1,013 followers – questions?


I don’t know who you all are, but the blog machine tells me there are 1,013 of you following me here.  You can also find me, Kenn Chaplin, on Facebook.

You’ll know that I haven’t been writing much lately so, might I ask, if you have any questions for me?

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. 

 

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.

Keeping Kenn Zeller’s name alive


In a crowded classroom at OISE a couple  of weeks ago I listened politely as a woman told how she had been influenced so positively by a Toronto school librarian years before.

“I was going through a rough time – abuse and all kinds of shit at home,” she said.

“He spent a lot of time with me and I always felt better better after our talks.”

“Then he was murdered in High Park and my world crashed.”

Suddenly very alert, my mind raced back to a murder that had touched me deeply in June of 1985; my God thirty years ago?

A forty-year-old school librarian had left an end-of-year staff party and driven into High Park to see if he might find some opportunities for anonymous sex. Instead he found five drunken teenaged boys, ranging in age from 15 to 18, also celebrating the end of school, who had been heard earlier declaring they were headed to High Park to “beat up a faggot”. As Kenn Zeller walked past the youths, one of them stuck out a foot and tripped him . He managed to get up and run the 10 metres or so to his car but, after getting the door open, he didn’t make it inside. In the minutes of kicking and beating him around the head which followed, his increasingly lifeless form was left for dead. His car was then vandalized.

The five each pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to nine years in prison.

“That was Kenn Zeller,” I said to the woman nodding. “I adopted the spelling of “Kenn” as a memorial to him. I don’t get the opportunity to tell the story behind it as much as I might like sometimes.”

His death was a catalyst for the Toronto District School Board implementing a program aimed at eliminating discrimination based on sexual orientation, and a foreshadowing of the board’s Triangle Program for LGBTQI youth.

Lunch with Vito Russo


Disclaimer:  My memories have been assisted by Google and a piece of paper, 8-1/2″ x 11″ divided in half, on which is written the following:



After signing up for The Movie Network again recently, I came upon the film Vito: A Man For All Seasons.  I was immediately transported back to the early summer day in 1982 when I met the celebrated author, filmmaker and activist Vito Russo. It was at a very ambitious conference, at the U of T perhaps, put on by, among others, The Body Politic collective called “DOING IT! Lesbian & Gay Liberation in the 80s”.

Vito put to words, and obviously used film clips, what he had done in the book but had us riveted with laughter during the presentation and in the question and answer period which followed.

Because I was staying with a couple of the conference organizers for the weekend and, I’d like to recall, at 22 among the younger guys there I was invited to lunch with Vito – then in his 30s and a real looker!

We walked to a patio along the north side of Bloor, I’m guessing near Brunswick, perhaps Dooney’s.

This sheet of paper protrudes from my copy of Vito’s book “The Celluloid Closet – Homosexuality In The Movies” which had come out the previous year (as had I).  I described to him how upset I was that I had not remembered to bring the book along on my break from my then-dreary existence in St. Catharines.  Such, apparently, was the extent of my troubles back then!  He thought nothing of just folding a sheet of copy paper in half and writing the cute note.  This story goes with it whenever the opportunity presents itself.

While I’d like to launch into a tale of love unleashing itself into a passionate, long-distance relationship, as we sat across from one another, I can’t even allow my “based on actual events” note to take me there, as much as I’d like to.

He vented about Ronald Reagan.  (By comparison we were experiencing the second go-round of Pierre Trudeau, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms round at that, with Conservative Brian Mulroney only in our nightmares.)

The documentary inevitably moved to the beginning of the AIDS crisis and its eventual taking of his partner Jim Sevcik in his thirtieth year.  That same year, 1985, Vito himself was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma and died in 1990, just a year-and-a-half or so after my diagnosis.  But what a difference there has been, both in opportunistic infections and in our respective treatment options.

Vito went on to become a founding member of the media-monitoring group Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

In 1987 Vito, Larry Kramer and ten others founded ACT UP!, the AIDS activist organization which has been at the centre of some of the biggest developments in AIDS anger, compassion and care.  A clip in the film is of Vito shouting,

“People are dying of homophobia.  They’re dying of Jesse Helms.  They’re dying of Ronald Reagan…AIDS is a test of who we are as a people!”

Given all he went on to do in his AIDS-shortened life I count it a privilege to remember the joy of that day on a patio in Toronto and the personal touch of his autograph.

Early morning, April 25, 2007


A prompt this week to write about something in a health-care context brought out this story which, despite having been told over and over in my head, had heretofore not made it down in writing.

It wasn’t quite 5:30 am and Janice was already waiting for me on the main floor of Union Station. Her husband Randy, who drove her in from Ancaster, needed to get to work but first back to his parents who had been drafted to baby-sit the two kids.

Janice and I hugged, exchanging exasperated greetings, then continued the conversation from late the previous night.

Our brother Craig had been walking to his home in Montréal’s Le Plateau neighbourhood, arms weighed down with food and other birthday party necessities for Claude, his partner of sixteen years who turned 54 that 24th of April 2007.

As Craig approached their three-storey stone walk-up, he tripped and fell, almost instantly smashing his head on the sidewalk. The owner of a small store directly across the narrow street saw Craig go down and rushed to his assistance. He was clearly unconscious, his head bleeding profusely. She called 9-1-1 and eventually Craig was taken to the city’s well-known Neurological Institute (think “I smell toast, Dr. Penfield!”)

