Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Robot Wars

Articles in many media lately trace the increasing use of drones and robots in America's wars. This sort of thing may save a few American lives, but enables those who manipulate our foreign policy to serve the military-industrial complex.

Their thinking is very simple really:

1) American business makes a fortune from warfare, possibly couldn't stay afloat without it (since the rest of our manufacturing sector has been shipped overseas).

2) The Vietnam convulsion, near-civil war in the U.S. and abysmal morale (much fragging) among the troops, not to mention the destruction of two powerful presidents, demonstrated that Americans will refuse to fight wars merely on the whim of their leaders. They only see their sacrifice as justifiable in defense of the country, which no foreign nation is likely to attack. (No foreign country has ever done so except once, and the Japanese probably won't try again.) So the Draft was eliminated and no one in D.C. dares even whisper the word. As a direct result, most of America, especially young and privileged America which fueled the anti-war demonstrations around Vietnam, no longer cares what the military do.

3) The volunteer military also costs a bundle, though it has the beneficial result of permitting poor youth with no other affordable way to education and career to escape their situation. But their treatment in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts (and the import of mercenary "guards" to do the real dirty work) is also causing political trauma and unrest. They, too, would rather stick to clearly defensive operations. This has not gone unnoticed at the top.

4) A drone/robot military can spend all the government money and incur all the foreign bloodshed it likes; the American public will remain indifferent since their blood will not be shed, and the arms business marches on while the economy sinks and our international reputation goes down the drain.

Rejoice, muzhiki!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The greatness of Alexander of Macedon - or as I call him, Sandy Mac

Mary Beard (and who if not she?) has taken some writers on Big Al (or Sandy Mac) to task in the current New York Review of Books. (

The conquests of Alexander of Macedon (note: hard "c") were so extraordinarily vast in large part because he did not conquer twenty different nations - the Persians (Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes) had already done that, and ruled their empire for two hundred years. Alexander conquered their hapless heir, Darius III, and the centralized power fell to pieces. He took over all of the nations so included and then marched (which took three years) through its eastern marches and down the Indus to the Arabian Sea, sailing home. Much of the heavy work had been done for him. But he led the army and founded the colonies and distributed the spoils.

Alexander's pretensions to greatness owe much to his uncompleted project to unify the Greek and Persian worlds (with some Egyptian influence), turning his conquests into a universal state. This could never have lasted in the technological spirit of the time and, without him, it fell to pieces almost immediately. But the Greek cultural influence on the Far East (Buddhist sculpture, e.g.) and on trade in the Levant, plus the introduction of Chaldean mathematics and astronomy (and astrology) into the Greek and Egyptian (and Jewish) worlds grew directly from his actions and transformed the world. For one thing, this new "Greek-speaking" universe was absorbed by Rome, and then absorbed Rome in turn, proving the basis for an empire that lasted until the fifteenth century of our era. For another, the multiplex religious theories interacting throughout the region in Alexander's wake eventually produced the two major monotheistic religions that still occupy Europe and the Middle East (as well, as is often forgotten, as thousands of other faiths, extinct or surviving or heretical).

Alexander's legend endures in the mythologies of so many lands (Greek and Persian merely the most notable) because of his generalship and early death. But his greatness is the cultural bequest that derives from his visionary imagination as much as his martial abilities.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why I Celebrate Columbus Day

I have the gall today to celebrate the 520th anniversary of the most memorable bump and grind in the history of the Bahamas, the landing of Cristóbal Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, on his way over the edge of history. I may be the only pagan in the Americas who thinks this is something appropriate to celebrate.

Now, I know just what everyone is going to say. They’re going to say, How dare you celebrate the man responsible for the massacre of millions of Indi– I mean, Native Ameri– no, they weren’t Americans of any sort yet either. Well, whoever they were. The man who wiped out whole civilizations, and then lied about it!

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the Nativist point of view: White culture cannot be called an unmixed blessing. But I would argue that post-European patriarchal culture has not been a total loss just because, after the Indians kept it a going concern for 12,000 years, we have run North America into the ground in a mere 500.

As a proper Pagan I try to be entirely xenophile, and my multiculturalism includes Europe, which has provided many things today’s pagans might find indispensable—the doctrine of separating church and state, for instance, devised by Europeans on and off Europe after many, many trials and many, many executions. I mean, many, many errors.

Also, let’s keep blame in proper perspective: While Columbus was certainly a shit, the overwhelming majority of the native casualties died of microbial onslaught unsuspected by the whites. (Who knew measles were lethal?) Nor were Indian conquerors (Aztec, Inca, Carib, Iroquois) more humane than the Spaniards when the mood was on them. And some whites did have qualms and second thoughts, and tried to stop the brutality. Queen Isabella’s dying words were an entreaty to Ferdinand to protect the natives. Typically, he paid no attention to her.

