (this is opera after all), and then sings as an angel from atop the city walls. The philandering Duke has doubtless moved on to his next conquest.

I liked the sets, also as usual. Great walls in a state of disrepair, cutaway views of courtyards, and very little disruption of the action for the changes. In one spot, Rigoletto and Gilda are singing in front of the scrim and the curtain, allowing for a quick set change that is discreet and well-executed. The lighting also bears mentioning, as the thunder/lightning storm that unfolds while we are looking into the courtyard at Sparafucile’s wayside inn continues through the aforementioned scene change — we see flashes of light at the bottom of the curtain. Very clever.

To recap: lovely opera, horrible story, beautiful voices, nice sets and good lighting effects.

To go off on a tangent, I think it might be time for the conductor to update his profile photo (he looked significantly older in person!) and it might be time for me to invest in some opera glasses (I’m looking at you, Vartan Gabrielian!).

24 March 2018

Ritual Beauty, Unusual Sound

What a lovely evening I just spent. Delightful company and an extremely engaging première performance of Svadba by the Atelier Lyrique of the Opéra de Montréal.

When I invited my friend, I described the performance as an a capella Serbian hen party. Not far off in terms of the content, but I sold it short in omitting what I couldn’t have known at the time — a multimedia experience, an exposure to voices that reminded me of a Bulgarian women’s choir with which I and my colleagues were completely obsessed at the end of the 1980s/beginning of the 1990s.

Let’s start where I know my way: the story. It is a group of women who are preparing their friend for her wedding. The go through all manner of things…grooming, hair dyeing, discussing how the proposal came about, the qualities of the groom, their reminiscences of childhood games, and what a marriage means in terms of separation from family and reconnection with a family to be. It ends with the bride and her five friends, all bridesmaids, lined up for the wedding.

It’s really all about the voices, and they were beautiful and strong, wrapping around each other in amazing melodies, swooping and curling into strange and sometimes jarring sounds. I know that some of these were just nonsense syllables, one trip took us through the Serbian alphabet, but also words and phrases, sometimes sung in the round and slightly out of synch (intentionally) like some modern music on loops of slightly different lengths that phases together and apart. I was amazed at the capacity of the six women on stage to maintain a nonstop performance through multiple changes in cadence and tone, notes that took us to the mystery of the foreign by seeming to sour at the end, just slightly. Strikingly beautiful.

As if the challenging singing were not enough, the women also contributed sounds, whether by stomping, clapping, slapping their thighs, or with instruments like a little whistle deftly played into birdsong, cylinders manipulated into rain or shower water, a drum. These combined seamlessly with the vocals to create a very impressive performance.

The set was very simple, with thin white curtains/blinds “hiding” the bridesmaids’ dresses, but also serving as surfaces on which words and syllables and nonsense sounds were projected, floating up organically from the singers. One of those blinds turned out to be more like a circus silk, as the bride sat in it like a swing. A few chairs, a white sheet and a table on wheels completed the props, transforming smoothly into what they needed to be.

At the end, after all the applause (and how refreshing that every person joining them on the stage in the various supporting and directing roles was also a woman!) two guys with traditional wedding-type instruments (a big bass and an accordion) came out as plates of cake were set out. I don’t know if the traditional wedding follow-up of cake and dance will follow every performance; we had the honour of sharing our experience with the Serbian Ambassador and the Honorary Consul in Montréal.

Let me know if there’s cake on the other nights. And that — in case it wasn’t already clear — means DO go, and then report back on the cake situation.


28 January 2018

JFK: it’s the journey; we all know how it ends

“There will be gunshots” they said. I’m here to tell you they are not the gunshots you were expecting. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I always preface my opera reviews with the disclaimers — not a music or opera expert, tend to be shallow or at least not very sophisticated in my tastes, and so on. Give me a light Italian opera any day! On the other hand, I like to think of myself — without any justification whatsoever — as someone who can appreciate the new and the avant-garde. We have an excellent test of that in JFK.

To start, I really didn’t like the music. And then it grew on me a bit, starting with the almost country song sung by Lyndon Baines Johnson and the boys as they humiliated JFK in the bathtub (more about the scenario later). Then I started to appreciate the rest of the music, ominous and haunting notes that seemed to sour as they finished, like a crazy nightmare unfolding. I ended thinking that I would really like to listen to the music on its own, to see how I would like that.

The Opéra de Montréal (and I guess the production itself) did the usual amazing job with the set. Lights! Neon! Marquée lights! They were all on the stage and part of the set. Some of them were a bit annoying (my friend and I didn’t really like the green neon, which was jarring) and I couldn’t get past the horrible “S” in the TEXAS sign: it really seemed like it was the wrong font (I’m a font geek), at least until I got home and was able to find a historical photo of the Hotel Texas sign in the background of an actual JFL speech. So I’ll shut up about the “S”, despite really not liking it!

