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AIDS - My Friend’s World

 AIDS - My Friend’s World

Two summers ago I drove five hours to spend a weekend with an old high school friend I hadn't seen in years – a friend who has AIDS. He and his partner (also HIV-positive) invited me to their home in a small Mississippi town. I knew I'd have a great time because we always did when we were together.

I didn't know how much I had to learn.

I learned that my friend has not allowed AIDS to define him. His AIDS was "full-blown" when it was discovered years ago and, medically, he shouldn't be here today. But when he was diagnosed, instead of giving up, he gave of himself. Although sometimes too weak to stand, he took an elderly woman into his home because she was dying of cancer. She'd been his business partner and her nephew had dropped her off at a nursing home in Florida. My friend flew there, picked her up from her bed, brought her home on the plane, and cared for her as if she were his own mother until she died two years later. When I asked him how he handled logistics – like helping her with her bath, his answer was matter-of-fact, "Oh, you just put your swim trunks on and climb in with them if you have to bathe somebody." Indignities and embarrassments didn't even register with him; he'd suffered so many of them himself.

I learned that the medication regimen that sustains life for AIDS victims comes at a price. I was surprised when he described the huge handful of pills he and his partner take every day. He told me I hadn't seen them take them 'cause they were off their meds for a couple of days. When I asked why, he admitted ruefully, "We couldn't hang out with you and have fun if we were taking them; they cause so many stomach problems we'd be in the bathroom all the time." I felt so selfish that they'd cooked for me (amazing food!) carted me to visit relatives of theirs I knew, stayed up late telling stories, and I hadn't realized how rare those "good days" were that they'd saved for me.

I learned that integrity means facing responsibility. When my friend was diagnosed, he was asked to make a list of all the people he might possibly have infected. His doctor offered to send warning letters to people who should go for testing – without revealing his name. My friend refused. Instead he called the partners he'd been with over the years and told them personally what they needed to know. They were some of the hardest calls he'd ever had to make. It made me think about how many of us have been incautious in "the heat of the moment." My friend paid with his health – for a lifetime.

I learned that many professionals are woefully uninformed. When my friend's doctor realized how comfortable he was with talking about his AIDS, he asked him to share his story with students at a nearby medical school, so he stood in front of 200 future doctors and answered questions for over an hour about what it's like to live with AIDS – to people who knew shockingly little.

I learned that attitude is everything. My friend still has the same infectious joy he's always had, even though his energy levels wane at times. We sang karaoke loudly until small morning hours (there might have been vodka involved and yes, we did sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow for fun) and watched videos of his dance exhibitions with the older ladies he was hired to instruct at a dance studio. Some dancers might have given a half-hearted effort to a job some would consider cheesy, but my friend has always known how to make people feel special, and these women were stars who glided and pranced with him across the floor.

I learned that my gay friend can never truly let his guard down. He assured me that he and his partner suffered no abuse from the quiet conservative neighbors surrounding them, but when we stopped at a nearby convenience store and he went in with me in his pink shirt, two tables of rather menacing looking "farm boys" watched our every move, commenting under their breaths. My friend pretended not to notice, but I could see he was nervous and we both felt the tension that caused us to make a hasty exit. Just a few months later, he moved to another state where he'd previously managed a bar in a predominantly gay community and I was glad to picture him there among friends.

I learned that all the things we never said to each other back when we were in high school didn't matter. Those were days when homosexuality wasn't discussed, and though I'd felt guilty for never encouraging him to share with me what I always knew, he knew I loved him – as I love him still. And because he loves me, he spared me the heartache of most of what he's been through, although his partner told me he'd been beaten once as he was coming out of a gay bar and if he hadn't managed to get to his car and drive to the police station, the car still following him would have probably finished the job.

