Reprise: A human wreck at ‘Wreck Beach’

It was my first visit to the west coast, that summer of 1996, and – given my fragile health – I was determined to make it the trip of a lifetime. I would fly to Vancouver and then take the train across Canada to return home.

My purpose in being out there was to attend the XI International Conference on AIDS. As a “scholarship” recipient, with registration and basic expenses covered, I stayed with others on similarly limited budgets in the residences at the University of British Columbia. A more beautiful university campus I have not seen, built on a large, elevated point of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the city’s west end.

Campus maps clearly showed several beaches nearby. They did not, however, indicate changes in elevation. So it was that I set out to find Wreck Beach, a place of some considerable legend, in Canada anyway, that I knew to be “clothing optional”. I left my room, at the Gage Residence and Conference Centre, in the early morning of my first full day there, skipping breakfast – as was my habit back then – even though it was already close to noon by my jet-lagged body clock.

I took my time, walking around the campus to establish some landmarks in my mind, being admittedly wasteful of physical energy which was at a premium. I continued to recover from a serious AIDS-related illness, cryptosporidiosis, a parasite which gives understated meaning to the expression “feeling shitty”.

Crossing NW Marine Drive, loosely wrapping its way around the tip of the campus, I found myself in  which, for what I mistook to be a more urban park, did not seem to have a lot of signs. Looking for a path to the ocean, which I could unmistakably hear through the sky-high Douglas fir trees, I came upon a trail I would only later discover had been created by nothing more than rain run-off. It seemed like a path to me. I could forgive the Parks Department for such a primitive trail, given the unspoiled nature evident everywhere the eye could see.

I began my hike downward, stepping over fallen branches, carefully walking around patches of mud, all the while trying to absorb the sheer beauty of the lush plant-life; the unfamiliar songs of the coastal birds. The terrain was becoming progressively steeper and this path I had found did not zigzag across the hillside the way I would have expected. It soon became necessary to grab hold of trees just to keep my footing. I was glad to be wearing comfortable sneakers, although hiking boots would not have been an overly cautious choice to have made. As the grade of the slope increased – calculating such things has never been my strong suit – I began to let myself slide from tree to tree, grabbing on for dear life. Then I fell – still upright, such was the steepness – and began a precipitous plunge. As alarmed as I was, and I cannot overstate my initial sense of panic, I kept my wits about me and watched for obstacles that might injure me. I don’t recall how long this took but I don’t think twenty or thirty seconds would be an exaggeration. Finally I felt my back brush lightly over a patch of rock and I landed in a thicket of ferns, small twigs, coming to a stop with sand kicking up between my legs and spraying my face. I lay there quickly doing a mental checklist of any injuries and, finding none, I stood up only to realize that – somewhere between standing upright and falling upright – I had let go of more than a few trees. To my horror my pants were, uh, soiled.

After quickly forgiving myself, given my health and the excitement of the last few moments, it seemed quite fitting that I should need to wash my clothes on this clothing optional beach even if my very first walk in to the Pacific was to do laundry! I cleaned myself up, using the clothes as I peeled them off, and then tip-toed in to the pounding surf, scrubbing as I went. Now, completely naked and with no dry clothes to wear, I claimed an isolated part of the beach and draped my jeans and shirt across a couple of large rocks. It would be a few more minutes before the sun would come from back behind the trees I had just fallen through. It would be some time more before my clothes were dry. That’s how I got one of the worst sunburns of my life, on parts of me which had not seen the sun for an extended period of time, and how I learned – later from another delegate to the conference (who did not get the whole story of my first day at Wreck Beach) – that vinegar works wonders on taking the sting out of a sunburn!

Much more could be written on the time travel-esque atmosphere created by some of the Wreck Beach regulars. 


No offence to ‘black dogs’ but I got real today

Bright and early this morning, before I could slip into dishonesty, I volunteered to my diabetes specialist that I was depressed.  Actually it was more like joining in conversation with her as she wondered aloud if any ‘black dogs’ were about.

There’s always something cathartic about admitting this after circular self-arguments about whether I am or am not.  What’s with the shame? Jeez, I’ve been treated for major depression for over twenty-five years – what’s the big deal if I have a flare-up that meds, at least temporarily, don’t seem to be helping?

She asked if I had a friend I could talk to when I’m feeling down.  Several came to mind.

Not unrelated, my diabetes is not controlled at this time (it would help if I did what I was told).  I promised her I was already back on track and showing positive results. That’s true.

