Posted on January 24, 2009
For some reason, in 1996 I decided to start dating a French-Canadian girl. It’s not as though it was a French-Canadian girl I was after specifically, it’s just that this particular one kind of knocked me off of my feet. Blew my socks right down, as it were. She was a beautiful Seperatiste, the kind that gets very upset about almost anything to do with anything that’s not French. She hated the English, but didn’t seem to mind me too much for some reason. I think she was still upset about the referendum.
To assuage her anger I would take her on long walks in pretty places with no signs in English, or at least very few. It’s not exactly an easy thing to accomplish in Edmonton. Every time we’d pass a sign only in English she’d say, “Tabernak, criss d’anglais!”
I don’t know what it meant, but it sounded pretty.
Her name was Marta and to annoy her I would call her Marty, which made me laugh, but it made her angry and she’d drive her fist into the bony part of my shoulder. At first I thought it was funny and cute, but after a while I had to stop making the joke because I was having trouble lifting my arm.
While it may seem as though she was always angry and spending most of her time hating English people, writing manifestos, and making bombs in the basement, she was actually a very sweet girl – in her way. Her compassion was as palpable as her ire, and this raven-haired beauty seemed to breathe a new life into me.
It was a gorgeous June morning and I had been enduring a tirade of French curse words when my girl had come home after arguing with a barista at the Starbuck’s on Whyte Avenue. Every time she went in there she left in a huff, trails of Francophone righteous indignation following her like a path of bread crumbs so that she could find her way back to renew and validate her hatred for the Alberta Anglophone. I’m not too sure why she did this. I think she enjoyed the drama because, even at her most angry, she could not disguise her glorious self-satisfaction.
Having grown tired of her pontification that day, I asked her if she’d like to go for a nice long walk with me and, sweet girl that she was, she sensed my discomfort and smiled at me, agreeing to go.
“I will teach for you da bird and trees names en Francais”, she said, beaming. She loved teaching me about anything French.
We decided to walk down 84th Avenue and into Mill Creek ravine, heading south down the newly paved trail. As we walked she pointed at different trees, naming them in French, encouraging me to repeat them and laughing delightedly at my clumsy accent, and then clapping her hands and crying, “Tres bien, Minou!” when I would be able to wrestle my tongue and throat around the difficult syllables. It was a lovely game, therapeutic for both of us, and it was in those moments that I loved her, in the small way that I was just barely capable of achieving.
As we walked, she suddenly slipped her arm around mine, laid her head on my shoulder and hummed a tune unfamiliar to me. Most things she hummed were. Then, as if to answer her pretty song, from just to the left of us in the bushes came a small cry.
“Piou-piou”, it sang. “Piou-piou”, in the way that little boys make the sound of a laser gun.
We looked in the bushes to where the sound came from and saw a tiny robin on the ground. Looking up, I saw that it had probably fallen from the nest about 15 ft. above us, and was crying pitifully for its mother.
“Ooohhh, piou-piou”, cried my girlfriend. “Ou-est ta mere, mmm?”
I watched her squat down in this – I don’t know how to describe it – very French way, and extend her hand to the little bird.
“Piou-piou”, she cooed.
“Piou-piou”, the bird replied. They had bonded.
I suddenly remembered reading something about how you should never touch a baby bird because after you have, the mother bird will no longer care for it for some reason, and while I’m still not sure if this is true or not, it was too lat. I watched her pick the baby up in both hands and hold it close to her chest, just under her chin so that she would be close enough to whisper words of comfort to the helpless creature. Like it or not, the bird had a new mother. Of course, there would be no way of determining whether or not the bird actually cared, but it seemed content enough to warble away in this woman’s caring embrace.
“We must take dis bird ‘ome to make it better, la”, she said with a determined look on her face that, by now, I recognized as one I need not bother to argue with.
So we did.
Marta set the pace for the journey home by taking these excruciatingly careful steps as though she were treading upon the empty eggshell of her new found worry.
I settled in a couple of steps behind and bore the occasional glare from the new mother; accusatory looks that told me I wasn’t caring enough, but because I knew that no matter how much I cared or how ingratiatingly I fawned over the bird, it would never be enough, I just remained several steps behind, like an obedient Muslim wife.
Arriving at our apartment building, she gingerly climbed the steps, one at a time, and waited –while glaring at me – at the door of our suite for me to unlock the door.
Knowing that the only way I would ever be able to even consider the possibility of any kind of amorous encounter over the next few weeks was for me to take an active interest in the recovery of the bird, I went to the cupboard and got a small bowl that I filled with water from the tap and set on the counter. Ignoring me, Marta painstakingly placed the bird on the counter (piou-piou) and went to the cupboard, recovered another small bowl, and filled it with Evian water, placed it on the floor, then the bird next to it. She did not look at me.
Dejected, I decided to try again. I got some newspaper and placed it on the floor next to the bird. Marta, ignoring me, went to our bedroom, took the little rug I had on my side of the bed, then placed it on the floor in the living room, then the bird and the bowl of water on the rug. She did not look at me. (piou-piou)
I realized that I was no match for this tiny concern, and so I just sat in a chair nearby, awaiting instruction. None came.
