Tuesday 21 February 2017

Thought Picnic: Of friendships circumstance will not break

Roles we do not choose
There are roles that come by reason of progeny, others by reason of status, some by reason of quest and there some that fall not by election or commission but just by fate, roles you never chose that others immediately confer on you.
I was thrust into such a role today and I was honoured and blessed to stand in that role. A few weeks ago, I wrote of Dealing with sexuality and HIV stigma, an encounter at work that involved both the sharing of my sexuality and status.
The open-mindedness of my colleague blew me away that the encounter became the episode around which to give context to a statement I saw online a couple of weeks earlier - “In a perfect world, the positive would be open and the negative would be open-minded.
Openness is a frame of reference
My colleague was presented with a dilemma, a close friend of his after a long regular matrimonial relationship with issue had decided on a different course in life, one the presented literally insurmountable challenges in the area of sexuality and sexual choices. Whilst not radical from a health perspective, it was life-changing for all concerned.
My advice was sought on how to deal with such a situation, on behalf of the friend and my colleague who confessed he had no frame of reference with which to offer counsel and support.
Unbeknownst to my colleague, he probably had the broadest frame of reference in that he was open to understanding and inquiry, accepting of a different situation in which he had no contemplative context and he was determined to continue the long-term friendship that he had with his friend, regardless of the choices the friend had made. He cherished the person over the circumstance.
Presence is humanity
In the broader scheme of things, the friend was facing isolation, ostracism, and rejection, in my view, to have someone like my colleague available to continue to offer support and friendship without judgement or accusation was an exhibition of unparalleled brotherly love and humanity.
In my colleague, I saw an openness that gave me renewed faith in our common humanity and here he was as a person exhibiting it again and having the freedom to ask for insight and advice for both himself and his friend. I suggested the use of support groups, but first and essentially tapping on professional help to review the situation for his friend better.
However, most importantly, I said to my colleague the role he had to play was of the greatest significance to his friend, having an open mind, offering an open door, being a considerate listener and keeping the friendship going strong.
Picking up the broken pieces
And though my colleague said of that the honesty of his friend and the decision to face up to his challenging circumstances by informing his spouse and offspring was one of the most courageous things he had ever seen a man do, offered the choice to maintain the status quo and live a secret double life, the consequences of such a decision are at the very least earth-shattering.
No spouse in a heretofore heterosexual relationship can compete with the situation where their partner opts for a homosexual expression of physical and emotional fulfilment. The spouse will be gravely hurt, resentful, full of questions, guilt, angry, in denial and befuddlement apart from being scandalised in the community amongst other things that could presage depression or worse. The offspring will be left confused and possibly unable to deal with the change in their parent.
It goes without saying that healing for every side of this challenging situation is not around the corner, it would take a long time to come to terms with it and the hope is that professional counsel will help ameliorate the fallout. If every person affected by this had a friend like my colleague, there would be a lot to salvage of the life that went on before and that I think is necessary, though now things are still very raw.
My colleague can also challenge other friends in that circle to see a bigger, tolerant and embracing aspect to our humanity to accommodate difference wherever it might show itself. I commend my colleague for his openness and I was honoured to be called upon to chat about it.