But I’m celebrating Columbus Day because, 519 years ago, the brave and astonishing actions of this overbearing and egotistical Genovese transformed the world (all of it), for better and for worse (both). If there is a single event that marks forever the break between the old Europe, culturally obsessed with fawning upon Classical Antiquity, and the new Europe, sure of its abilities to handle anything that came along and make anything of it, the Europe that thereupon invented Medicine and modern Science and modern Democracy and the modern world (all of them overrated achievements, perhaps, but undeniably impressive), it was Columbus’s first voyage.

True, Columbus was not a nice man. He had his little ways. He boasted. He lied. He claimed credit for other people’s deeds. He allowed the locals to be treated abominably. He made such a nuisance of himself that the colonists ignored and imprisoned him. And then they behaved worse.

Too, he did not do the two things everyone remembers him having done: prove the world round or discover America. The Norse, for one, had reached America centuries before him. The Bretons and Basques had been fishing the Grand Banks for years and keeping a good thing to themselves. Irish monks had got here even before the Norse. Roman coins have been found. Phoenicians are a possible. Chinese and Japanese contacts with the Peruvian coast have been deduced (from pottery, mostly). And if you take the Book of Mormon seriously (Heaven help you), the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel had been here for millennia.

Most notable of all, and something folks seem to forget in all the debates, the Western hemisphere was very heavily populated at the time Columbus arrived and for at least twelve thousand years before that (possibly three times that long), so talk of his “discovering” something quite unknown is a bit eccentric, never mind Eurocentric.

What Columbus almost undoubtedly was is the first Italian to reach the New World. If you’ve ever tried to find an inexpensive and filling meal in New York after midnight, you know how significant that is, and how worthy of celebration. But that is not my reason for wishing the occasion well either.

On the round world thing: Columbus did not prove it. He never made it further than the Orinoco in Guyana, for one thing, but more important, no authority in Europe at that time believed the world flat. The ancient Greek astronomers had proved it was round, and during the Renaissance everyone read the Greeks. The tale that the medieval church thought the world flat and that Columbus defied the scholars of his time was invented in the nineteenth century, probably by Washington Irving. Columbus was examined by the doctors of the great university of Salamanca (which I visited last November: They will show you the sublime monastic church where the discussion took place), but it wasn’t the shape of the world that gave pause; it was its size.

The Greeks deduced the world was round because, when there was an eclipse of the moon, no matter where the moon was in the sky, the shadow of the earth upon it was always circular. Clever, eh? Even cleverer, one of them had measured it. That was why the astronomers of Salamanca told Isabella that Asia was much too far away to reach without stopping for supplies or fresh water en route. If there were no America, they would have been quite right.

Nonsense, said Columbus; the world is only half that size by my calculations, and we can reach Asia in about six weeks. (Here we see the true visionary at work, though it is also possible that he knew of the Basque fishing expeditions.)

His calculations, in fact, were wrong, and the Salamanca astronomers were right, and it took him ten weeks, with a pause at the Canaries, but who remembers all that now?

More important, from the European point of view, was the intellectual ripple from Columbus’s discovery. (I use the word “discovery” here in the sense of: That restaurant/resort/rock band/hem length is my discovery—they may have existed, and people knew of them, but I made them known, seekable, chic. America was nothing to talk about before Columbus discovered it, darling. Even the people here were simply unaware there was anyplace else to be.)

Renaissance Europe suffered from a terrible sense of inferiority: Nothing they did was ever as good as what the Greeks and Romans had done. No poem was as good as the Aeniad, they sighed, and no building so noble as the Pantheon, and no play as sharp as Oedipus or Medea, or as funny as the Menaechmi, and the plumbing was just not up to old Roman standard, and all the knowledge anyone would ever gain was never so great as Aristotle had possessed, or said he did. Even the printing press did not (at first) seem such hot stuff, and gunpowder was a nuisance—smelly, too. The only decided improvement over the ancients, the old Europeans would have told you, was in religion: Moderns were able to achieve salvation from sins the pagan ancients had never even realized they were committing. Good News indeed!

Suddenly, incontrovertibly, Columbus presented them with a great big Secret, something the ancients hadn’t even guessed at, a secret as big as Asia itself (and far less able to fight back). Renaissance thinkers began to feel they weren’t so mediocre after all. They began to get cocky. They suggested all sorts of things that contradicted their elders: That the earth went around the sun (a theory considered and discarded by the Greeks, actually). That blood circulates in the body. That plays could be good even if they didn’t preserve the classical unities. That salvation was a matter of opinion, and not necessarily the priest’s opinion. That women could vote—uh, no, that came later.

The process begun in 1492 may be said to have reached its climax in Mantua in 1597, when modern man devised something beyond the dreams of the ancients destined to alter humanity’s view of itself forever: Grand Opera. After that, the conquest of the universe was just a matter of time. Round up a search party of expendable crew members and meet me in the Transporter Room.