Until the next morning when I awoke to find on my bedside table, a list that she must’ve written sometime in the night or early morning. She had stayed the entire night at the bird’s side. I walked into the room, list in hand and stood surveying the scene. Mother and child (piou-piou) in quiet communion with each other, the mother caring for her infant as only a mother can.
Sensing my presence, Marta looked at me, then the door, then back at me, her eyebrows raised as if to say, what’s the holdup you h’English pig?
I put on my shoes.
Out on the sidewalk I looked at the list.
For the next few days she cared for the bird with an English Patient-like enthusiasm. Slowly, but surely, the bird began to become more animated (piou-piou) and would jump about the house, shitting everywhere. I learned very quickly to recognize the clean that up look. For me, the whole freaking thing was a huge pain in the ass.
But it was the happiest I had ever seen Marta. She spent all her time with the bird, nursing it back to health, and 4 days later the payoff came. The bird flapped its way onto the coffee table, shat, then, with a Herculean effort, flapped wildly, if not somewhat comically, to the kitchen counter. Where it shat. (Piou-Piou!)
I sighed and walked to closet where we kept rags and disinfectant. Marta let out a terrific squeal of delight and screamed, “Ah, Piou-piou, tu es magnifique!” but the bird was startled by this sudden outburst. Piou-piou squawked viciously and began to fly erratically around the house like an airplane that has been shot and lost control. Flapping its wings with all its might, it knocked over a vase of flowers that I had bought when I went for bird seed, got momentarily caught up in the curtains, shat on them, then freed itself. It tried to land on the couch, but bounced off the top of it and hit the wall: hard. Piou-piou slid gracelessly to the floor, visibly stunned, and physically shaken. And shat.
Stopping only to glare at me as though this had all been my fault, she ran to the bird, took it in her arms as she had the first time, and walked to the bedroom. I spent the next hour cleaning up.
At 1am I finally grew weary of waiting for the pair to emerge, and because I was very tired and had a terrific headache from the smell of disinfectant that lingered so triumphantly throughout the apartment, I decided to risk everything and go to bed. With them.
As I lay down in the bed, Marta turned the other way to protect the bird from me. She cooed softly to the bird, then turned around and glared at me for a moment. I sank into my pillow and slept.
The next morning I awoke, my head still pounding. Marta was still asleep. She was most likely exhausted from so many long days of ministration. I looked, but did not see the bird next to her, and craving a Tylenol, a coffee and a long pee, I sat up in the bed, stretched and put my feet on the floor, looking for my slippers. But my left foot found neither my slippers nor the floor. There was a soft crunch sound and a squish under my foot.
I couldn’t look.
I just sat there for a long time, head pounding, my bladder near to exploding, thinking about how much I would miss learning about French things.
When Marta finally awoke she found the bird had left her. She looked around the room – ignoring me – and called out, “Piou-piou. Piouuuuuu-piou”. Then she looked at me.
I suppose I still miss her.
Posted on January 14, 2009
I’m sure we’ve all heard someone say, “I think that I might like art, I just don’t understand it.” A part of the problem is that there are those who claim an elitist status in the artistic world, one that separates them from those that they deem to be ‘the rest of the populace.’ Far too much art has been made inaccessible to the public: to regular people who wish to just simply enjoy the aesthetics of what they’re seeing. The elitists of the art world have made it clear to them that unless they can spend five minutes spouting some rhetoric that has less to do with the art they’re speaking of than it does with the cavernous recesses of a self-absorbed brain, then they have clearly not understood the art they’re seeing.
There’s no doubt that this would put anyone off. If I went to a cricket match, attempting to understand what was going on and was laughed at and ridiculed by the fans, there’s an excellent chance that not only would I take my hot dog and beer (or whatever it is that they sell at cricket matches) and leave, but I would most likely never come back. Moreover, I might hold cricket fans and, by rote, cricket itself in less than high regard. By the same token, anyone that attended a gallery exhibition and was treated with the same lack of respect would probably begin to hold art and artists in contempt.
There is an obvious misconception about artists throughout a large amount of the general public. After Stephen Harper made his comments about restricting arts funding to artists because they were all a bunch of elitists who regularly attended black tie parties, a large part of the country appeared to agree with his assessment, even though there could be nothing further from the truth.
The mission now must be to involve people in art. To show them the beauty of art, to give them a sense of what it is that artists are attempting to accomplish. To let them know what it is that drives them and to show them what it is about art that is important, not just to artists and cultural elitists, but to the populace in general. To show them that artists are people just like the rest of the world and that they struggle, but do so willingly.
We, as artists, all know the choices we have made and we know that very few will make the sort of money in their endeavors that a chartered accountant or a business executive, for example, might make. Enough Canadians (barely) make their living as artists that we now represent a group larger than others that consistently garner more funding from the Federal and Provincial governments that it must be seen as nothing more than a crime.
Huge corporations are consistently and unashamedly given grant monies from all levels of government. Consider the massive amount of money that the oil companies receive in investment funds from government. The last time I checked, art didn’t kill a flock of ducks in a toxic pond created by the run off from a spoken word show, or a play. Modern dance has never belched so much smoke into the air that it caused global warming or gave children athsma, nor has a symphony orchestra ever spilled into a remote bay, killing off all the marine life that they came into contact with.
