Thursday, January 30, 2020

Set Theory

Everything I ever needed to know I learned from Anne of Green Gables.

Of course, the question is which Anne of Green Gables – the original novels by Lucy Maud Montgomery? Or the classic CBC miniseries from the 1980s that I’ve already gushed over?

For example, in the television show Anne’s delightful schoolteacher mentor Miss Stacy is the one who delivers this inspirational line:

“Tomorrow is always fresh with no mistakes in it... well with no mistakes in it yet.”

In the 1908 novel, however, the corresponding dialogue actually occurs after Anne serves a fresh-baked cake to the new minister’s wife. Anne accidentally replaces the vanilla called for in the recipe with arthritis rub. 

Even though the scene isn’t in the television series, when I run the dialogue in my head I nevertheless hear Megan Follows playing Anne and Colleen Dewhurst as foster-spinster Marilla:

“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?"
“I’ll warrant you’ll make plenty in it,” said Marilla. “I never saw your beat for making mistakes, Anne.”
“Yes, and well I know it,” admitted Anne mournfully. “But have you ever noticed one encouraging thing about me, Marilla? I never make the same mistake twice.”
“I don’t know as that’s much benefit when you’re always making new ones.”
“Oh, don't you see, Marilla? There must be a limit to the mistakes one person can make, and when I get to the end of them, then I’ll be through with them. That’s a very comforting thought.”

Like classic children’s literature, the sporting world provides a variety of mixable metaphor alternatives. When do our missteps haunt us forever? Or when can we cut our losses, close the books, and make a fresh start? 

In most ball games, like basketball and football, scoring is cumulative. When you’re down 50 points at halftime, they still make you slog through and finish the game – even when everyone knows youre never going to catch up. This is one of the many non-gay reasons I abandoned Little League and turned to the theater at a young age.

On the other hand, sports like tennis offer a stark contrast to cumulative-scoring ballgames. 

A tennis player who wins a substantial majority of individual games or even most of the individual points can nevertheless lose the match. Regardless of whether the score is 6-0 or 7-6 with a three-hour tiebreaker, all that counts is the up or down thumb at the end of each set. That's the elegance of Set Theory for English Majors.

This week a friend noticed I’d been writing about AIDS and HIV, and asked what today’s blog essay would be about. I realized the answer was simple:  it was time to come out as HIV negative.  

I became an activist in an era when HIV was associated with brutal medical outcomes, horrific discrimination, and crushing stigma. I don’t think I’ve internalized that hostility myself. To the contrary, I’ve always been surrounded by friends on both sides of the HIV divide, regardless of where we landed by “luck or circumstances,” as David France puts it in How to Survive a Plague. I’ve dated men with either sero-status. I am always honest. But I seldom discuss HIV publicly, mostly because I’m burned out. Plus I’m actually quite shy. (Strangers reading this blog might be surprised by this assertion.)

One of the overarching themes of my writing is the tyranny of the closet – regardless of whether unhealthy secrecy involves sexual orientation, mental health, or other important aspects of one’s identity. Various recent experiences have chipped away at another layer of writer’s block. So when I was inspired to write about AIDS, I knew I couldn’t approach the truth without addressing this particular issue.

Once in a while, life offers you a new beginning. You can fake your death, transition genders, or join the French Foreign Legion. Bankruptcy lawyers like Nevada’s “Fresh Start Law Firm” can help you crawl out from under a hopeless mountain of debt. Perhaps this is the year when Valentine’s Day or the arrival of spring will usher in your personal season of renewal.

In my gay life, the most vivid experience of closing the books has come from regular and sometimes irregular HIV testing. As I recently wrote in “OK Boomer,” my generation of gay men was the first to come out into a world where we knew AIDS was waiting to kill us. We were years away from an effective treatment for the virus. Untreatable opportunistic infections still ravaged weakened immune systems. All we had was a primitive blood test for HIV antibodies, an inexhaustible supply of condoms, and a deafening safer sex message.

I got my first HIV test in the late 1980s, at a public health office in New Haven, Connecticut. I still hadn’t had “sex” yet (at least as the word would be used by a gay male epidemiologist, then or now). But I was very earnest, the counselor was very polite, and none of us knew very much about how the HIV virus works. 

Back then they sent your blood sample out to a laboratory, which added two or three weeks to the process. Half of the people who chose to test anonymously never returned for their results.

My most remarkable HIV testing experience occurred in Chicago in the mid-90s. Three weeks after getting tested at Howard Brown Health Center, I received the result:  “indeterminate.” At the time, that essentially meant a 50/50 chance of either a recent HIV infection, or a lab error. The “expedited” follow-up test involved a mere 48-hour wait. Interestingly, during those two days I experienced all the nasty flu-like symptoms that most patients get when they seroconvert. My symptoms disappeared as soon as I got the reassuring results. Hmm, perhaps my melodramatic hypochondriac daughter has inherited something from her father after all – a heightened placebo effect.

Nowadays my Bellingham physician Dr. Heuristic usually just includes an HIV test as part of my routine bloodwork. But I prefer to also make an appointment with the excellent STI folks at Seattle’s Gay City. As soon as you arrive, the punk receptionist sends you to a interactive computer terminal. You get to answer nonjudgmental questions about what you’ve been doing since your last visit. (Try not to fudge your numbers too much, it messes with their statistics.) I usually get the same experienced counselor. We chat about life, then take some samples. He puts a drop of my blood into the well of the plastic rapid test device. We watch together for the unsurprising but nevertheless reassuring result. 

I’ve never been Catholic. But every time I walk out of Gay City to finish the rest of my Seattle errands, I feel like I’ve been to Confession. And received gay Absolution. 

Next: “After the Fall” 

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