America was the first step on the road to the stars, the key that Columbus, ignorant as Alice and every bit as childish, accidentally found on the table by the flask marked "Explore me," and used to enter the long-locked door to the garden of the future.

Columbus created the world we now inhabit, warts and all, but at least it’s ours. And, as he said, when standing an egg on its end, “Sure anybody coulda done it. I did it.”

He had a point, or rather, as with the egg, he made one where no one else had.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Invader

I dreamed an old woman said she had been assigned to live in my apartment. It was a social services department and if I didn’t like it, and I didn’t, I could argue with them. She said it wasn’t very clean here (well, it isn’t) and she put things away where I couldn’t find them. I screamed at her and she screamed right back, and neither of us could sleep. She tried to open a coffee bar in one of the rooms (how did I get more rooms here?) and when the department social workers came to check up on her, they ignored my protests about the whole situation and reproached me for my “attitude.” My aunt tried to help out, but experience as she is with bureaucracies, she didn’t get anywhere.

One time I took some of the old woman’s milk for my coffee. It was easier than going out and buying more, and besides, who knew what she’d do while I was out? She might change the locks. I was sure she was just waiting to change the locks. The second time I borrowed milk, she noticed. She didn’t say anything, but she began to use my sugar. I was furious but I couldn’t very well object.

She got the papers of my writings all mixed up. She threw out trash that wasn’t ready to be thrown out yet. She objected to my leaving the windows open. Her friends came to visit and I couldn’t walk around naked any more.

One day I came home and she had died. I was delighted, but the department soon sent an old man to replace her. He accused me of having sex with strange men in my room. (Well, I was.) He also said I was a communist. I told him he was a fascist.

He screamed louder and more insistently than the old woman had, and he was much filthier. He used my toothbrush. I threw his pills in the toilet, hoping he’d have a coronary. He stank. I refused to wear clothes on hot days. He said he couldn’t have friends over. I said, “Good.” He was late with the rent check and the landlord threatened to throw me out. There was nothing I could do. He was here to stay.

He was Old Age.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Messiah's brother-in-law

His name was "Adil" or something like that; his skin was swarthy but not black.
I guessed "Egypt."
He laughed. "No! But you are close!"
I guessed "Jordan," and all the other countries close to Egypt. None of them.
As you know, I only get a Point if I am right on the first guess.
"Mauretania," he said at last.
That was a first: a cabdriver from Mauretania!
"That's not close to Egypt!" I protested. "That's the other side of Africa!"
"Some of us look like Arabs, from the north; others are darker, from the south," he explained.

The south of Mauretania is very close to Senegal, and there are lots of cabbies from Senegal these days.
They are mostly from Africa now, have you noticed? Fewer and fewer subcontinentals. They used all to be from the subcontinent; now I guess they've gone into IT. Or gone home. And of course my podiatrist - or, rather, her parents - was subcontinental. (She, however, was born in New Jersey, and she's not going back to India except to visit relatives and spend some beach time.)

"How long have you been here?" I asked the Mauretanian. What is the capital? Nouakchott? I'm not even sure.
"A year and a half," he told me. "New York is the greatest city in the world!"
I basked in that - but how many other cities had he seen? To what were we being compared? Nouakchott?
"Don't you think so?" he prodded me.
"Well - I was born here - I don't have to find it so impressive."
But of course I do.
Still - the greatest? Hmmm.
"How long do you think it will last?" Now that was an interesting question. I don't know if a cabbie ever asked me that one before. That it even occurs to someone is - a change.
"It will all go to pieces the day after I am dead," I told him, airily.
That made him laugh. "Are you the Messiah?"
"I? No. He married my sister. We don't get along. In-laws. You know."
"I think from this you don't believe anything," he said, slyly.
"I wouldn't say that..."
"I was raised Muslim," he sighed, "but since I've been here - I've begun to have doubts - about all that."
"Doubts are good."
I don't even have a sister.

The next cabdriver was from Côte d'Ivoire, Ivory Coast, not Abidjan (site of its recent civil war) but a small town outside it. I didn't get that point either. I think I guessed Ghana. There have been several from Ghana, the second-largest country in West Africa after Nigeria and a former British colony. None from Nigeria. Nigerians don't come here much. The last one from Ghana was named Kwame; that's how I guessed it: I remember Kwame Nkrumah from my little-kid-reading-the-papers days.
I got this cab at JFK, right after Ghana beat the pants off us in the World Cup. Mentioning futbol is usually a good way to make friends with foreign guys.
"You sure killed us last week at the Cup." He chuckled. "We played well," I continued (meaning nothing much). "You played better. I'll be rooting for you against Uruguay." And so I did, but Uruguay cheated and won. Another good game. The Ghanaians are exciting players - unlike the Italians or Dutch, who make me want to slap them.

