I have a thing for milestones, for ritualizing passages, dates that have meaning for me (and also those that have meaning for others). I have usually treated my making of special events that mark important cycles or transitions as extensions of my postmodern performance art, which since forever predominantly uses my own life as source material. For example, I did a one-man-show for my 40th birthday 6 years ago, which incorporated processing my having been HIV-positive at that time for 14 years, not having died 3 years prior when I got my AIDS diagnosis and became really ill, and "rejoining" life to the extent I had enrolled in a doctoral program and moved to San Francisco the year before.
So, doing some math, we see that 14 + 6 = 20, and sure enough, I had been pondering what I wanted to do this year to mark the fact that I have been living with HIV for 20 years.
I kept thinking in the One-Man-Show category, but didn't quite see it. For whatever reason, that wasn't calling me enough. I had done a lot of wonderful performance work of late with a group called Out/Rage -- "gay men of various ethnicities and nationalities using artistic inquiry and theatrical dialog to explore issues of race and racism in the gay male community," according to our press releases -- so maybe my "meaningful performing" need was currently satisfied. But what, then, should I do?
My sister lives here in San Francisco, and generously hosted my graduation party in May this year (yes, I have completed my doctoral program, and am officially Doctor Paul Loper, although -- no Dr. Laura, me! -- full disclosure: it's a Ph.D., not a medical doctorate). One of my gifts that day was a very nice (and very BIG) bottle of white wine. My sister suggested I leave it refrigerated chez elle, invite a friend over, she'd make a scrumptious dinner, and we could have this fancy wine together. I thought that was a lovely idea.
It wound up taking two months for this soirée to finally happen, but in July we did it. I invited Weihaur, a friend from Out/Rage. At my sister's that evening, I took a closer look at this special bottle of wine that was the motive for the dinner. Well, what do you know? It was vintage 1984!
And it struck me that I was actually infected in July of '84 -- 20 years ago to the month!
As this sank in, I realized how significant it was for me to be having this 20-year-old wine, at a special dinner event with family -- my sister and I have known each other all her life -- and with a new friend, who I had met 8 months prior via a "meaningful performance" group, using embodied, aesthetic modes to wrestle with important social issues, and to create a transformative presence in the gay community. Weihaur does outreach work for the gay Asian-Pacific Islander community around issues of HIV, among other physical, emotional, and social health issues. Out/Rage had been partially funded by HIV organizations and grantors who have increasingly expanded their scope to support larger, more complex dimensions of wellness than the narrow "don't fuck without a condom" model.
It also struck me as pertinent that this wine was a gift to celebrate my completing a doctorate. Not something everyone does (full disclosure: yeah, you bet I'm proud of it!). And, I'll add, I was the only person in my program who was living with HIV. It wasn't an "HIV doctorate," but rather a program that seeks to enfold and yet "unpack" many intersecting facets of our inner and outer dynamics, from identity constructs around statuses like "disabled," "gay," and so on, to the processes of power, legitimization, and currency that frame and fuel our culture.
After we sat down at the table, opened the bottle, and poured the first round, I asked if they would be willing to indulge me a request. They were. I asked us to each say where we were 20 years ago, back when the wine was put in that bottle -- what we were doing and how our lives were unfolding then, and how we link that time to our lives today.
It wound up being my perfect ritualizing event, my milestone marking. In a way, it was perfect because I did NOT make a whole big production -- it was a serendipitous coming together of real and varied aspects of my life today -- including the powerful role HIV plays in it.
So Happy Birthday to me! And Happy Birthday to each of you, however old you are, and whatever enfolding and unpacking your stories are doing in relation to physical health, and to emotional, social, conceptual, spiritual, economic, and political living, loving, and learning!
Dr. Loper once resided in Denver, CO and was a regular contributor to Resolute! He wrote a column titled "La Vie Boheme."
Back to the Resolute! Fall 2004 contents page.