Monday, February 24, 2014

Growing up with AIDS

My wife and I watched the Dallas Buyers Club the other night.  The film's protagonist, Ron Woodruff,  played by Matthew McConaughey,  is a hard living electrician and rodeo cowboy diagnosed with AIDS shortly after the film opens, and given the grim prognosis of 30 days to live.  Upon hearing the news Ron does what any self respecting hard living cowboy would do, he lives even harder going on a coke binge that almost kills him. 

Woodruff is homophobic, and like much of society in 1985 believes only gay men are susceptible to AIDS.  He struggles as much with the implication of having the disease as he does the disease itself.  In fact, one thing the film does so well in portraying Woodruff's transformation from an epithet spewing homophobe to business savvy AIDS activist is also capture the shifts in attitude and understanding society goes through.  For example, when he's diagnosed, his doctors wear gloves and masks, and stand at a considerable distance from him.  Later in the film, one of those same doctors, now an ally, will drink from a shared glass with him. 

As someone who came of age during the AIDS crisis the movie gave me a lot to reflect about.  Anyone remember the Eddie Murphy routine in Delirious about the dangers of a woman bringing AIDS home from a social kiss? Around 1985 my mother was working on a degree in public health.  I grew up with dire warnings and news articles taped to our refrigerator.  I remember being told that when I had sex I would be having sex with everyone my partner had had sex with and everyone their partner had had sex with.  Jesus.  That's heavy.

Eventually, though, our understanding about the disease grew.  And so did the proximity of the disease to our lives.  First, because of my mum's work, I knew people who were HIV positive, or who had been diagnosed with AIDS.  Chris was a young man who had spoken in my mother's health class.  My sister and I shared a plate of nachos with him at TGI Friday's.  We knew enough to know that a cold virus we might have had was more a danger to Chris than the likelihood of his transmitting HIV through social contact and shared poor food choices. 

Closer to home, I learned a friend's father had died.  The man was a San Diego icon who had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion.  I remember the shame my friend felt about his father.  The stigma associated with HIV was so great.  A longtime La Jolla staple, Bobby D, died of complications associated with AIDS also.  His life was first crippled by alcohol, but I remember him being generous of spirit, if a little worse for wear whenever I encountered him.

Later, in the early 90s, I worked for two men who ran a coffeehouse.  One of whom, Irwin, was so proud of opening a business he had business cards made up for himself.  His partner, Thom, ribbed him about that.  Once, when I was working they came in to check on things, and make themselves drinks.  They'd gone out that day to get Irwin a tattoo--a large triceratops head on Irwin's equally large upper arm.  I didn't know it at the time but Irwin was crossing thing's off his own bucket list.  In what must have been merely weeks we stopped seeing Irwin at the coffeehouse.  He was sick.  I remember, though, visiting their house one night with a friend.  Thom was mid-pool game with a friend seemingly in a state of denial.  He indicated that if I'd like to say hello to Erwin, I'd find him downstairs in his room.

The room was dark except for the pale light of a muted television set.  Irwin sat propped up on pillows, his head listing slightly.  He was a shadow of the man I'd met months earlier.  I remember feebly asking how he was doing.

"You know, I"m dying, don't you Marc?" he asked.

It was devastating to know there was nothing that anyone could be do for Irwin.  There wasn't anything that could have been done for the others, either.  Whole communities were powerless over this thing.  HIV/AIDS was a death sentence.  Something the Dallas Buyers Club does so well is to portray Ron Woodruff's indomitable spirit in the face of overwhelming odds against marginalization, a largely indifferent government, and a the status quo medical establishment.  

We've come a long way since then.  People with HIV, and access to healthcare, live longer, healthier lives.  I'd like to think the stigma associated with HIV is no longer, but that's far from true.  That said, a lot of good work is being done with respect to education and services.  I learned recently that a friend from high school, Stan Kim, is participating in a 450 mile bike ride to raise money and awareness through AIDS/LifeCycle.  Beneficiaries include LA Gay and Lesbian Center and the San Francisco AIDS foundation.  Both do good work.  You can read more here: aidslifecycle and you can help Stan reach his modest goal here:

Lastly, there is a United Nations site that has promising numbers demonstrating that the work done by organizations such as SF AIDS Foundation and LA Gay and Lesbian Center and others on a global scale impacts the bottom line: fewer people are contracting the disease and more people have access to antiretroviral therapy: AIDS by the numbers

Sunday, November 24, 2013

My review of The Blood Latitudes by William Harrison


The Blood Latitudes
by William Harrison
(MacMurray & Beck)