On January 14th, students from Concordia University’s Department of Contemporary Dance presented OCCUPANTS at Concordia’s EV Building at 1515 St. Catherine West in Montreal. The event was made up of site-specific choreography with the intention of interacting with the architecture of the space and intermingle with the building’s occupants.
The challenge here was to create works within an active public environment. As people rushed to and from meetings, work and appointments, the dancers engaged them in what turned out to be a spectacular artistic experiment that not only engaged the public, but shone a light on the daily workings of the city.
The goal, of course, was to engage persons and not alienate them. Amy Blackmore (Assistant Producer of the St. Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival) choreographed a piece that began with her dancers banging on windows and motioning for people to come over to them. While many ignored the entreaties, several walked over and attempted to find out what was going on. With strict instructions from Blackmore to not speak to anyone, the dancers were left with nothing more than hand gestures and movement as their tools of interaction. Most people were confused. Some got upset.
Art often attempts to shine a light on society, but with this experiment, the roles were reversed and the audience began to reveal its nature through the natural course of interaction with an unknown entity. Instead of the dancers performing for the public, the public began to perform for the dancers, giving themselves fully to the performance without even realizing that that’s what they were doing. What could be more natural than a performance of people attempting to go on about their daily tasks and are attempting to understand something that’s happening to them that’s so completely out of the ordinary that they aren’t sure how to react?
At some point, a man that had come over to find out what it was that the dancers wanted of him asked Blackmore what was going on. Giving nothing away, she replied that she wasn’t exactly sure what was happening and simply allowed the man to sit and watch the dancers and quietly assess the situation. Eventually, she walked over to him and told him that the girls were part of a dance piece. His entire focus given to their performance, he found himself surprised by how entertained he was. He felt like he’d been let in on a great secret and the show began to exist for him on entirely different level. Once he had understood what was happening, the show, for him, became much more than just the dancers, but those watching the dancers as well.
As the dancers began to move from social interaction to dance, once again shifting the focus, a man sat on a table in the midst of them and immersed himself in the performance. As the piece came to a close, he shook each performer’s hand and thanked them for their presentation. He walked away into the crowd, beaming.
And that’s really all it takes. Just a few people being given a simple understanding of what art is meant to be. There was no need for any of them to discuss the social ramifications of the experiment, they simply understood that they had been entertained. They realized that they had been given a gift in the midst of what might have been a very ordinary day that turned out to be quite extraordinary, indeed.
Art is easy enough to understand because ALL understanding of art is really up to the viewer, not the artist. Perhaps an artist might attempt to convey a message, but it’s what the audience takes away with them that is the most important thing. Artists exposing themselves and making themselves vulnerable in situations like this will help to give those that might be afraid to approach art an appreciation and understanding of the message that artists are attempting to convey. It will give them a sense of belonging in a world that they might feel that they know nothing about, but are a part of on a daily basis. If people don’t know about art, then it is the artist’s job to bring it to them and let them see how important it is in our daily lives. All we have to do is show them. They will see.
Art is the juice of life. Let’s squeeze out a glass for anyone that looks thirsty.
You can see OCCUPANTS on Thursday January 15 13h-15h & 19h-21h and Friday January 16 13h-17h for FREE at 1515 St. Catherine West (Concordia University’s EV building).
Posted on January 10, 2009
Posted on January 10, 2009
For most of those in North America, the warnings about safe sex and protection against HIV are almost commonplace. It’s hard to believe that there was a time not so long ago that it was considered ‘the gay plague’, or even ‘the gay cancer’. Even in 1984, most North Americans had not heard of it, and those who had were of two distinct camps: those who had been infected by it, and those who joked about it.
Prior to 1984, when Robert Gallo discovered that HIV was the cause of AIDS, it was considered to be a strictly gay disease and was even known for a time as GRID, or “Gay Related Immune Deficiency”. In 1981, Dr. Curran of the Center for Disease Control stated that, “no cases have been reported to date outside the homosexual community or in women.” It has been asserted that homophobia most likely played a large part in slow response to the disease and given the nation’s attitude to the disease at the time, this is most likely true. Next to be most greatly effected by the disease were IV drug users, and Haitians, and again, little to no response was taken by the medical community. It was not until medical workers began to see the disease in heterosexuals and persons who were not drug users that they began to sit up and pay attention.
Even the United States Government was not above making jokes about the disease. The following is an excerpt from a White House press briefing by Larry Speakes, President Reagan’s Press Secretary at the time.
October 15, 1982
The Briefing Room
Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement [by] the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
MR. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don’t.
MR. SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President?
MR. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
It would seem that at that time there was a lack of information and respect at all levels of society. Because it was viewed by most in the public as a disease that would most often effect minorities and persons whose lifestyles were perceived as ‘deviant’, very little effort was made to stop the spread of the disease or to educate the public on the dangers of the disease. The religious right was the most vocal group in the media, preaching the message that this is God’s punishment to homosexuals. Jerry Falwell said, “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” Even now, web-sites such as `godhatesfags.com’ preach that, “.sodomites are wicked and sinners before the Lord.are worthy of death for their vile, depraved, unnatural sex practices.”