As I left, he told me he was happy. He and his partner have been together for over ten years, and they have a thriving home remodeling business. He said something I'll never forget. He said, "You know, Beck, we're all the same. We all want the same things. We all want the white picket fence." I kissed him and drove away as the two of them waved arm-in-arm from the front porch of their home, a home where there was more love and more generosity and concern for others than in any home I'd ever visited. I'm so glad my friend has the white picket fence, even if he's had to build it in a community far away from the people who still don't get it. The loss is theirs.

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Posted in December, 2010


It Gets Better - With Our Help

One of the hardest things I've dealt with as a teacher is counseling students with suicidal thoughts. The high school years are so difficult with hormones, crushes, insecurities, identity angst, parental battles, and grade issues. At a time when they most need support and approval, many teens are disowned (literally or figuratively) by their parents for being gay. The rejection of a parent is devastating; our parents have so much control over our self-esteem. We believe what they tell us. We're not at an age yet, even as high schoolers, to see how wrong they can be – about us, about sex, about everything.
And sometimes they are wrong. A student once shared a book with me called Toxic Parents. I don't even know if it's in print any more, but it's about how emotionally damaging parent/child relationships can be when parents are controlling and judgmental – and when those parents take away their children's rights and their dignity.

I've often tried to tell depressed students how much better things will be when they're just a little older, when they're away from home and on their own. I've tried to point out all the things in their favor. I remember telling one young man that he was smart, and good looking, and talented, and had many friends, but he didn't see it that way – because I was describing his life from MY perspective. And, whether they have supportive parents or not, that's what's missing for so many teens who give up – perspective. There's no way for them to see their adult lives down the road, away from the cruelties of teenage peers, and sometimes away from parents who want to take away their identities.

This is why I applaud the "It Gets Better" project. As a straight adult, I can't tell gay students their lives will get better. I can't speak on a personal level to the unique problems they face in a homophobic society. But gay adults can. And they have. I am so encouraged by the impact that videos from all over the world, from all types of people of all ages can have on middle schoolers and high schoolers who are strangers to them – because these kids are often isolated and alone with their secret. A secret that can kill, as we've seen too many times in recent months.

Please share the website It Gets Better and the Trevor Project with anyone you know who comes in contact with kids. Some statistics say that 10% of them are gay.

I've been reminded so often lately of a W.B. Yeats quote that I love, "The best lack all conviction while the worse are full of passionate intensity." If those of us who believe in love and acceptance don't aggressively voice our convictions – both at the polls and in our hometowns and among our adult peers, we're giving the bullies permission – to run our governments and to run our lives. If we don't stand up to them and speak loudly about our convictions, we're no better than the bullies themselves. Please help spread some "passionate intensity" for a more accepting world. We can't afford to lose any more young people.

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Posted in November, 2010


Enhancing Your eBook

Enhancing Your eBook

A year ago I had no idea what enhanced eBooks were or how transmedia documentation could supplement my work. Today Last Bus Out sells on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBooks with over 75 photos and 25 links to newscasts, videos, and animated satellite images. My journey began the moment this summer that I saw my daughter's new iPad and realized its potential for the non-fiction narrative I'd just written. I immediately began researching various media for photos, websites, videos, and articles that would help me tell the story of Courtney Miles, the boy from the projects who stole a bus in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and drove over 300 people to safety.

There were several issues I had to resolve in order to produce this book. The first was copyright. No one really knows exactly how copyright laws will translate in this new publishing model, but I got lucky. I discovered that government photos are public domain, so I was able to use NASA, FEMA, and NOAA photos and videos without fear of getting sued. Also, I decided that if the other videos and websites I used were linked instead of embedded, I'd be okay. I'd have preferred to embed them to facilitate a more seamless use by readers, especially since silly Apple refuses to acknowledge Flash so some of them don't open on Apple devices, but that seemed risky – whereas hyperlinking simply directs more people to a site already posted on the web. How could anyone object to that?