Saturday 18 February 2017

Thought Picnic: #HiddenFigures - Telling uplifting stories

Telling the untold stories
We all have stories, some so ordinary within which are some even quite extraordinary but never gets told. Sometimes, we get to tell our own stories or others honour us with the gift of telling our stories in words better than we can find to tell them.
Watching Hidden Figures at a late night cinema visit yesterday, I got to learn of remarkable women whose contribution to the advancement of space research and science could have been lost, the recognition of which might have been late for those who have already passed on, but there remains one with whom to celebrate.
The lives of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Goble Johnson would have much resonance with everyone in its uplifting message and achievement.
Give them a foundation
Without making this into a review of the film, there are many strains that one could relate to or take away from the story being told. The fact that in the time of seriously anti-black Jim Crow laws and segregation, parents chose to send their smart female children to school all the way through university to obtain mathematics and engineering degree without them being held back by the need to fulfil traditional role is at least visionary.
In the face of these limitations, the authorities began to realise that the talent pool of Americans extended well beyond the dominant white ruling class and over time created environments for African-Americans to deploy their expertise to the advancement of research, science and technology of their country was the other story that was not as widely reported as the civil rights movement.
Invariably, we cannot all be activists, some have to join the protests and others in their own little way by what they know and what they do are busily pulling down walls and breaking through ceilings out of the recognition of the talents they have that cannot be denied.
When opportunity came
These African-American ladies with mathematics degrees teaching in racially segregated schools from the 1940s gained employment at a number of agencies that predated and morphed into NASA. At the West Area Computers, an all-African-American group of female mathematicians, Dorothy Vaughan became supervisor and with the advent of electronic computers ready to replaced them in their jobs, Dorothy Vaughan pre-empted obsolescence by teaching herself and her staff how to program in FORTRAN and took her team to become the operators of the new IBM computer acquired by NASA. [Dorothy Vaughan – NASA]
This to me was a classic case of someone refused to resign to the onslaught of the machine, but having the foresight to retrain and reskill to take advantage of changes in technology and opportunities.
Mary Jackson went from being a mathematician to being an aeronautical engineer, discovered early for her aptitude, she was co-opted to work with Kazimierz Czarnecki on wind tunnel dynamics and analysis, important for the design of space-going vehicles. To gain an engineering qualification she took her case to court and in a one-on-one conversation with the judge at the bench she made a discussion of firsts to earn the opportunity to attend evening classes and in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer. [Mary Jackson – NASA]
When recognition came
Katherine Goble Johnson would have been the main focus of Hidden Figures, but she was not only going to take the glory for herself and ensured that recognition was made of other trailblazers like her who were instrumental to the Americans eventually winning the space race.
She was known as the “Human Computer” whose computational analysis of celestial navigation was of the standard that for the first manned flight into space by John Glenn, he asked for her by name to go over the computer calculations and verify them before taking the flight. He placed his confidence and ultimately the anticipated success of the mission in her.
She suffered bereavement early in her career, with her first husband dying from a brain tumour and leaving her to raise three children. She faced discrimination and belittlement from race and gender perspectives which through the sheer force of both her personality and ability she overcame to the point that she could only be revered and respected.
In recognition of her pioneering work and 33 years of service at the Langley Research Centre, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 from President Barack Obama at the age of 97 and in 2016 the NASA new computer research laboratory was named Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.
The little events that presage great change
In the film, that lack of coloured toilet facilities in the block where she worked meant she had to take 40-minute toilet breaks to use the segregated toilet over half-a-mile away, the realisation of this situation led to the complete desegregation of the NASA facilities. It became evident that the customs of barring coloureds and women from certain crucial meetings to do with the space race was untenable if progress was to be made. [Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson – NASA]
Margot Lee Shetterly, wrote the book, Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016), whilst she was writing the book, she secured rights for making the book into a film and the film was released just a few months after the book was published to rave reviews.
Like I wrote at the beginning of this blog, these are stories that need to be told about ability, opportunity, life, challenges, successes, recognition and posterity. Telling these stories show us that in the face of great opposition in the social, cultural and traditional space, there is amazing human ingenuity to rise above all obstacles and thrive.
It takes the preparation of the individual through experience, education and belief to seize the opportunity when it comes, great self-esteem when contemned and the support of the certain powerful individuals to bring about lasting change. When those elements connect, history is made.
Hidden Figures is history that needs to be heralded everywhere and I am glad for the opportunity to witness this uplifting tale of triumph amid what for many is the impossible.