But I'm very proud of getting my point for Mali. His first name was Oussan, which implied something in northern, Muslim Africa, and he was slim, sort of caramel-colored. "What do you know about Mali?" he cried, amazed.
"Timbuktoo," I said, though that's not even the capital.
"No one in America has ever heard of my country!"
That made me very proud.
Anyway, I got the point.

I'm delighted when they say, "What do you know about my country? Americans never know anything about my country. Where are you from? You can't be American!"
I don't want to be a typical know-nothing American. But is that typical of New Yorkers? Don't think so.

Sometimes they won't tell me where they're from. Then the game goes into penalty kicks.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Diagnosis III: The Mizrahic Mystique

When last we left our hero, he had nearly two weeks before a scheduled visit to a genuine oncologist, in this case Ron Blum at Beth Israel (date of appointment: July 28). So I went to the country to scream at the stars and read bits of novel to old friends, first Cat and Peter Bishop in Northampton, Mass., then Sue Arthen (and all the other Arthens) at Glenwood Farm in Worthington, Mass., the schedule being I would then move on to Laura and Tom Hanlon in Montague, Mass.

But after much corn on the cob and four episodes of Firefly (none set to music) and two or three episodes of bathing in local streams, I found the second cancer lesion on my toe, the one that grew slowly and never made trouble, was growing fast, had burst in mid-water, and was bleeding a bit. I was sufficiently freaked by this to cancel Laura, have Sue and Kyriel bandage my foot to excess (in fact it did not burst or bleed on the trip), and caught Mega Bus back to the city on the Saturday afternoon.

My podiatrist, Aditi Shastri, is not listed in New York phone directories, so I could not apprise her of the situation from up north, and a Friday night (and subsequent days) is not the greatest for tracking down an unfamiliar podiatrist in the wilds of New England (though H.P. Lovecraft claims a whole tribe of them once flourished there, ruminating on zucchini and murdering alien children), but I sent her an email as soon as I was home where I had her email address, and she made room for me Tuesday morning. Sue and Kyriel's bandages easily held out till then.

"I'll have to put the tourniquet all across your foot," Dr. Shastri said, and I thought, "This will be bloody murder," but in fact, as we chatted about tourism in India and so on, the thing came right off. Will it come back? That is beyond predicting. No sense sending it for a biopsy -- we already know the bad news (which had cost me $480 to get). On Tuesday night the toe stung, but by Wednesday night I was well enough to stand in front of the Delacorte Theater and cadge a freebie to All's Well That Ends Well, commencing a three-day orgy of Shakespeare as pre-birthday festivity.

Today, Thursday, having been apprised that Dr. Blum had an afternoon appointment, I biked to Beth Israel at 11am. Many papers to fill out. At last the doc, as urbane and charming as the others. "I find patients are either 'lay-it-all-out-for-me' or 'I-don't-want-to-know,'" he said. I said I was the former type; he said he was, too.

We talked about my bout with lymphoma back in '97 -- my beloved oncologist Ellen Gold departed the hospital, he told me, in fright after 9/11 -- and about the fact that most of his KS patients were either epidemic (i.e. AIDS-related) or endemic -- and that the latter were almost always Sephardic Jews, not Ashkenazic Jews. Now while there is a tradition that the first Yohalem (born 1792) might have been born in Palestine, he was (if so) almost certainly the son of Polish or Lithuanian Jews who had taken refuge there; Sephardic we're not. And everyone on every other side of the family is Ashkenaz.

"In that case," said Dr. Blum, "it probably is a case you acquired via sexual contact, though without HIV." What? Me have sex with another man involving physical contact at sometime in the last 20 years? How is that possible? (Under oath, after squirming, I admit: Yes, it's possible. Probable. Frequent. Okay? Just not lately.) And he jiggered his lightweight futuristic whatchamacallit with keyboard and Internet but not a word processor, very convenient no doubt but I want one with a word processor. Who can sum up a thought in 140 characters? I ask you? I have trouble getting it down to 1400 characters. And he said, "There are findings about non-endemic but non-AIDS KS in gay men of a certain age. I'll have to do some reading this weekend and get back to you on it." (My friend Anna, a paramedic, had said the same.)

"But my instinct is, if it were HIV, it would be all over your body; if it's endemic, it will stick to the lower extremities and not be very aggressive." Just like traditional KS.

So we watch and we wait and we pretend it isn't there unless it's there. Then we get rid of it and go about our business. Meanwhile plotting how to pay for any extravagant outbreaks.

No major tests escheduled. No chemo or radiation at least for now, though I am suspicious of that second lesion and how far it has gone, and how much remains. Dr. Shastri took X-rays before she removed the first lesion, and I have asked that they (the X-rays) be faxed to Dr. Blum.