Claude was contacted at St. Luc Hospital, where he worked, and he rushed to the Neuro calling my sister Lynn in New Brunswick on the way. Janice phoned me after hearing the grim news from Lynn. They decided that Janice and I should go and stay with Mom at this critical time; that having seen Craig and Claude just a couple of weeks earlier over Easter she would be upset enough without rushing to Montréal. So Janice and I took the train to Kingston and then a taxi the eighty kilometres or so to Perth. Janice phoned Mom from Kingston, gently breaking the news and giving Mom a bit of time to absorb some of the shock before we got there.

I couldn’t believe it. Craig and I had both survived HIV/AIDS since the early 1980s, watching many loved ones die. But not like this!

Over the next few days Lynn kept us up-to-date on Craig’s condition which was critical at best. When our uncle told us he had to be in Montréal over the weekend, and offered to take any of us along, Janice and I decided to go.

The drive up the steep hill of University Street from the Ville-Marie Expressway seemed to take an eternity, not that traffic was especially bad but because of the pits of anticipation in our stomachs.

George dropped us off at the front door and Janice and I found our way to the Reception area of the Critical Care Unit. The hospital screamed, “Demolish me!” with its cracked interior walls and historic odours. Lynn stepped out of Craig’s room.

“I just want to prepare you as best I can for how you’re going to see Craig,” she said. “Whatever descriptions I’ve been able to give you over the phone this week really don’t count for much in person.”

She was right and, one at a time, Janice and I found out.

I went in first, Claude walking over in tears with a big hug and kisses on both cheeks. He made small talk in his broken English until I asked a few questions.

One of the first things I noticed about Craig was how the swelling of his brain had inflated his face to a preposterous size. His eyes were wide open and couldn’t shut even if he wanted them to. There was a large flap of gauze on one side of his skull, taped at the top but left unattached at the bottom to let the emergency surgery to relieve swelling of the brain do its work.

The most telling piece of equipment in the room, which was expanding his chest and belly the way his brain swelled his face, was the respirator and its associated oxygen pump, which rhythmically forced air in and out of Craig’s chest because he could, and ultimately would, not breathe on his own.

The artificial breathing made up in noise what the strained but quiet breathing of Claude and I did not.

Claude stood closer to Craig and shouted the news that Janice and I had arrived, at which point he gave the “thumbs up” sign. I eventually saw that to be his only method of communicating, and I now wonder if it wasn’t just some involuntary impulse of the brain.

Claude and Lynn reviewed what doctors had told them. Craig was in no pain, and no pain relief was necessary. They could tell this by the fact that he wasn’t restless at all. It almost went without saying that pain sensors in his brain were damaged, if not destroyed. Even in their earliest assessments, the doctors had told Claude and Lynn that if Craig survived he would not be the same person.

Janice and I stayed for an hour or so and then we all walked back to Claude’s (and Craig’s) place on de Grand-Pré. It was a cathartic walk, one which we would repeat, through the edge of the McGill campus, around Molson Stadium, and up Park Avenue, cutting across Fletcher’s Field to avenue Mont-Royal and Boulevard St-Joseph.

When Janice and I again visited Craig the next day before our ride back to Perth, I had a very tearful intuition, if not realization, that this would be the last time I saw Craig.

One attempt to see if he could breathe on his own had already failed. Staff hoped to try, or at least Lynn and Claude were certainly going to encourage another try, in the next few days. We were all in agreement, as much as feelings can be, to accept the results.

Ultimately the attempt failed and, while Lynn and Claude were out of the room having lunch, Craig died on May 9, 2007 – six days shy of his fifty-second birthday which that year also happened to fall on Mother’s Day.

That unimaginable Sunday was spent travelling to Montreal with Mom for the funeral service the following day. Then on Tuesday it was back in to two cars for the drive to Perth where a sunset burial was held at Scotch Line Cemetery next to the plot owned by Mom and Dad.

Later that spring, Claude bought a headstone with Craig’s birth and death dates as well as Claude’s birth date. The inscription described Claude as Craig’s “compagnon de vie”, the first openly gay – and surely among the first bilingual – grave-markers in the town’s three or four cemeteries.

Chaplin Craig et Claude

Re-visiting Windigo ( a poem I wrote about a place I loved)


I know I’ve posted this before but I ventured to submit it to Northern Cardinal Review, an online magazine I happened upon today:

 

Windigo

Ripples lick the rocks

As the pines and birch politely applaud

Gulls catching their petits déjeuners

In the waking lake.

 

Sky’s amethyst shroud cascades

Towards the western shore

And the water’s silky blue

Becomes the pewter and emerald of armour.

 

The fleeting storm rumbles to the west and north

Dragging a chair across a distant wooden floor

But our only thunder is from a train

Rolling to market behind its mournful whistle.

 

The winds shift, the shroud – like a chameleon –

Becomes soft pillows of gray and white.

Lake Simcoe’s armour is but a duvet;

The white top-sheets being turned down toward Windigo.

 

Once here, and with dusk approaching,

The sheets are smoothed, the pillows fluffed

And the sun sinks past the foot of the bed

Leaving colours of peace and wonder.

 

No sooner are distant pinks orange, and oranges purple,

Then a star pierces the darkening blue

And the trees begin to sigh, knowing the moon’s glow

Over Windigo will keep watch another night.

 

Kenn Chaplin

(July 30, 1993)

 

Kenn Chaplin is a Toronto, Ontario blogger, amateur photographer and long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS. Windigo is the name of a cottage on Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto, which support groups for people living with HIV/AIDS were graciously loaned, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, as a place of quiet retreat. Kenn was grateful to have been a part of several of these retreats. In one group photo he is the lone survivor, apart from the facilitators who – in the case of that particular group – were not HIV-positive.