Intolerance for those who were infected was rampant and a school in the United States went so far as to ban Ryan White, a 13 year old hemophiliac who had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, from attending classes.
There was so little known about the disease that approximately 2000 Canadians became infected with HIV before the Red Cross began screening blood for the HIV Virus in 1985. Many of those who received the tainted blood and contracted HIV developed AIDS and died. The federal government finally announced it would pay out $150 Million to those who received the tainted blood products in1989, but the damage had already been done.
And then in 1985 Rock Hudson died of AIDS. Hudson was the first celebrity to die of the disease and the press jumped all over the story. It seemed that every newspaper and periodical in North America carried the story, most centering on the secret life of Rock Hudson and the fact that he was gay. It became less a story of a man who had contracted a disease than a story about a man who had hid his lifestyle from his fans, and he was being made to pay for it. In the end, not much more was made known to the general public about HIV.
It was not until Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a world famous basketball player, made public his infection with HIV that the media and our society began to take this disease seriously. His `outing’ pushed the issue of AIDS to the front of public conscience, thereby forcing the government to act. Here, finally, was a successful, famous, and, by all accounts, straight male, who had contracted HIV. While female to male transmission of HIV is the least common of all transmissions as the virus is transmitted through a fluid transfer, it is not outside of the realm of possibility and many cases have been documented.
“It’s so much different now because we can hold a conversation about it anywhere now”, Johnson told Reuters at a fundraiser for AIDS related causes, and in many ways, his exposing himself as having HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has made many more people willing to talk about it. Heterosexuals suddenly became aware that absolutely everyone in our society who places themselves in a situation where a transfer of bodily fluids can take place are susceptible to infection.
Pat Christen, Executive Director of the San Fransisco AIDS Foundation told the Associated Press in 1996 that there was a dramatic jump in calls after Magic’s announcement, to the foundation’s AIDS hotline, which offers information on HIV. It was suddenly a disease that could effect anyone, anywhere, and people began to sit up and listen. It was clear that while many may discriminate, AIDS would not.
Darrin Hagen is a writer, actor, and Drag Artiste, and was awarded a prestigious ‘Edmontonian of the Century’ Award for his work as both an entertainer and a gender activist/educator. He is also the author of a book that book that deals, in part, with the staggering price the Queer community paid for society’s indifference. Like many, Darrin remembers the first time he heard about AIDS. “It was on CNN…it was a brand new station, and it was always on in the club [that I worked at] while we cleaned. It was referred to as the Gay Cancer. I was 18 or 19 and had just come out into the gay community. But it still seemed very far away…in big American cities.”
But it was not all that far away. Soon after many in Canada began to hear about the disease, people in the gay community especially began to become infected by the disease. Sam, Emperor VIII of Edmonton (a title given to members of Edmonton’s gay community as a token of respect for involvement in that community) was the first of Hagen’s friends to fall victim to AIDS. “I remember the last conversation I had with him,” Hagen said in an emotional interview. “His caregiver phoned me at the club and said `You said you wanted to hear his voice one more time…well, that time is now.’ I didn’t really know him as well as some, but had always admired his spirit and sense of fun. He was very encouraging about my first steps as a drag queen, and it was the moment I realized that this disease wasn’t just going to take the weak; Sam was 6ft-4inches tall; muscular; a physically stunning man.”
Prominent members of the gay community began a campaign to educate about the dangers of contracting the disease, but then, as now, many did not listen.
In 1985, the first Canadian Conference on AIDS was held in Montreal and was attended by such prominent Canadians as Michael Phair, now an Edmonton City Councilman. From this meeting, and subsequent meetings thereafter, the Canadian AIDS Society was formed. The society was formed with the mission of education, political lobby and advocacy. While the society was formed in the 80’s, it was still not until well into the 1990’s that the message began to get out to the general public that this was a very serious threat to everyone.
“The biggest crime is that the powers that be looked the other way for 10 years”, says Hagen. By 1995, according to avert.org, 35,996 Canadians had contracted the HIV virus of which 3,320 were women.
But 10 years after that, the numbers have become more even in Canada. By the same source, the year 2004 has 1,822 men contracting HIV and 663 women. While high-risk groups such as sex-workers and IV drug users still remain most vulnerable, the numbers have evened out to an extent that shows that the disease is `an equal opportunity’ affliction.
Still, there is no simple formula to calculate risk in any group, regardless of age, race, sexual identity, or religion.
Speaking recently with Robert Smith of HIV Edmonton, he said that, “Vulnerability is subjective to some degree. In the Edmonton region for example, IDU (intraveneous drug users) and aboriginal heterosexual women are considered the most vulnerable, while in Calgary, gay/bi/MSM (Men who have Sex with Men, a term meant to refer to ‘closeted’ homosexuals) lead the `pack’. Generally, in larger urban areas like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, gay/bi/MSM still cause great concern. (It is estimated that up to15% of all gay/bi/MSM in Montreal are HIV positive and most don’t know it). The numbers tell us that there is an increasing number of youth being infected across the board, yet we are still seeing 30-49 year olds leading the infection rates.”