Maybe I have a totally new sort of sexually-communicated KS. It's the sort of weird half-stunt I'd pull. No worries. Peter is making me a little statue of Aesculapius for my altar. Trust.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Diagnosis II: Say What You're Thinking

Dr. Shastri cut off the red bleeding pimple on my small right toe. She has not yet removed the one in the angle of the two smallest toes on that foot, the older, slower-growing lesion that has yet to burst. I don't think it will prove, oncologically, very different from the other one, do you? That, I believe, was on June 24. On June 29, she called with the news that it was Kaposi's sarcoma. I saw her briefly on July 1, long enough to peek at the report on the sarcoma lesion -- it was pretty conclusive. She said I should probably go to see a specialist at once, and if money was a problem go to the Bellevue oncology clinic. Screens and so on are cheaper there. She had already spoken to my regular physician, Dr. Isaacs, and he had recommended I call a certain Dr. Yancowitz at Beth Israel. I called Dr. Isaacs' office, too, and his secretary told me, "Dr. Yancowitz is the best person for what you have." Her voice sank to a near whisper. She sounded concerned, reassuring, professional.

Look, guys, it is 2011. It is not 1986. I am not a small child. I am not a hysterical youth. You can say what you're thinking. If you are thinking "AIDS," hadn't we better say it out loud?

We really should. Because meanwhile, on June 30, the day after Dr. Shastri called me with her bombshell diagnosis, I had gone to the Chelsea STD Clinic on Ninth Avenue at 28th Street for an HIV test.

I've been there many, many times over the years for many, many ailments of an STD nature. I loathe going there for HIV tests because they were so nasty about it back in 1990, the first time I went. I'd had two very civilized HIV tests in dear, civilized Seattle and a year had gone by; it seemed a good idea for a sexually active gay man (it's 2011! Why hide this stuff?) to do this. They asked if I practcied safe sex, invariably. I said, frankly, yes for (Department of Euphemisms! Yo!) insertatory activity, no for oral sex. Other things ... um, which? They hit the roof. The guy raged at me. There was no such thing as dangerous, less dangerous, barely dangerous sex. There was safe sex and unsafe sex and that was it. Holding hands in a movie show when all the lights are low requires a condom. Got that? I didn't get that. I didn't care for it at all. And though I enjoyed, I was also a bit brought down, by the expression of utter defeat on their faces a week later when I came back for my test results (again the endless wait while the TV blared safe sex commercials designed for drug users and assorted lowlifes) and I was Negative As Usual despite having my own view of what did and did not constitute safe sex.

For the next several years I went to Jersey City for HIV tests (invariably negative), and Dr. Isaacs knew nothing about my HIV status (he offered to test me; I declined, wanting no one to know just in case -- paranoia struck deep in the AIDS years) until 1997, when I had lymphoma and it was necessary for him to know my HIV status in order to decide at what strength to blast me with chemo. Negative again! Full speed ahead, Mr. Scott. (Well, actually Dr. Gold.)

And so on as years passed and my sexuality declined and incidence of STDs declined and it became clear to me that HIV had no use for me. I was snubbed. It is my suspicion there are co-factors as yet undiscovered in persons of certain ethnicities; I'll be really bummed if I'm not around when they solve the whole story. My friend Jeannie, who has a PhD in biostatistics, says, "How come you're still alive?" Not sure. Partly: Moderation; Apollo's commandment. In the mad days, I was never a total crazy slut. Except sometimes. Got that?

I don't remember when I got my last HIV test, but I went back to 28th Street the day after I learned I had KS. What a difference two decades makes! I was one of four or five guys in the 5-8pm Thursday slot. They took the blood for the HIV test and told me to wait half an hour. They wanted to test me for other STDs, but I said, "Not necessary; I've been a very good boy." "That's what they all say." But in my case it's true. Half an hour not even feeling giddy. A change from the near trauma of my first HIV test which I was sure would be positive. This time I was quire sure it would be negative. It was. They will call in three weeks with T cell counts, etc. So now I had that card to play.

The trouble was, no one would believe me. No one even asked me. I was booked to see Dr. Yancowitz and, after a hefty wait, did. He is, like Dr. Shastri and all the orthopedists I've seen this year (three), very charming, and he wondered why the hell I was there. "I'm a contagious diseases specialist, not a cancer guy. I think you should see Dr. Malamud. I could test your T cells. That will cost in the hundreds not the thousands." Later it occurred to me this is probably repeating the test already being done for free on 28th Street. He said, "$100 is the lowest they'll let me charge you," they being Beth Israel. As specialist visits go mighty reasonable. But I was miffed. {He also told me my adored Dr. Gold is no longer at Beth Israel, which saddens me. She could cure me of anything. I am convinced of it.)