William Harrison's The Blood Latitudes is a brutal thriller set amidst the horrors of 1994 Rawanda.  Its central protagonist, Will Hobbs, is settling into the predictable routine of retirement outside of London when his son Buck and Buck's wife and child pay him a visit.  Buick is a reporter like his father, and soon to be taking over the position of war correspondent that Will once held in Africa.
      The presence of his son's family, especially Buck's beautiful, dark-skinned wife, Key, stirs in Will feelings of loneliness and longing.  Will sees his son about to embark on the same mistakes he made many years before--absentee husband and father (Will's wife, now dead, had a long-term affair in his perpetual absence): The memory of his wife's infidelity is now carried like a weight around Will's neck.  Even as Will wishes a different life for his son, theirs is an uneasy relationship.
     As the war in Rwanda ignites, Buck is called to his post sooner than expected.  Suddenly, Will finds himself in the position of surrogate husband.  This makes for an uneasy morality, especially when Buck ends up missing, and Will goes to Africa to search for his son.  He caries with him thoughts of Key, and the opportunity of the second chance she represents.  Will knows all too well that the prospect of Buck being found alive is slim.  Africa "was a great graveyard, after all," Harrison writes, "where thousands of years later men's bones somehow said more than their lives were ever able to say."
     What follows is an odyssey of war as Will, stranded and without resources, is soon in an uneasy relationship with Papa Ngiza, leader of a rogue Hutu militia.  Will depends on Papa and his unit for food and transport as they make their way through a strange and apocalyptic landscape that closely resembles Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian in its abject horror and easy violence.  Harrison makes good use of description, and the geography takes on a life of it's own.
     William Harrison is best known for his short story and subsequent screenplay of the 1975 film Rollerball.  He is also the author of Burton and Speke, which was later filmed as Mountains of the MoonThe Blood Latitudes is his fifth novel set in Africa.  Even with its savagery, Harrison's Africa is a refreshing background for his tale of familiar literary themes: father/son relationships, love, war, and morality.  He has succssefully blended  the best qualities of thriller, mystery, and human drama into a readable and literate adventure.  Buck's fate is predictable, but what Harrison presents us with is as much a page-turner as a compelling novel of complex characters and questions not easily answered.

This review first appeared in the Alibi ( in January 2001.  The Alibi archives go back to 2004 so I had to post (by permission) for posterity.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

High Calibre Fairytale

     As bittersweet as it is to see your children get older it's fun when they reach an age you can begin to share with them the more serious, or mature films you've enjoyed.  Or even the better-than-average thriller.  Of course, my tastes tend to be pretty dark.  So, I often proceed with caution.
     I think, though, that in our culture films serve as milestones in a person's life.  Some of my best memories with my dad involved movie marathons watching the likes of William Devane in Rolling Thunder, or Alec Guinness in The Bridge Over the River Kwai.  I hope my daughter has a wider range of "best moments" with me than I had with him, but as a family we do enjoy the movies.
     And so, on a recent Saturday morning, I decided my daughter was ready for Hanna.  My wife and I had seen it when first released and had really enjoyed it.  And I'd looked forward to the time I could share it with our oldest.  I remember thinking, how perfect, Hanna is like a 'tween Bourne film.  If you don't know the film, it's essentially a coming-of-age story of a daughter of an ex government agent who has raised her in the wilderness preparing her for an inevitable return to society.
     Sure, the fairy-tale motif present in the film is transparent, and perhaps even overwrought, but it makes for wonderful visual moments such as when Hanna's character walks through the dilapidated theme park toward the Grimm house. And it doesn't hurt to have had a soundtrack done by the Chemical Brothers.
     My daughter had some interesting observations of her own.  She thought the Isaacs character, played by Tom Hollander, in his matching pastel track suits came across like a murderous and sinister Coach Sue Sylvester from the TV show, Glee.  And she was especially intrigued by the character, Sophie, a young teen obsessed with pop culture being raised by hippie parent travelers.  There's an interesting juxtaposition between these two characters, Sophie, and the title character, Hanna.  Sophie acts by turns spoiled and world weary, and would like you to believe she is street-wise.  Hannah spends much of the film as wide-eyed innocent experiencing the world for the first time, but possessing the skills of a trained assassin.
     All in all, it was a lot fun watching the film a second time through my daughter's eyes.  And did I mention we both enjoyed it over cups of coffee?

Monday, December 31, 2012

What's in a name?

So, a while back I was playing with the idea of starting another novel rather than finishing the first.  At the same time I was considering blogging about the travel I do for work in my accidental profession of higher education publishing.  The theme here is that I was conceiving of absolutely anything to avoid the task at hand: finishing the novel.

In the little research I did for the second novel idea I came upon the name: the salesman problem.  The traveling salesman problem is actually a mathematical problem dating back to the 1800s.  How does a salesman get from city to city to city, and then back again for the least amount of money?  Seems simple enough, but then you should see some of my or my colleague's expense reports. And you should hear some of our stories.  Cost can be measured in more ways than just financial, though.  I have a theory that there is a direct correlation between time spent waiting in airport security lines and the deepening lines on my face.
 Also, the name conjures up a certain  pulpy, noir-like quality, which is what I was after in the first place. Think Walter Neff in Double Indemnity.  He's a salesman.  And he's got a problem. 

It's many-layered, though.  It's not at all a reach to suggest the salesman problem as a metaphor for life.  How does one get from point A to B to C and back with the least amount of cost i.e how does one navigate life?  How indeed.

Well, the first novel is for all practical purposes finished.  I've got edits to do, of course.  And that in itself seems like reason enough to publish this blog: the salesman problem.