Saturday, April 28, 2018

Strikes


STRIKES



A whole-mouthed gulp of Tampa’s April air reminds us that jasmine and gardenia mixed on a salty gulf breeze may be the best taste in the world. This mix of fragrances means that, if the clouds in the heavens are arranged correctly, the Lightning are in the playoffs and the first sunny innings of Rays baseball are peaking through at the Trop. Our multi-sensory, three-sport solidarity floats on an energized air that strikes with a microcosmic electricity.

Strikes are the dominant theme this spring. Coach Cash has taken a long view on pitching that has yet to yield enough of them. Calling on the bullpen for short rotations feels like it may not yield the strikes that contemporary experts assert are necessary to win games. The Rays’ pitching approach is, at best, “complicated.” Defense is the less exciting path to victory, especially when the sluggers languish. Meanwhile, Coach Cash asks us to, “Stay positive.” The Red Sox may be dominating, but let’s trust the long view: we can make the Rays great again.

The air in Douma, Syria lately has been significantly more caustic. This was hardly the first time that Assad, contrary to international law and human decency, struck—with a lethal combination of sarin and chlorine—to exact mass murder upon the people of his own nation. Apologists argue that the situation in Syria is, “complicated,” a multi-lateral warren of shifting alliances and enemies: a division of players that include terrorist-backed rebels, opportunistic Islamist regimes, the Syrian government, NATO allies, and Ruso-Iranian proxies. America’s equivocation in the conflict—overstepped red-lines and caliphate whack-a-mole-ing—reflects as much a crisis of humanity as a dearth of strategy.

America’s long view of democracy-building—hollowed words emanating from a hollowed out diplomatic corps—falters in the wake of short-term defensive strikes. Three decimated chemical facilities proved an out, but hardly a, “mission accomplished.” Those three strikes no more mean a victory than a vetoed Security Council resolution means an end to the principles of the Geneva conventions.

But, but, strikes!

Calling on the tried-and-true bullpen of the willing—U.S., France, and Britain—the ability of Assad to again gas his own people was bombed into supposed oblivion. Secretary Mattis called this a, “One-time shot.” Mattis’s boss answered with contradictory long-term bluster that such strikes may be, “sustained.” The lack of clarity in this message, to the American people and our enemies alike, calls to question whether we truly have a long-term vision coming from Washington and CENTCOMmed from South Tampa.

If the complicated messaging and lackluster execution—wearing out starters then dipping into the bullpen to pick up a few short-viewed Ks to maintain distraction— can be pieced into a cohesive, long-term vision, then so be it. Part of being an American—sports fan—is putting faith in higher powers: managers and POTUSes surrounded by acolytes.

Fortunately for those of us in Tampa, our team’s manager has a strategy built upon winning, a mission easily defined and accomplished by scoring—more than a few well-timed strikes—more offensive points in the theater of sport. His strategy for achieving it may not be the best in the short run, but may prove genius (if unexciting) in the long run. Coach Cash, we trust, has a brave and unconventional strategy for stringing together wins when they matter and for disregarding the stack of not-wins as part of a broader vision. He certainly has the standout talent to make it happen.

Unfortunately for those of us in America—and for the freedom-dreamers in Syria—our Commander in Chief may not have such a well-conceived strategy. To be fair, defining victory is a bit more complicated when the field is a desert and the diamond is mounted in black gold. The strike-dotted, isolationist-when-convenient strategy of non-intervention only works in the short run. Abandoning the fight in Syria is a study in callous cut-and-running. We are charged, for the sake of humanity, to preserve life even where we cannot exert the American ideals of democracy, opportunity, and equality.

The dog days of summer—sunny days greeting late day thunder-soaks—still loom before us. Our own air will get thicker before the crisp autumn breezes greet the playoffs; meanwhile, we are safe from genocidal toxins if not caustic rhetoric.

With mid-terms approaching , a referendum on a Syria strategy—strikes notwithstanding—is more imminent than battlefield victory. Regarding our homegrown manager’s charge, though, let’s gulp a deep, fragrant, un-poisoned breath, look forward, and stay positive.