While most persons in today’s society have seemingly adequate information about HIV/AIDS and how it effects them in their communities, many are still of the attitude that it cannot happen to them. There is a brazen defiance in the attitudes of many people who put themselves in danger, knowing full well the risk, but not believing that the consequences could possibly apply to them. Given that the ages of those who are leading the infection rates are in the 30 – 49 range, it is not unreasonable to think that most, if not all of these people, would have information on HIV/AIDS and safe sex strategies, or other harm reduction approaches.
Smith says that, “There is a good deal of fatigue with the message and the overall prevention strategies for HIV; not unlike the Gay/Bi/MSM population who do not want to deal with having to wear a condom everytime and the perception that they will never get to experience a full sexual experience.”
There are those who have paid the ultimate price for society’s indifference to the disease, but there are still those who have been left behind and deal with the loss of their friends and family.
Darrin Hagen spoke to me about how the disease has effected his relationships with his friends.
“The huge gap in my life from the amount of friends I lost in the 90’s is still hard to fathom. I cherish the few friends I have now. And as for the ones that are positive (and there are several), well, I would go to the ends of the earth to spend time with them, help them, inspire them while I still have that opportunity. Because now I know how valuable that time is.”
There are tens of thousands of people in Canada mourning the loss of their loved ones and, by the same token, celebrating their lives. One of the ways that has been offered to help people deal with loss is the Names Project. The Names Project started in 1987 in San Fransisco. It was a “collection of cloth panels designed as memorials to those who had died of AIDS.” The pieces, when sewn together became known as The Quilt. In 1989 Canadian cities began to host displays of the Quilt and those panels, along with hundreds of new ones are displayed with regularity in both large and small cities and towns across Canada.
The Quilt is actually a number of quilts with eight panels sewn together into 12 foot sections that create a powerful display – a reminder of those who have died from the disease and because of this society’s unwillingness to face up to the realities of the disease in its early stages. Each of the panels is created by someone who has lost a friend or family member to AIDS and contain the memories of that person, represented by the simple, or even elaborate designs on the panels. And more than just an outlet for this individuals, it is a reminder to all of us of the ultimate price paid by thousands. Displays of the Quilt have also raised more than $3M US for direct services for people with AIDS.
There are many people working towards making a difference in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. For example, in Vancouver a group of volunteers are helping to extend that time for persons living with HIV and their friends and family. A Loving Spoonful is a charity that donates meals to HIV positive persons who could not otherwise afford to eat properly. For some, the meals they receive from A Loving Spoonful are the only meals they ever eat. According to Karen Opas, Director of Volunteer Services for A Loving Spoonful, “About 25% of our clients die each year so we still see it as a fatal disease, although people are able to live much longer [than they used to].” A Loving Spoonful also provides formula and baby food to HIV positive mothers to help stop the spread of the disease through breast milk.
Across Canada, hundreds of charities are working at educating persons about AIDS, advocating for persons who are HIV positive, and offering treatment for persons who have HIV and AIDS. But is it enough?
Robert Smith talked about the lack of resources that AIDS related societies across Canada are effected by in terms of providing more education.
“HIV/AIDS organizations generally (across Canada) do not have adequate financial or human resources to do the job.”
One of the most recent strategies employed by HIV Edmonton, in an effort to circumvent these problems, is getting other groups to do more for the educational aspect of the struggle.
“We attempt to have community groups working with specific populations to become trained HIV educators in their communities. We go into the teaching institutions (Faculties of Education, Nursing, Medicine, Social Work and Mental Health) and give them the population health version of HIV education,
stressing that HIV does not exist in isolation, rather is a part of a larger social-economic problem affecting diverse communities. ”
When asked what further resources should be given to educators, Smith said, “Money, money, money and the people that can be employed with money.”
In terms of providing care to those who are living with HIV, it is not so much more facilities or programs that are needed, but in Smith’s words, “The resources would be adequate if we could only influence the mindset of service providers who believe that diseases such as HIV/AIDS are lifestyle diseases and therefore do not fit under the umbrella of care normally implemented in general service delivery.” An indication that the prejudices that existed in the beginnings of this struggle still exist today.
So, while great strides are being made in the treatment of persons living with HIV and much is being done to educate the public, there are still many shortcomings. As Hagen said, “As long as there is Homophobia, there are still some that will feel that this is a gay disease, that it will never happen them. And with so many religious zealots and idiot politicians still using that myth in their rhetoric, the message is still inconsistent.”
While there are those who still feel that they are immune to the disease, we will still see a spread of this horrible malady, and until changes are made specifically in society’s attitude towards sexual identity, this will continue.
In Hagen’s words: “A virus causes AIDS, but homophobia caused the epidemic.”
(originally seen in the Fitzhugh)
Posted on January 10, 2009
In 1988 I was seventeen and living in the dorm of St. John’s Preparatory School for Boys. While I kept to myself mostly. I would go to my room and do my homework, and when that was done I would immerse myself in some book that I had found at our library. While the pickings were slim for what I might read these days, the library was full of the classics. I read Herodutus, Dickens, Frost and Thomas. I devoured Shakespeare, Melville and Joyce. I read myself to the very bottom of the popularity totem pole. A place that was just fine for me.