I called Dr. Isaacs' office and had trouble getting through. It's a very very busy practice. But I finally reached someone to whom I explained I'd been sent to the wrong specialist. Eventually Dr. Isaacs got on the line. "But for what you have, John, you see, since it is contagious -- "

"But it's not!" I cried. "Stop saying 'what you have' to me! I'm a grownup. It's 2011! I am HIV NEGATIVE. I have Kaposi's sarcoma! Just old-fashioned little-old-Jewish-man's disease. Not great big rashes all over my body! Just my TOE!"

"Really? HIV negative? Are you really? That's amazing, John. I can't believe it. That's wonderful news." He was clearly nonplussed. "In that case there are three specialists you could go to -- call Ron Blum. Yes. Or, you might want to contact Sloane-Kettering. They might be doing a study. It's a great surprise, you know."

My friend Anna Korn ransacked the Internet and tells me there's an uptick of KS among serionegative gay men. I think it's just old East European and East Med types, but anyway, so it be. It puzzles all the experts on KS, who are used to it being AIDS. But when I called Sloane-Kettering (a hospital my physician father always detested, by the way -- but that was in the 1970s), they said it would be a couple grand just to consult with somebody. So that expedient is on hold. Bellevue would see me at 8:45 in the morning next Friday, and their receptionist assured me it has nothing to do with AIDS and is strictly oncology, but that too I have put on hold because I want to go spend a week in Massachusetts, having been unable to get away from New York in months seems like years.

So I sent a rather surly email to Dr. Blum, explaining my case, that it was KS and NOT bloody AIDS, that I am a (no longer) sexually active gay man of a certain age, and asking if he'd see me, and he sent me (all things considered) a polite response, and I shall see him on July 28. It shouldn't have taken this long, eh? I want to know what scans he wishes to perform, what tests I should undergo, in order to find out how serious the whole thing is. And if it's spread a lot (which I do not expect) and life is going to become unpleasant, maybe I'll just pretend it never happened and go on a six-month opera and museum spree in Europe. (After finishing at least one novel.) And what it's all going to cost. Dr. Yancowitz assured me the chemo (if they do chemo) won't be remotely as overpowering as the chemo I went through for lymphoma. (I liked him. I've liked all my doctors. I even liked the staff at 28th Street. It's the waiting and dithering and confusion.)

On August 2nd Dr. Shastri will remove the other pimple, giving me two and a half day sto recover before I give Seumas a guided tour of the Met Museum (my birthday treat).

This all reminds me (just a little) of an incident back in the early days of the epidemic, c. 1982, when nobody knew what it was and everyone was terrified, hospital staffs as much as anyone. Everyone gay was terrified. I was. We all were. A guy I worked for at the time, Ted, had a terrible case of colitis, with complications, and his doctors were convinced he was gay and lying to them. So they wouldn't treat the colitis properly (contra-indicated should it be Gay Cancer), waiting for him to break down and come clean. I thought at the time (but didn't say to Ted), "If only your doctors were gay or had any gaydar at all, they'd know damn well you were straight." This skill was not taught in med schools then. Maybe still isn't. I dunno.

If the nurse on the phone's voice drops low and becomes very sweet and sympathetic, and she uses phrases like, "what you have" instead of naming names, Don't Stand For It. We're all grownups here. Say the thing. It's called AIDS. And I don't have it.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Diagnosis, or The Apple Doesn't Fall Far from the Head

Sh'ma Yisrael!

Do you remember 1981? I do, pretty clearly, though I was only ... never mind.

1981 is when the CDC first noticed a lot of gay men in New York and San Francisco were getting diseases (and not getting cured of diseases) that did not suit their demo. No doubt this had been happening for years and doctors had merely been puzzled. But a cluster is a cluster.

One of the two diseases was Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, a perfectly dreadful way to die. The other was an obscure cancer called Kaposi's sarcoma which, doctors explained, tended to afflict elderly men (between 50 and 70 - oh, fifty was an unimaginable old age to me then!) of Eastern European or Jewish or Mediterranean backgrounds, who would treat it (there is no cure per se), live another twenty or thirty years, and die of something else entirely. But these young gay men (my age!) were getting it and it was spreading like wildfire to all sorts of organs, leading to pretty horrible deaths. Eventually - but you know this part of the story - the two syndromes proved to be one, with ramifications. I spent years with the jitters about these ailments, and I still have a list (somewhere) of eighty friends (or very casual acquaintances) who did not survive.

And I alone am escaped to tell thee. Well, not alone (thank the Gods!). I tested negative, when there were finally tests. "You must have lied to me about what you were doing," accused one old (soon to be late) friend. No, I did all that. I just didn't ... pay the price. I believe there will turn out to have been co-factors making certain people immune, but in the meantime I credit the Will of the Powers that I endure, the chance workings of imponderable Providence, low libido factor and dumb luck. (These are four verbalizations for exactly the same concept.)