Wednesday 15 February 2017

My life in shoes

My pain in shoes
I know the need for good shoes, well fitting shoes that last. As a child, I suffered from growth spurts, I grew out of my shoes long before I had worn them well.
In the time from the age of 10 when I shared the same shoe size with my mum to when I was 15, I took an extra shoe size for each birthday and my feet suffered for it.
Gifts of shoes where I was not at the fitting simply meant I had shoes that I forced my feet into and suffered painfully in the process. For a year, in secondary, I walked around barefooted, it was more comfortable than to be shod with horseshoes without the hoof.
Finding my comfort shoes
By 15, I was at 45-EU/11-UK and that was a tight fit, there was literally nothing bigger in the markets apart from a few unfashionable shoes. Sandals and slippers were my best bet for a comfortable fit. My feet stopped growing at 16, from then I have comfortably worn 46-EU/12-UK/13-US shoes, just in case you want to go shopping J
Once, my mum came upon a pair of shoes, at just the right size, 46-EU/12-UK, I plod the streets of Lagos with them and landed my first breakthrough job opportunity with a good sense of knowing I was the best person to represent myself anywhere. Then, a friend’s brother who was a shoemaker artisan made my shoes just before I left Nigeria. I had penny loafers, tennis shoes, and slip-ons at my disposal.
In the UK, most shops stocked a maximum size of 45-EU/11-UK, on that rare occasion, you find a couple of sizes larger, or rather, should I say longer, because there is a difference between ‘big feet’ and ‘long feet’; mine are long.
My cave of shoes
Going on Christmas holidays to Lancashire presented an opportunity when we went shopping at the K-Shoes factory shop (now defunct). They had shelves of all sizes and designs up to size 45-EU/11-UK and then probably 30 pairs of shoes altogether for people like me with longer or bigger feet. In all, maybe 3 in my size had a design worthy of giving a second look, I got them all.
At one time, I probably had over 40 pairs of shoes, not out of acquisitive hedonism but for the reason that anything fashionable of my size was just a rare commodity, you could not pass up on seeing something good, even if it was not immediately needed.
Eventually, I gave most of them away, I discovered Doc Martens boots and when my feet began to rot away because of a fungating tumour, a pair of monk shoes from the British Boot Company kept my feet together until the tumours healed.
My peace with shoes
Now, I found out about an online store Samuel Windsor from my The Week Magazine subscription, shoes hand-made in England of the highest quality and at amazingly affordable prices. Obviously, at such prices, you probably would not be disposed to repairing the shoes if, by comparison, you could replace a pair of shoes by the time you visited a shoemaker’s the third time.
When travelling from Johannesburg to Cape Town, I was accosted by a shoe shiner who on starting on my shoes commented glowingly about the quality and style of my shoes, suggesting he rarely sees shoes of that standard. He would know and I was proud to say, they were made in England and did not cost an arm and a leg.
I do not shop anywhere else for my shoes and as long as I have them delivered to my office, I have nothing to complain about the service. I know the value and comfort of good shoes, I suffered enough growing to know that you don’t spare a dime in search of comfort, style, quality, and affordability.

Saturday 11 February 2017

Walking away

I can walk away,
If there isn’t much to say,
I will live another day,
It’s not the end when you say nay,
To hesitate is to delay,
The pain that wants to stay.
I will walk away,
We’ve said all we need to say,
If we meet another day,
Without again having to say nay,
Let’s us not delay,
The parting that’s come to stay.
I have walked away,
When there was nothing left to say,
I found a better day,
With one who won’t say nay,
I will not delay,
A deeper care that wills to stay.

Wednesday 8 February 2017

Eighth of February in my mind

Time waits for no one
Between observing the heavenly bodies and hearing the ticking away of the clock, we set a watch or order that counts the seconds, minutes and hours, for what we see as day and night that in its number is the week and the month and ultimately the year.
For some the passage of time is arbitrary, yet there are cycles, the seasons, the movements of the weather, the expectation of sun, cloud and rain, we exist on earth to count our blessings. For there is birth of one and events in life, some significant, others less so, all woven into a story of existence and experience, we serve a sentence of living tethered to mother Earth until the day we are no more.
Time is for memories
We become a memory, some good deeds lost in the sand dunes weathered by winds of change and some ugly deeds etched indelibly in rocks that never age, we can only endure by those we’ve touched by love, by indifference, through our humanity or the lack of it. Memories are wells from which bitter or sweet waters are drawn to drink or flush, each reckoning journaled for eternity – the passing of time from infinity to infinity, we harbouring a section in that unfathomable spectrum.
In the counting of the years are matters of import, of holidays and anniversaries, of remembrance and ceremony, the dates and days carry different meanings and symbolisms, age is not just a number that changes as we slumber.
On this day, just eight years ago, I posted my first tweet on Twitter.