You see, I was not at all interested in spending any time whatsoever with my fellow students. I considered them brash and boorish, and I, as pretentious as I was at seventeen, would not give any of them the time of day.
I did my best to be anonymous, assuming that if no one noticed me then I could be safe in this place. I could ride out my three years in relative obscurity, escape somewhat unscathed and make my transition into whatever college I chose without too many scars, physical or otherwise.
But they say that no man is an island, and neither can a boy be as much. As much as I wanted to be alone in that place I was destined not to be; and am the better for it, for it was in this place that I learned to finally understand music.
Up until then I had had the good fortune of retaining a room of my own. Most, if not all the other students were saddled with roommates, but due to some error in administration (I assumed), I had a room of my own. It was luxurious, to say the least.
I happened to be writing in my journal when I heard a knocking on my door. I kept a journal of what I had been reading, a habit I had acquired in Ms. Nornberg’s grade 7 English Literature class. She had asked us all to provide a diary on what we had been reading and the inclination had stuck with me, and has, even to this day.
I was, just then, writing my thoughts on what I had perceived to be a particularly racy poem by Christina Rosetti that I had found in my Norton Anthology of English Literature when I heard the rapping – not so gently – at my door.
“Who is it?” I enquired, somewhat peeved at the interruption.
“Proebst. Open up.”
Tim Proebst was the student dorm supervisor. I closed my journal and sauntered over to the door and opened it up, just a crack, eager to find out what he wanted.
“What it is, Tim?” I said, quite meekly.
“Open the fucking door.”
I opened it. As Tim entered he surveyed my room.
“Well, well, well, looks like you’ve gotten yourself a pretty sweet deal here”, he said, all the time looking around.
“Yeah, well, it’s not bad”, I said, trying to appease him, curious now as to the reason for his visit.
“Well, that’s all over now. Got a new roommate. Some retard named Harold. The bookworm and the retard, together at last. He just got here so you have to help him get his stuff up here and show him around ‘n shit. Man, how did you manage to have your own room for so long?”
“Well, I don’t know, but I guess it doesn’t matter too much now”, I grinned, attempting to appease the threatening mountain of discord in front of me.
Tim didn’t seem to know what to say, so he just shoved me in the chest, knocking me onto my soon to be roommates bed and said, “He’s in the office, go down and get him”.
“Hey, uh, whaddya mean he’s a retard?” I asked, pulling myself up off the bed.
“He’s a deaf kid or something”, Tim said nonchalantly and left.
I was in no way happy with what had just occurred. I wasn’t happy with the treatment I had received at the hands of this dull idiot, and I wasn’t happy that I was to be sharing my room with someone, whereby the account I had been given, was a person with whom I may not desire to spend a large amount of time with.
Still, I put on my Kodiaks and my parka and headed for the administration wing of the school. We had been hit with an exceptionally grand snowfall that year, not a week before, and it had just kept on snowing. The trees possessed that ghostlike quality that they endure when they are stripped of their leaves and are converted by snow and frost into ghastly, yet catatonic creatures of ancient lore; their skeleton-like fingers reaching out, their roots frozen to the ground, hampering their ability to pursue potential victims. I watched my breath leave me in vast plumes of steam and apprehension, and trudged over the icy sidewalks towards the office. I looked up at the old buildings; the lush covering of the Ivy long forgotten, a thin sheet of frost covering the side of the gray edifice in its place, and began thinking about my first day here at this school. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular that had happened, just about what I was feeling that day; the way I was in such emotional turmoil being faced with unfamiliar surroundings, faces and sounds. I wondered how much more difficult it would be for someone with some physical handicap. It was hard enough adjusting to new surroundings with my severe social handicap, let alone being a deaf kid in the company of wolves. I actually started to feel a little bit worried for him.
I hadn’t worn gloves so I pulled down the sleeve of my parka to grab the door handle with and pulled the heavy door of the Administration Building open. I was greeted with an enthusiastic, moist breath of warm air, and I quickly pulled myself inside, basking in the heat. I made sure to stamp my boots off before walking down the hall, and then made my way to the office.
As I opened the office door I was greeted by one of the warmest, friendliest smiles I had ever seen. There, sat a boy surrounded by suitcases and several boxes along with a slightly nervous looking Mr. Dreger.
Mr. Dreger was an Administrative Assistant at the school and, looking back on it now, I recognize that he was wholly incompetent at his job. His job, in essence, was to handle the everyday lives of the students in the school. This shouldn’t have been too difficult a task, but Mr. Dreger was a shy, nervous man who got very stressed at having to handle the slightest task.
With a look of relief he stood up and came over to me very quickly and took me aside.
“This is Harold Praetzler. He’s deaf. He’s your new roommate”, he said tensely. “Are you going to be able to…”, he trailed off as he shuffled nervously.
I smiled at him, slightly offended, but mostly amused.
“Mr. Dreger”, I said, “He’s deaf, not retarded. We’ll be fine together.”
