Usually Monday is my double clinic day at UAB, a slog through 14 or 15 patients with an emphasis on dementia, family dynamics, diabetes in poor control, the aftermath of strokes and heart attacks, and a few unsolvable social programs thrown in for good measure. Thanks to the timing of the calendar, this Monday has been spent sleeping in, playing with cats, and carefully going through the first proof of the book page by page to catch any errant typos or misprints that still remain. I’m about 40% through and have until next weekend to finish the job. Those corrections will go in next week, and then I can order and distribute advance copies while making plans for an official release date.
It’s felt very strange and a little humbling to hold an actual physical copy of ‘The Accidental Plague Diaries’ in my hands. I’ve always felt capable of writing a book but have never had the perseverance to take anything of this length to completion in the past. As I reread it, yet again, trying to catch every last misplaced comma and minor spelling error, I’m torn between thoughts of ‘this is pretty good’ and ‘this is three hundred and some pages of navel gazing’. I guess I’ll just have to throw it out there into the world and see what the world ends up making of it. I should have details on a signing event or two, Amazon links, and where it might be available locally for those, like me, who still like to patronize bookstores in the next week or two. Watch this space. Currently there are only two printed copies, the one I’m working from and the one in the hands of Steve Peha, my brilliant editor/publisher who is doing his own last minute scrutiny so no, you may not borrow it.
The theme of the long weekend was social gatherings, both in person and on line. A game night at a friends house. A zoom game of Apples to Apples with a bunch of old friends from college now scattered around the country, but with forty years of shared history. A 4th of July party that happens every year at an old friends house which is one of the usual markers on the social calendar of Bohemian Birmingham. She lives right below Vulcan on Red Mountain and has a terrific view of the fireworks display. As I stood there watching the explosions, my mind drifted back over various other fireworks I have attended over the years, some with family, some by myself, some with either Steve or Tommy at my side. Steve was a Southern California boy who was the right generation to have come of age with Disneyland (he was seven when it opened and his parents took him opening week). We went to Disneyland together a lot during our California years and he always insisted that we stay until the end of the day for the fireworks and took great joy in them, clapping and cheering. I’m sure they carried them back to his childhood for a moment or two. Tommy could take or leave fireworks, but would stop what he was doing if they were around to enjoy them. I remember standing on the back of a cruise ship with him, as it pulled out of Nassau on the last night of the cruise that was our first vacation together, enjoying a fireworks display over the harbor arranged by Atlantis Events and being able to hold each other at the rail as were in a safe gay space and could do that without fear of attack. The most memorable fireworks I viewed alone were at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. The rules seem to be a bit different in Denmark and they were shot off so low to the ground, that we could all feel the hot sparks drifting down on our scalps and cheeks. I found it a little unnerving.
This weekend also marked the 40th anniversary of the first mention of what would come to be called the HIV epidemic in the press. It was a small article in the New York Times that appeared July 3, 1981 on page 20, taken from a mention in the weekly Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published by the CDC about a rare cancer (Kaposi’s sarcoma) having been diagnosed in a cluster of gay men. I didn’t read it. I was 19 at the time and not necessarily predisposed to reading the New York Times in a day before electronic accessibility, besides which I would have had a hard time accessing a copy. I spent the summer of 1981 in the Bering Sea working on the University of Washington’s oceanographic research vessel, the Thomas G. Thompson, running water sampling machinery on the graveyard shift and they weren’t delivering a whole lot of newspapers to our few land stops – Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians, the Pribilof Islands, Nunivak Island, Seward on the Kenai peninsula. I was busy punching buttons in the middle of the night, reading voraciously (I finished War and Peace in five days), and visiting the occasional elephant seal rookery while in the lower 48, natural and political forces were coming together that would end up shaping my life in ways I could not yet imagine.
I started to hear about the mysterious new disease when I got back to Stanford that fall (we were just down the peninsula from San Francisco) but I was still closeted and developing my dichotomous life between a double science major during the day, and a theater whiz in the evenings and weekends which didn’t leave me a lot of time to get into too much trouble. And it’s the pattern that likely saved my life when so many others of my generation were taken. As time went on and the negligence of the government condemned many in the gay community to death (shades of our current pandemic), I braced myself for a short life span and became determined to pack as much into it as I could, which is likely why I continue to overwork and overcommit. There’s a piece of me that has been conditioned since my late teens to believe that there will never be enough time to complete your goals.
The biggest thing it ended up doing to me was killing off a majority of the out professional gay men a decade or so older than I. This meant that as I moved through my education and into my career, I had almost no gay role models. No mentors. No one who could help me navigate through the inherent homophobia of academic medicine of the late 20th century. No one to help me open doors or smash glass ceilings. Consequently, I made more than a few mistakes over the years and my career took some unusual twists and turns. It all came out ok, I think, but I sometimes wonder what I might have accomplished if HIV hadn’t been a part of my times. But it did give me enough experience with how American society refuses to provide succor to marginalized populations in times of public health crisis to give me some decent tools for handling my job over the years and to see many of the socio-political themes behind the current pandemic more clearly and, if I couldn’t do that, there would be none of these essays and no book.