The other important issues were quantity and placement. There were so many devastatingly beautiful scenes from Katrina (God bless the FEMA photogs!) that it was tough to choose from among them, but I knew I had to be very selective. Which ones best told the story I wanted to tell? I'd written about people who lost everything, but that photo of a few meager coffee mugs and picture frames rescued from the devastated home in the background really brings home the efficiency of Katrina's greed. Readers will read about Courtney's dawning understanding of the ineffectiveness of local government officials; then they'll click on the link to Mayor Nagin's famous radio interview begging desperately for help. Transmedia documentation in Last Bus Out allows the reader to follow the actual weather bulletins as the storm moves into the city, then view the animated satellite image of its monstrous proportions as it made landfall and visit the interactive graphic showing its impact in each area of the city. These enhancements bring the story to life.

I discovered also with this project that placement was critical. It was impossible to insert photos and links into the manuscript without, to some degree, breaking up the flow of the narrative. For this reason, I sometimes used three or four photos in quick succession and left many pages of uninterrupted text so the reader wouldn't become derailed by too many distractions. It was really gratifying to realize how well the documentation fit the story; it made me feel I'd done my job as a writer when all the text was already there. I think I added maybe two sentences to the entire book to accommodate particular photos I wanted to use.

As soon as I finished the enhancements, I sent the new file to my agent, Alex Glass at Trident Media, who really liked what I'd done. Unfortunately, by that time, publishers had circled the wagons, hiding behind their already published authors and lobbing big chunks of money from the safety of the campfire at rock stars and teen idols (Hillary Duffstoevsky, God help us) Okay, I can't say I totally blame them for not eagerly embracing debut writers right now; these are scary economic times we're livin' in, and for publishing types, there's even more uncertainty with the digital shift looming and so many questions unanswered.

I can't wait to see what YA non-fiction writers like Marc Aronson will do with this technology, but I have to admit I'm not convinced of its relevance for fiction. Maybe someone will do something soon to change my mind. I've seen author interviews and book trailers added, but that just seems like marketing to me - not something the customer should have to pay for. Chat rooms for readers? Links to the author's Facebook and Twitter will appeal to some hardcore fans, I guess.

Meanwhile I'm still deciding between the Kindle and iPad (while happily reading on my iPhone), but I'm pleased with the way my first transmedia project looks on both. Check out the free samples available through Amazon or Barnes & Noble (downloadable to your computer or phone if you don't have a device,) and maybe you'll decide to research the feasibility of the new technology for your next book.

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Posted in October, 2010


A Wild Ride in Publishing

Hang on, everybody! We're in for a wild ride. The publishing industry is changing so rapidly, the information you find online today may be obsolete tomorrow. It's exhilarating, terrifying, mind-boggling, intimidating, confusing, and very, very exciting!

The good news is:

-Most experts think books will continue to thrive in both print and digital formats. More options for readers and greater accessibility (ordering from your bed at midnight) is increasing the number of books people read. Sales are strong.

-Print-on-demand will allow mid-list and out-of-print books to continue to sell, and will help eliminate huge print runs of books that don't sell and must be stored, remaindered, and destroyed – a practice that was terrible for the environment and a royal pain for booksellers and publishers.

-With 50 pages or so available in downloadable free samples, we'll all waste less money on books we thought we'd love after reading the first few pages in the bookstore, but lost interest in after a chapter or two.

-Niche books that never saw print because of a limited market will be available to those with an specific interest.

-Lower prices will result from savings in shipping and storing costs, and e-books currently offer authors a greater share in the profits.

-New vetting processes will emerge for self-publishers – reputable reviewers offering readers a "clearing house" for navigating the huge numbers of digital uploads they'll be wading through. Customer reviews online and book bloggers will remain a driving force in word-of-mouth sales of books.

In a city where many start-up companies have been birthed, I'm all in. I'm convinced that the emergence of new technology will benefit the reader in the long run. In the meantime, it's much more productive to welcome the new baby than to bitch about the birthing pains. And as for e-books, don't say "never" if you've never tried one. You can always download the Kindle or Nook app to your computer or phone. Then if you download a few free sample chapters from Amazon or Nook, you can give it a try without spending a penny.

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Posted in October, 2010

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