“Good, good”, he nodded. “Very good. Well, let’s get his stuff up to your room and then, well, I’ll let the two of you get acquainted.”
We turned around and walked back to the beaming young man who sat there in his brown cords, still in his parka. I could not help but get a good feeling from this pimply faced kid who seemed to want nothing more than to make friends with whomever crossed his path.
“Hello”, he said. He had a sort of precise way of speaking that put to shame the enunciation of my classmates and I. I found out later that he had learned to speak by watching very closely the mouths of those around him and while he would occasionally appear to slur or skip a syllable here and there, he was well spoken in the manner of a well-bred boy of St. John’s quality, as they would say. There was something different in his way of speaking, but it was not something that one immediately recognized as a handicap.
“My name is Harold Praetzler”, he said, extending his hand. “I am deaf, so if you want to say something to me you must look at me so that I can see you and then say whatever you want to say. And, oh”, he added, “you don’t have to speak louder. Just talk like you normally would, it will be easier for me”, he smiled.
I laughed at his little joke, thinking that he must be able to notice the change in persons around him as they attempted to compensate for his disability.
I took his hand and introduced myself, suddenly more comfortable with a human being than I had been in as long as I had been at St. John’s. “I’m your new roomie, I guess. Let’s get your stuff and bring it upstairs”, I said, careful to look directly at him.
I took a second look at his belongings. He had three suitcases, a large wooden box and four tightly sealed boxes. I looked back at him, raising my eyebrows questioningly, but he just grinned back at me.
We moved his things over to our dormitory very quickly to avoid being outside for too long and, once there we set his boxes and suitcases haphazardly about the floor of my room. Our room.
I was very curious to see what was inside all his packages, the large wooden box especially. What would a deaf boy bring with him to boarding school? What tools or devices were necessary for his existence? Was he so different than I, or was he just like me? I decided – suddenly and hilariously – that I might enjoy being deaf. Enjoy not having to hear the sounds around me that inevitably distracted me from my pursuit of quiet. I was eager to talk with this boy and learn more about him, about how he viewed the world.
I directed him as to where he could put his belongings; explained that certain parts of the room were his, the others mine. The furniture was not divided evenly down the center of the room, so together we decided how to coexist harmoniously.
He unpacked his suitcases carefully and neatly, folding his clothes into the dresser drawers and hanging his shirts and jackets in the closet. I sat on my bed casually reading a book and every so often glancing up at him to mark his progress, waiting for him to unpack the boxes. Finally, he sat down on the edge of his bed, pulled the large wooden box toward him and looked up at me with his ever-present grin. It seemed as though he must know that I was curious because he took his time with the box, all the time looking back at me and smiling.
“So, whaddya have in there?” I asked, the suspense finally too much for me to bear.
“A gift from my grandmother”, he said and motioned for me to sit beside him.
I looked closely at this exquisite box. Large and heavy and dark, dark wood. Two feet tall, with brass clasps around the bottom about two inches from the bottom indicating a foundation of some sort, and an engraving of a little English Boxer, his head tilted to the side at the very top of the box.
The word Victrola.
Victrola? It…can’t be.
Harold undid the clasps and lifted the bulk of the box high, revealing the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. An old gramophone made in the early part of that century with the sort of care and attention to detail that one quite simply does not see in today’s devices. He set the top down lovingly and smiled at me, obviously proud of his possession.
“It’s a gramophone”, he said, “You play records on it.” He was good enough to ignore my obvious surprise.
“But how…?” I trailed off, unable to finish the question.
“You wind it up with this”, he said, pointing to a crank and looking at me to await my response. Getting none, he proceeded, “I have tons of old records here too. I’ll put one on.”
I was baffled. How could a deaf person enjoy a record? Why would a person who could not perceive sound of any kind be in possession of such a thing? I could not understand the point in this boy having such a device. It made no sense to me whatsoever. I felt, at once, confused and angry, thinking that perhaps he was playing a joke on me, unsure as to what to expect next.
Harold opened one of his cardboard boxes and removed an LP record. He showed the cover of the record to me. Wagner: Tannhauser. I recognized the title. It happened to be an opera that my parents used to play frequently so I knew it well and had enjoyed it myself. Harold placed the disc on the player and lifted the needle that was nestled under a spherical housing and placed it at the beginning of the recording. He then wound up the player and, moving on to the floor, sat right next to the Victrola. At once, the music began to emanate from the gramophone, flooding the room with the soothing sounds of the Overture. Harold closed his eyes, wrapped his hands around the bottom of the horn and placed his cheek against the bell at the top of the horn. As the music played, Harold hugged the mechanism and gently swayed to the rhythm.
I was amazed! How could this be? Was he not really deaf? Maybe just partially so. As the Overture became more dramatic, leading into the part where the orchestra becomes increasingly climactic and the strings begin to utter their staccato ascensions, Harold removed one of his hands and began to move it like a conductor in time to the music. And each time the theme changed, Harold seemed to know exactly what was happening, his countenance absorbed, entirely consumed by the enchanting Germanic orchestral exhibition.