Time is for reflection
On this day, a year after that, I buried a dear friend whose 58th birthday would have been two days later. It was very sad and he is fondly remembered.
On the same day, the service was in a church on a freezing February morning, well attended by many from far and near, it was a worthy sending off because Dick was a man of many talents and influences and he drew people from all countries, cultures, and walks of life. We exited the chapel after his remains to the world music of a Senegalese performer, he probably would have wanted us to dance.
Time is for remembrance
After the service, I could not wait to witness his committal to earth, for in the early afternoon, I had an appointment for what was my 7th chemotherapy session.
I got to the hospital and for all we tried, having come in from the cold, they could not find a vein to pump in the poison that killed the cancer and spared my life.
When they finally did, I sat through 45 minutes of it and though 8 sessions were scheduled and a 9th was being planned, that session of chemotherapy became my last and the beginning of my life after cancer.
And so, that makes the Eighth day of February, a day of blessing and stories, did I say that 26 years ago, today gave us the first day of significantly heavy snow in London? How do I remember these things? I’m a man of the times that pass and the memories that stick. [Weather 1991]

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Pricked for new life stories

Acting on my mentality
Generally, I should make a mental note of when my next hospital appointment is. In fact, not only should I have made that note, I must prepare for it. My next appointment is in the third week of February.
Now, it is best to visit the phlebotomist two weeks prior to my appointment, ensuring the consultant gets to discuss the results of my blood tests at our meeting. It goes without saying that my mental note for my last appointment did not yield the appropriate action, when I finally found out, the appointment had passed, I was recalled for a new appointment, failing which I would have been taken off the patient list.
Lacking in some mentality
The lack of preparation for my last appointment meant we had no opportunity to discuss my blood work since it was done on the same day of my visit. I was to write to my consultant two weeks later to discuss the results, but the year crowded itself out on me. It can wait.
I chose today to visit the phlebotomist, got out the urine sample container and found myself turning the house upside-down looking for my blood card which lists the tests to be conducted and hence the number of vials of blood to be drawn.
All night, I wondered and disputed within myself as to what I might have done with that slip of paper until it occurred to me that the whole process had been computerised and my consultant had not really given me a blood card. He told me then, six months ago, I didn't need one, it was all on computer now. Phew!
Eschewing a wrong mentality
I was picked up by an Ethiopian Uber cab driver and as we talked about sickness, health, religion and abuse, he informed me of an Orthodox faith healer of whom he had observed healing miracles and as I made to step out of the cab at the hospital I was advised to consult the healer and forget these hospital visits.
I have been there before, I almost died trying all avenues to receive a miracle before I decided on the miracle of medicine. The process of unschooling ourselves from the carbuncles of cultural, traditional and religious errors of reason and living continues daily. Some things we know within ourselves are better left unsaid when entreated to channel our energies down a certain path.
Having the right mentality
The blood room was full, I picked a ticket numbered 61 when then tally display read 19, it was not as long a wait as I thought it would be. When I introduced myself to the phlebotomist, the computer did not have the detail gathered on one screen, she looped through screens until 7 vials were gathered in the dish. Another vampires’ convention, I quipped.
The blood was drawn in short order and soon I was out and back on my way home. In two weeks, another story of life would be told from the voice of the bloods.