And science dragged its slow (to outward view) progress and came up with, if not cures, astounding palliations and preventatives, and the human race learned a whole lot about cancers in the meantime. Such as that Kaposi's sarcoma (named for its discoverer, a Hungarian - of course - in 1872) is actually activated by a herpes virus, a discovery at my old alma mater, Columba, in 1994. Herpes is everywhere; as a disease (actually, it's many diseases), it leaves AIDS three lengths behind on the track.

So I am bumbling along minding (or not minding) my own business, and I get this infinitesimal red dot on my little toe. I noticed it in March because that's when I went to my doctor to consult about my shoulder problems and mentioned that too. He recommended an orthopedist but did not seem unduly concerned. The dot grew to large pimple size, but it never hurt and it didn't seem a strange shape (completely round) so I let it alone. Then it began to burst due to the pressure of shoes and of walking, and after a couple of days trailing blood around the house, I went to see an orthopedist, a lovely young New Jersey girl of Indian extraction. (If the doctors aren't Jewish, they are usually Indian or Chinese, eh?) She took it off with no fuss at all and very little pain, sent it out casually for biopsy, gave me antibiotic ointment and Vicodin and sent me home. That was Friday last. On the Wednesday she called me: The biopsy was in. Bad news.

Kaposi's sarcoma.

True, I've always been the soul of retro ...

But I'm HIV negative! I wanted to scream. (Went to the public clinic on 28th Street just to make sure the very next day, and yes, I'm still negative. "I don't need the rest of the tests, just HIV," I told the nurse. "I've been a very good boy." She said, "That's what they ALL say.")

And though of East European Jewish descent on, oh, 100% of my ancestry, I don't think I'm a little old man, and I practice Paganism - doesn't that count for anything?

My Birth Certificate begs to differ: I'm dead center in the demo and Jewish as they come. Sh'ma Yisrael, eh! I guess this will save me spending $200 on the ancestral DNA test cousin Karen wants me to get. (Or maybe I'll do it anyway.)

"Can I just forget about it for a few months?" I asked Dr. Shastri. She said, "No, this isn't something you want to just ignore. It might have spread all over and you just don't know about it. The digestive tract. The respiratory tract. You'll need some tests, some scans, to see if it has spread. If it hasn't, maybe it will just pop up like this occasionally ... but you never know." The problem is I have no health insurance, having no income. (AIDS would have been useful at this point. The state funds that.) I have savings, and money I've just inherited, but ... I'd earmarked that. I thought I could wait it out till Medicare set in. But I'm not quite that old.

If it's spread all over, maybe I just want to check out, but that's not easily done either. There are bridges, of course. And lots of states where it's easy to buy a gun. Or I spend the goddam money.

Death is William Tell, it occurs to me (that being the next opera I'm going to see, next Saturday night), and my head has already survived the arrow two apples' worth: The AIDS epidemic and my own personal lymphoma, fourteen years ago. It's highly unlikely I'll dodge a third as well.

Nadja says, "You didn't get AIDS so you've only dodged one apple. This is the second. I command you to live until you are ninety (two years older than my grandmother), and I'll come visit you every year in New York as soon as Wolfgang is old enough."

At the moment it is very difficult to be cheerful about it though, as you may note, it is very easy to be funny about it, as is my wont. (I was funny about lymphoma, too.) Chats with various specialists and clinics are to take place Tuesday, after the holiday. Balms bursting in air.

Over, but not out.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Dream Journal (on-going)

I'd been appointed principal of a high school and I was agitated, nervous of ruining my job prospects, and wearing the wrong clothes (socks, jeans, plaid shirt, which made me even more self-conscious - at least I wasn't naked!) and I couldn't find my office, which was in another wing.

Everyone told me Michelle would know, and evidently she was my secretary, but I couldn't find her either. I asked many people if they were Michelle, realizing a second later that it was the same woman I'd asked the day before, and she still wasn't Michelle and was trying not to lose her temper at being asked again, although as she had many other distracting duties she wasn't mean about it. But still she wasn't Michelle. I never did find my office, or Michelle.

I was trying to organize the school play, and that wasn't an easy thing to do as it was The Ring of the Nibelung. Setting up scenery and bleachers in the gym, and auditioning singers, none of them really Wagnerian. And I kept thinking if only I could find my office and my proper agenda, things would straighten out, but I never could, it was in some other wing of the school and I couldn't find my way out of this one. I pinched a biography of Maximilian II - why him? Because I'd never read one. And was it the emperor or the king of Bavaria?

I found myself away from the crowd distracted by corridors of elegant bedrooms with elegant candles that hovered in elegant Byzantine patterns when lit. They had belonged to C.S. Lewis, who particularly liked the fact that shadows resembling their ornamental edges leaped into the air and hovered for quite some time when they were lit. I lay down on the floor to watch them being lit, and woke because someone was stabbing a rusty spike into my shoulder.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Kol Nidrei: A sort of a Jewish story

As I believe all of you know, my ignorance on the subject of Jewish traditional practice is profound. For example: The Kol Nidrei prayer, which is recited on Yom Kippur. I knew nothing at all about it except that various cantorial opera singers had left recordings of it. Its function in the liturgical year I did not know at all (since I have never participated in the yearly round).