My weight is down about three kilograms.  This is not good as my bony ass feels tremendous discomfort in typical meeting chairs.  I can’t find a good cushion.

I’ll see my HIV doc on Friday when more of my blood test results will be revealed.  I can’t say I’ll be surprised if there’s a problem.

Affirmation: I deserve to take the best possible care of myself.

I’m back, breaking my blogging fast

Facebook, with its at-best superficial ways of linking me to my world, has taken me away from greater reflection possible in this blog so…I’m back – on my journey here.

The past few weeks I have been involved with the Youth/Elders Project, a joint effort of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, the 519 Community Centre and the Senior Pride Network. We are a group of queer-identified people – youth, up to 25 years old, and elder folk 55 years and up.

We have been meeting separately in our age cohorts, either at Buddies or the 519, and will continue to do so except for occasions like this past Saturday when we met en masse for the first time.

The highlight of Saturday, for me, was a speed-dating style exercise in which youth sat with the rest of us, one-on-one, to discuss things such as early queer role models, or lack thereof, early cultural markers (or landmines), and things such as favourite films and TV shows.

F. asked me about films about AIDS.  I could only come up with two – Philadelphia, which I saw with my friend Chaz the week that Jim died, and Longtime Companion, which Jim and I reviewed over and over in our minds the night that Terry died.

I forgot all about Angels in America – which I loved!

We spoke of friendship – intimate friendship; Jim and me separated by death and F. separated by geography from his best buddy. No modern means of communication can match being in person. Tears were shed, hugs exchanged – it was a genuine moment of connection which I treasure still now, thinking about it.

Oh and we each have/had a gay brother.

It was an amazing three hours.

We return to our separate work-shopping this week, eager to meet again as the project evolves.

Medical update: It’s all good

While showing me a graph, with the trajectory of my health over the past few months, my endocrinologist  remarked, “I wouldn’t have sold you life insurance in January!”

Point taken.  It was a rough patch, to be sure.

But now…

CD-4 count: 400 (the same level as when I was first diagnosed HIV+); up from 270

Viral load: undetectable (no change)

A1C (blood sugar): 8 (above the ideal 7 but greatly improved from my insulin overdose episode)

Weight: up (I can’t remember either the former or current weight)


I’m still feeling a little wobbly on my legs so I’m using a cane, more often than not, and I have a walker to take with me to the grocery store for heavy loads.

All in all, I am shaping up nicely for spring!

Out for 35 years

Reading something which noted that 1981 was 35 years ago jarred me into realizing that it was three-and-a-half decades ago this very month that I officially came out of the closet, by which I mean letting my family know that I was gay.

It was in the context of the uproar over the bathhouse raids by Toronto police in which, but for luck, I was not involved.

This weekend’s cold temperatures remind me of the cold nights spent protesting the raids, a fear of being seen on the TV news which propelled me to pen a letter of coming out to my Mom and Dad.

It was met with a phone call from Mom in which she assured me of their unconditional love for me (after I had imagined worst case scenarios of a different kind for no reason).

35 years!  I was a fresh-skinned 21-year old then on the eve of the first cases of AIDS being reported in the United States.  I managed to escape the first waves of death which swept through the community and now count myself among ‘long-term survivors’.  AIDS still seems very real to me but I no longer take for granted that I will die prematurely.  I’m trying to accept that there are some things I just don’t know.

There have been other things which could have, and could yet, kill me but, for now, I am trying to re-experience the energy I recall from those powerful days of protest in 1981.

Honours from ACT

It was both an honour and a pleasure this past Monday to receive an award for 25 years of service at the AIDS Committee of Toronto’s Annual General Meeting.  I must confess to feeling like I have drawn on more services than I have provided but the 25 years is amazing, even from a survival point of view!  Here I am with ACT E.D. John Maxwell:

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‘Times Have Changed’ at 40 Wellesley St.E. #HIVnow

40 Wellesley St. E.
40 Wellesley St. E.

The latest ambitious awareness campaign by the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT), #HIVnow, “asks big questions, puts forward honest answers and issues clear calls to action”.

The “Times have changed” theme comes to mind as I watch the slow demolition of 40 Wellesley Street East, a medical offices building where I learned of my HIV status in 1989 and received medical care there for several years. Hundreds – thousands even – of HIV/AIDS patients were seen in these offices at the height of the crisis in the early 1990s.

If those demolished walls could talk…

Guess what’s next for 40 Wellesley.