There were other interesting elements of the set. Four rooms of a hotel suite on a turntable, so we could see where the action was happening. A big head table of an official breakfast that actually pulled apart to each side when we needed to return to the hotel room because JFK and Jackie (Jacquie?) had not yet arrived for the breakfast. That device was particularly interesting, as the breakfast guests who were already seated continued to look like they were eating and chatting while the focus and the light were redirected to the hotel room. Well done.

One prop that drove me crazy was deployed in the Soviet scene. A giant hammer and sickle (as separate parts) that were moved together with regular rhythm…but the sickle was upside down! I’m a stickler for an upright sickle, or at least one that, brought together with its hammer, would make the classic symbol, not some new permutation of it. Luckily, that was over quickly. Kruschev, however, came back for a cameo in the bathtub. Yes, surrealism reigned.

So the scenario was a bit out there. I guess that’s a good way to address a trauma that turned the world upside down for Americans and for many others as well. A strange and surreal event follows a strange and surreal build-up, which is completely reasonable, especially when we remember that it is opera. Friction between JFK and LBJ blows up into an invasion of gaudily costumed loudmouths to mock the president in his bathtub. A row of 3-D glasses wearing spectators face us in the audience at the end. And in between, random cheerleaders and a children’s choir, which I guess might be less surreal in the time and place than I perceive them to be in my time and place.

But there were real ties to the familiar events, too. The pink Chanel suit with the pillbox hat, hanging in the hotel suite closet and then worn by Jackie on what we all knew would be the fateful day. A degree of discord between JFK and Jackie, but with signs of wanting to be better together. And while the story on stage only takes us up to the fateful time and day, the Opéra de Montréal pulled out the projector again, and the real footage of the motorcade’s progress through Dallas was projected onto the set as the opera came to its end. Very tastefully done, and effective.

One more thing to talk about that left me feeling slightly uncomfortable. The Fates. We’ll leave aside the Cutter, who seemed to be the Lee Harvey Oswald character, complete with Soviet connections and a gun shooting from a window. The Spinner was also hotel maid Clara Harris and the Allotter was Secret Service advance man Henry Rathbone. Fine. I don’t know if these were real people (and I am apparently too lazy to look it up on the computer on which I am writing this!), but if I had a production in which there were two characters whose role it was to announce doom and they ended up being the only two people of colour on the stage (in my observation and memory), I might feel a twinge of discomfort. On the other hand, they are both big roles, so there’s that.

Overall, well worth seeing. Be ready for surreal and be ready for modern music that can be jarring at times, but let yourself be seduced by it, if only to be able to say that you’re not as much of a fuddy-duddy or shallow appreciator of light, standard Italian opera fare. It’s working for me so far.

28 December 2017

Abby Lippman

I have lost a friend this week, and many others have lost a seemingly tireless ally in a number of struggles for rights and recognition. I know that I will not do justice to Abby Lippman’s contributions to academia or to a number of the social movements where she made her mark, so allow me to concentrate on those areas where our lives happily intersected.

I met Abby at Head & Hands, a youth organization in the NDG neighbourhood of Montréal where I worked as Coordinator of Legal Services and then as Executive Director, all in the 1990s. Abby was a member of the Board of Directors and President of that Board for a number of years. Not your usual President, but one who came with extensive knowledge and history in the women’s health movement, and one who demonstrated her commitment to the cause with every act. I remember that we had an annual fundraising mailing to our members at the beginning of December, and Abby personally signed each of those letters, often adding a personal note to the member/donor. There weren’t dozens of these letters, there were hundreds of them. Every one of them got a signature that could be smudged to demonstrate its authenticity, putting some real meaning into the strength of a small charity: that it can be close to and personal with its donors.

When I left Head & Hands, I was very happy to be able to pursue my relationship with Abby, now more as a friend than as a colleague. Oh, we talked about health issues and didn’t always agree about everything (I’m thinking of the funding from pharmaceutical companies that I felt my organization could accept without impact on the content of the programming it served to support or the issue of HPV vaccination). Even when we didn’t agree, Abby always gave me a reason to reflect on my opinions and to see them through other eyes.

We are both big fans of the arts — my taste in films was often much more pedestrian than hers — and we had occasions to go to the movies or to a student production of an opera at McGill. I have two favourite memories of Abby at the cinema. First, when we participated in the time-honoured tradition of going to see a film (or two) on Christmas Day. Abby was determined to sneak into the second film without paying, while straight-laced Ken insisted on going out and paying as we should…I paid for both of us in my slavish following of the rules.

The second movie memory was when I encouraged Abby to sign up for the cinema’s loyalty program in order to be able to accumulate points for free movies. She painstakingly did her sign-up at the automated kiosk and got her temporary number…whereupon I learned that her concern for privacy had led her to use a pseudonym and give a false address and invented postal code! How, I asked, are you going to get your card, which they send through the mail? I don’t know if she ever went back to deal with that one, but it left me giggling.