Sunday, April 8, 2018

Living with AIDS


I, You, We: Living with AIDS



As American art museums go, New York’s Whitney (the old one, in the Upper East Side, before they moved it to the High Line) is the top of my list. In April 2013, I visited for a book launch event in Chelsea and then trekked Northward to pass five hours wandering exhibits of contemporary art.

While there, I consumed an exquisite curation called I, You, We: Art  & AIDS. I uncontrollably and openly sobbed, as I walked through a room with photos by David Wojnarowicz and paintings by Hugh Steers. I stared into the hollow, sepia-tinged eyes of gay men gasping their last breaths under the oppression of a disease that disproportionately affected vibrant souls of gay men in the years when I was in elementary school.

The tears I shed were for myself: a selfish, privileged homosexual whose way of life was mortgaged by these men who suffered through one of the greatest American tragedies of the twentieth century. In an exhibit that challenged my sense of pronoun referents, I finally accepted that these chilling pieces embodied I and We. That I cried in public was no surprise. I’d always been considered a sensitive child; I grew into a sensitive adult. Until I graduated from college in the late 1990s, gay was something that was wholly not I. It was the realm of You. Others, “You, gay men,” languished of AIDS while I dwelt in my adolescent closet. The imminent death of these men, whose painful stares into the abyss of an uncertain afterlife, was pushed as far away from I as possible.

My closeted—repressed—youth was punctuated by unsatisfied longings hidden by a Wilde-like wit and a boisterous disposition. I watched from the safety of the sidelines, judgmentally. With a child’s innocence and a Baptist’s fear, I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it meant when man’s man Rock Hudson died, flamboyant Liberace wasted away, or when Adonis-like Greg Louganis split his head on the diving board.

AIDS was something that You had.

I was more lucky than anything. My delayed coming-out coincided with the first year that effective treatments (besides abstinence) led to a decline in  AIDS diagnoses. In 1996, I graduated college, moved to Orlando, kissed a boy and messed around for the first time. I loved sex and made up for 22 years without it. I was reckless. I mistook my luck in the face of recklessness as something I had earned. It was a selfish arrogance rooted in the fact that I still saw AIDS as something for the other, for the You.

Luckier still is the newest generation that doesn’t know about life without an Internet or life behind an AIDS-sentried closet door.

We all have our coming out stories, our emergence from closets. For me that was closely connected to my understanding—my misunderstanding—of AIDS. Over the intervening two decades, I have come face to face with people I care very much about—people I love—living secretly with HIV. I can’t do anything but love them. That, in 2018, we can live with HIV and leave it unspoken, is a privilege financed by souls in the 1980s. For those who have proclaimed their affliction with the virus, if not the stigma, I thank them for giving it a human, living, resilient, brave face.

What this means, of course, is that I, too, am living with HIV. As real as it is to the bodies of these people I love, it is real to me. I do not carry the virus in my body, but I carry it in my soul, in my cultural memory, in my gay genes.

AIDS is part of a We that I cannot escape: that I wouldn’t if I could. Though I’ve known its tangential reality to my relationship to a diverse community, I’ve known it directly and blossomed along the path that’s tangibly affected my evolving ideological DNA. I share a heritage with those men I encountered in I, You, We.  I know that the connection I have with those hollow, last-gasped, painful gazes implicates me in a community whose membership within which I have no choice for opting out. I know that I am the heir to Rock Hudson, a peer of Liberace, and a brother of Greg Louganis. I know that I am nothing more than lucky.

After 43 years on Earth and 22 years evolving into my truth, I am proud to proclaim that I am We. 360 thousand men died of AIDS between 1980 and 1996. I am lucky that I was not one of them. I didn’t know any of them personally. These martyrs, victims of an oppressive pre-equality culture that dehumanized them, made it possible for me to live: to be proud today.

Each day I wake up in the throes of love, not just for my spouse, but for the men who made it possible for me to be I. I am thankful, though grief-stricken, for the lifeless eyes—the stolen souls—of my gay forefathers. I am thankful that language and history can link how I see myself and how I see the world around me. I am thankful for the love of art—for sensitivity—that tear-streamed vision made real: that made I, You, We into a reality about who I am and where I fit into a world of love that has transformed my understanding of who I am—with You—into a persistent and proud We.

I am thankful that, in 2018, I am able to live with—and proudly, because of—AIDS.