I watched his expression change with each movement, his body move in time and his hand wave notes away one by one as they escaped his grasp. As the Overture came to a close he raised his fist in perfect time with the last nine dramatic punches of the tune and then I saw, for the first time, his face change to a look of disappointment, defeat and dejection. And then, as quickly as it had happened, he smiled at me and shrugged his shoulders, perhaps a bit embarrassed, or maybe just saddened to open his eyes and find himself still in this room with a new roommate and the prospects that lay ahead of him, having been transported to another place and then so harshly slapped in the face with reality.
“I don’t understand”, I said to him, leaning forward and squinting, “I thought you were deaf.”
He sighed. “Yes, I am, but I can feel the music the same way you hear it.” He reached for the handle and gave it several more cranks. “Here”, he indicated to the horn, “put your hands here.”
Reluctantly, I placed my hands the way he had done at the bottom of the brass and felt a slight sensation in my palms.
“Now rest your cheek on the end of it here”, he said, and I did. “Now, don’t listen to the music. Feel it. Don’t even try to pretend that you can’t hear it, just try to understand the music on a deeper level”, he said, becoming a bit excited. “Allow the very essence of the vibrations to absorb deep into your being and instead of rejecting them by hearing them with your head, accept them by feeling them in your soul”.
I was skeptical and I raised my head from the horn and removed my right hand, wanting to express to him how crazy this sounded, how utterly ridiculous this was. I was embarrassed and frustrated because I did not understand what he meant, and I was confused by the notion of having music explained to me by a deaf person.
He must have sensed this. I’m sure this was not the first time he had tried to explain this to a hearing person, had attempted to allow someone else to reach an understanding of the vibration in the way that he had. He smiled at me patiently, in the way that a math teacher attempting to explain calculus to a D grade student would, and took my hand and calmly placed it back on the horn.
“Don’t listen”, he said again, “Feel. Don’t let anything stand in your way of understanding this new thing. Allow yourself to set aside the notion of sound and replace it with the reality of vibration. Sound is merely a vibration that your ears translate into specific notes that you understand in a certain way that may or may not be real. But touch is real. This sound has a tactile quality that escapes 99% of the population. They allow it to trail off into the Universe unappreciated fully. Allow it to flow through your fingers into the whole of your being. Let the vibrations fill your head with a new sound, the sound of the beginning of the world, the breath of life. Each of the instruments recorded by this disc (and I have touched and understood each of them) creates the sound that you hear through resonance. Each instrument is made of a different earthly material and they all reverberate in their individual ways. See if you can pick them out with your all of you instead of just your ears.”
His words and the way he spoke were almost hypnotic and I was overtaken by the moment. I embraced the machine and the music wholly and completely, and allowed myself to begin to understand. I closed my eyes and traveled into the heavens with each individual note, with each compelling oscillation, and then I began to not only hear the music, but I began to see it as well. As the music overcame me I was struck by the overwhelming immensity of what I was experiencing and began to cry. I pulled myself closer to the magnificent contraption and sobbed deep, heavy tears of sorrow and joy. In that moment, I began to finally understand what music was meant to be. That it was not background, that it was not about elevators, supermarkets and luncheons, but rather that it was an explanation of the very essence of humankind. Of our worldliness. Our triumphs and tribulations. Our exultation and anguish. Of our true potential and our woeful inability to achieve it.
As the piece came to a close I held on for a few moments to the horn, unwilling to allow the moment to pass just yet. I opened my eyes and saw Harold there before me, a magnificently triumphant smile on his face. He knew that I had understood. That I had allowed myself to cast off my misconceptions and had been to a place that most of us in our society will never know exists. I saw and felt and understood Original Man, sat by his fire and partook of his kill. I now knew.
I could not say anything as I snapped back to the reality of my surroundings. In such a short period of time I had experienced more than I ever had in my life to that point and I was weary from its possession of my soul. I relinquished my grasp and slumped to the ground, exhausted and excited. I smiled and Harold looked at me and shrugged. He did not say anything, just raised his eyebrows knowingly and removed the disc from the player and affectionately placed it back in the sleeve, then in the box.
I slept that night, the sleep of a man in complete harmony with himself and his environment. I awoke to a whole new world of possibilities and took to listening to music with Harold in much the same way I had been with books. I was, in turn, able to share with him my love of words and we were, for the rest of our stay at the school, the best of friends.
As a result of my transformation, an interesting thing began to happen in my life. I learned not only to understand music, but I began to understand how to really listen to people. To understand them at a level that I had not previously been able to comprehend my fellow man. I was able to see the good in people, to see why people were the way they were. That though they had rough exteriors and acted in a manner unbefitting of their breeding, they were, deep down, as human as you and I, and they deserved every bit of attention I could afford them.
My life changed dramatically as a result of these revelations, and ever since then, though I may lock myself in my room for days at a time in pursuit of earthly knowledge, I know I need never be alone.
While I kept in touch with him for a time, Harold and I eventually grew apart. I shall never forget the lesson I learned that night, the way it changed my life forever and the doors it opened for me. To this day I find myself listening to music with my hands on my speakers, my eyes closed and my soul soaring high above me. And I see Harold there with me, smiling, shrugging his shoulders and winking at me. Understanding.