The most moving thing Abby did for me was to include me in her family, inviting me to participate in the family meals for all of the Jewish holidays. Her Seder evolved over the years, with multiple texts to choose from (traditional, feminist, humanist, and a Dr Seuss-like version called Uncle Eli’s Haggadah) and some extra items on the Seder plate — an orange for the place of women and Palestinian olives to remind us of the occupation and the injustice in that situation. The year (one of the years?) when Israeli forces invaded Gaza, all texts were set aside, and Abby read a letter she had written denouncing that action. The meal was always permeated with the political significance that it deserved, even if the metaphorical connections to current social justice issues might have been more pronounced around her table than around many others.

Abby wrote editorials, marched, picketed stores, participated in an ongoing vigil of Jewish and Palestinian women outside the Israeli consulate… Like I said at the beginning, it would be impossible for me to list every cause and every action without unjustly leaving several out. She exuded boundless energy for social justice and little tolerance for its absence. She was opinionated and loving, loud and giving, quirky and intelligent. Most of all, she was someone I was glad to be able to count as a friend.

I will miss you, Abby Lippman.

Article in The Gazette here.

In lieu of flowers, Abby's family requests that dontations be made to The Native Women's Shelter of Montreal.

22 December 2017

AIDSiversary #20

So, I have now survived my AIDS diagnosis by 20 years and I will mark the occasion by venting about language in relation to this epidemic.

Some will balk at the use of the term AIDS at all, and I can understand that to some degree. As the — uh — proud (?!) owner of a diagnosis of AIDS, I have to recognize that it just doesn’t mean the same thing that it did decades ago. In the beginning, it was as much a prognosis as a diagnosis, an indication of where one was on the one-way trip to disease and death. Not anymore. “AIDS” as a term is still useful to diagnoses someone who has waited too long to get tested for HIV or for whom treatment hasn’t been working, but one can now expect to recover from those things. Even I, with my very late diagnosis at a point where I was basically without an immune system, have survived 20 years in pretty good health with treatment.

So I’ll concede that it is not always appropriate to speak of AIDS and most times more appropriate to refer to HIV.

Now we seem to also be dealing with the disappearance of the acceptability of using HIV as a term. I’m not talking about our governments’ tendency toward convergence in their funding and strategies, bringing all sexually transmitted and blood borne infections together — that makes sense all the time for prevention, although it is still useful to pull out the HIV to recognize some of the social effects and stigmatization that are less evident with the other STBBIs. No, I’m talking about addressing HIV stigma by not saying its name out loud, by changing organization names to omit all reference to HIV or AIDS, by speaking strangely about “lived experience” as code for living with HIV instead of naming it. (We all have lived experience of something, right?)

Hiding HIV and hiding AIDS will do nothing to address the stigma that is associated with this epidemic. If anything it will make it worse.

In that vein, let me turn to another practice in our movement, marked as it is by what I like to call the culture of secrecy. I understand confidentiality and the need for it for people the most likely to suffer negative effects of stigma. What I don’t understand is the special brand of zealousness that would impose that secrecy on my own speaking of my own experiences. Let me illustrate with a few examples.

I was recently at the hospital testing centre for my regular blood tests. As the clerk at the desk shuffled through the too-many papers that my doctor had given me to identify which tests to do, she began handing papers back to me. One was for my HIV viral load, and I pointed that out to her: “If I’m not getting an HIV viral load, why am I even wasting my time here?” She fell all over herself trying to keep my voice down, so as not to compromise the confidentiality that I guess I was too thick to protect for myself.

On another occasion, years ago, I was at a gathering of HIV-positive people and proposed a resolution to change the way the minutes of the meetings would be reported. There was in place a practice of blacking out the names of the proposers and seconders of motions to protect the confidentiality of those participating actively at the meetings. My proposal was to allow us to choose whether or not our names would appear as a part of the official record. My motion passed quite easily. When we returned to the same meeting the following year, the most egregious example of this culture of secrecy sprang forth, as the minutes of the previous year’s meeting were presented to us, my motion clear on the page, but my name and the name of the seconder blacked out. (We objected!)

Finally, when my friend Doug died in 2014, the organization with which we had both identified in our pasts proceeded with its annual ritual at its general meeting, naming those we had lost during the year while lighting candles and inviting the crowd to observe a moment of silence. The person reading out the names made an error, diverging from the organization’s usual practice of pronouncing the first name and the initial of the family name, and actually read out whole names. Doug would have approved heartily, as did I. I got up at the end of the meeting and congratulated them on the move, expressing my hope that it was a change of policy and they would not be returning to the other practice.

I understand that not everyone is in my position — I am living my experience of HIV with a lot of privilege. I have supportive friends and family members, it would be much more of a scandal for me to lose my job for being HIV-positive than to keep it (I work for an AIDS organization) and I go about freely identifying myself as a person living with HIV. After all this effort, I will not tolerate my experience of living with HIV being scrubbed from the record, as that would go against everything I stand for.

I would rather be forgotten entirely than anonymized posthumously by some misguided notion of protecting my confidentiality.