My good friend Veronika (who left St. Petersburg for New York fifteen years ago) gives piano lessons. She has great musical feeling and one of her Russian pupils, who has a half-grown son who studies the cello, begged her to listen to that son and give him advice. "And what do I know about the cello?" she said. But she knows a lot; she has an ear; she's a musician. So she gives him cello lessons. One of the pieces she had the young man play was the Kol Nidrei, in Max Bruch's setting for cello. And he played it as if it were an exercise, a bunch of notes on the page. His father said to Nika, "How can I get him to give it some feeling?"

So Nika sat down with the boy and told him the story of Kol Nidrei as she knew it, a story I certainly didn't know: That it was the prayer spoken/chanted/sung by the Portuguese Jews when Queen Isabella of Portugal (daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain) ordered them to become Christians, entreating forgiveness if they yielded or submitting if they were martyred. "And why is it all in minor and then at the end major?" she asked the guy. "Because they know if they submit and are killed, their souls will be raised up and united to God." By the end of this, the student was in tears, and played the Kol Nidrei, and his father said to Nika, "What did you say to him? It's totally different! It means something now!" So she told him the story, too.

Then she told it to me. I had never heard it. "But how did you know it?" I asked her. Nika's family were Soviet atheists (her grandmother was French), and as far as anyone knew, they were gentiles. "But I have this face, and this attitude towards music – so I think I must be Jewish somewhere back there. And when I was growing up, they would shout, 'Zhidovka morda!' at me [Jewish mug!], so if I don't have the blood, I acquired Jewishness that way. I got to identifying with it."

Then I went home and Googled Kol Nidrei, and it has nothing to do with the Marranos and the forced conversions (though the belief that it does is widespread). The prayer is centuries older than that (and it's in Aramaic, which implies an origin in Iraq), however, si non e vero, e bene trovato: If it's not true, it makes a good story. A really good symbol (like a really good faith) has no absolute meaning, and acquires ever new meanings over the centuries. Kind of like great music.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

How Honest Should One Be About HIV Status

These are thoughts that came to me on reading an HIV positive friend's blog post for POZ magazine, about his affair with a guy who was HIV negative, about how frank to be, about the necessity of total honesty. He began by reflecting on telling truth to one's parents, as seen in an episode of Valerie c. 1981, where her son wanted a condom:

How old was Valerie's kid supposed to be? and presumably he didn't want the condom for receptive anal sex? and what teenager with anything to tell is totally frank with a parent? Truth in such cases is surely on a "need to know" basis (as when I went to my physician father with an STD).

I often wonder if I'd tell the truth to guys I lusted after, if I were HIV positive. (If they happened to ask. Or if they didn't - another question entirely.) I think I would tell them the truth, if they asked, if they didn't ask. I'm not at all sure. When guys tell me they are HIV positive, I say, "That just means we won't do things (i.e. unprotected anal) that I don't do any more anyway." I remember a handsome fellow in a bar in Munich in 1991 who told me he'd just been flirting with someone else, and the someone else walked away as if offended when he'd mentioned his being positive, not even saying something polite. I found that incomprehensible. And this was a sweet guy who didn't have to tell the truth.

But sometimes, in a casual flirtation leading to bed, neither of us brings it up. Which is hot, but also ... nervous-making. Do they not care? Do I not care? Do they not care what I think? Do they assume I'm the same status as themselves? It raises all sorts of questions later on that I prefer not to have raised, so I usually mention my status. But not always. It's very hard to set up rules on this sort of thing. It's more human to go by the situation. And the oral stats are ... imprecise. (And I've been doing it for a long time since the epidemic started.)

Ages ago, twenty years or so, I had a big fight at the NYC AIDS clinic where I'd gone for an annual HIV checkup. I'd admitted I didn't use condoms for oral sex. The testing guy was furious at me. We got briefly heated. But the kicker was the expression on his face when my results came back: Negative again. (and I was doing a lot of casual sex in those days, undoubtedly with many positive guys) He looked so defeated. I never went to that testing place again.

Defeated. But whose victory?

Hell (or, FML)

What would Hell be for me?

Being obliged to watch a very long movie (no refreshments, no intermissions, no potty breaks) of my life, my every move, my every moment, my every betîse, my every humiliation, working itself inexorably out. Not suffering the pains perhaps, but all the embarrassments and humiliations.

Around me - silence, darkness? Emptiness? or - would this be worse - more Hellish - if the darkness were filled with the rustles, the yawns, the coughs, the candy wrappers and slurps (even sounds of making out) of a vast anonymous audience? or would it be worse to know that audience, to have them be everyone I've ever known and cared for? I think that would be Dante-esque (without the terza rima.