Thursday 2 February 2017

A wreath for Dick, a never-forgotten friend

How I befriend
I seldom make new friends, it takes time for me to attach and involve, yet, there are people I take a liking to from the onset and before I know it, I am involved, invested and engaged.
In some cases, it might be overbearing, maybe I could be, it is not out of malice or infatuation, it is primarily out of interest, as for me, friendship does not come that easily.
Yes, I will get involved in your life, your well-being, your concerns, your happiness because your friendship to me is one of an engagement that brings fulfilment. I immensely enjoy companionship.
Don’t hurt me
Invariably, I do not ask for much in return, your freedom is yours to use as you will, if you give me some of your time, your presence, your company and your friendship, I do cherish it. Treat me with respect and consideration, take some time to walk a long hard mile in my own shoes. I have an open hand, open arms and feelings too, if you can, please don’t hurt my feelings, you will never get another chance to hurt me a second time.
In that, I have very few friends and even fewer lovers, of friends, two have dearly departed and of lovers, one has gone, never to return, to the land of dreams and memories of a joy and love we once shared. [Dick van Galen Last] [John Coll] [Chris Clarke]
In memory of
I cherish my friends and of my lovers who have gone on to love others, they remain my friends for life because they were once a part of me.
These thoughts of the present and the past are a reflection and for a memorial to a friend who passed on today, seven years ago. I cannot visit his grave in Amsterdam to lay flowers of remembrance, but I write fondly of him, because he was a dear, dear friend and I miss him and his friendship which the passage of time has not lessened.
Dear Dick, Rest in peace, love you always, you’re never forgotten.

Wednesday 1 February 2017

Dealing with sexuality and HIV stigma

 Courtesy of The Stigma Project
In a perfect world
A few weeks ago, I saw this on a dating profile, “In a perfect world, the positive would be open and the negative would be open-minded.” The reference to positive and negative in that statement referred to HIV.
Unfortunately, there is very little knowledge of what HIV is and how it is different from AIDS. This ignorance then feeds into stigma and prejudice against people who happen to be HIV+ (HIV positive).
Yet, there is so much knowledge out there about HIV, AIDS and the treatments that give people opportunities for long productive normal lives, even if there are very few who show any interest in understanding this condition and how it is managed.
My work and my sexuality
In a conversation at work yesterday where many of my colleagues are well aware that I am gay and interact with me like any normal friendly person because I am not going to hit on people in lascivious abandon, just as people who are straight don’t lose their self-control and awareness just because they are attracted to other people, this inadvertently became a topic of conversation.
I had already shared the blog written by Funmi Iyanda about me with my closest colleagues, much of which was not news to them, the conversation is broad including what you might expect from both gay and straight relationships. For a long time in my working life, I have refused to pretend to enjoy homophobic jokes and giggle away with the punchline whilst concealing my sexuality, there is nothing to gain in accepting a situation where you are indirectly the object of abuse and you maintain your silence.
I do not go out of my way to inform people of my sexuality, I do not wear it on my sleeve, but if I am asked a direct question or enquiries are made of my domestic arrangements, I will truthfully tell people about who I am.
Knowledge and information
So, as we were chatting about the fluctuating weights of middle-aged men, I alluded to the fact that I lost a quarter of my weight when I had cancer. The next question was about what the cancer was and how it came about. The cancer was Kaposi’s Sarcoma and it was brought on by as then an untreated HIV infection.
This was divulged to two colleagues with whom I had never had this kind of conversation before, but we have a very good and friendly working relationship. In fact, I first was hesitant before I revealed this condition, the hesitancy borne of experiences with ignorant people who have balked, scooted, blackmailed or involved the law about my status, and I have been no threat to them.
What is even more surprising is when homosexuals and bisexuals who present a risk profile of sorts are completely oblivious of all the basic knowledge of HIV, AIDS, PrEP, ARVs, Viral load, Undetectable, CD4 counts and much else.
On stigma
As the conversation developed, I was taken aback by the interest of my colleagues in the detail of HIV, how it is managed, what life-expectancies are and the stigma that still accompanies being HIV+.
The sincerity and sanguinity they showed was a teaching moment for me that I returned this morning to thank them for their being open-minded and understanding.
On the matter of stigma, nowhere is it felt more than in the gay community when an encounter includes the anxious and atrocious question, “Are you clean?”, which by consequence suggests if you are HIV+, you’re dirty regardless of whether you are on treatment, have an undetectable viral load, are healthy and doing fine. Questions like this mean people do not discuss their status that freely.
The irony of this kind of conversation is the number of people who are in fact, HIV+, but have never tested, don’t know their status and assume there are HIV- and consequently, ‘CLEAN’. Apparently, 1-in-6 people in the UK do not know they are infected. Some of those people project that Clean/Dirty stigma. [Metro]
I say to them, “Clean is when you’ve had a shower and nothing else.” It should never be a euphemism for health status and thereby a vehicle for stigma.
Further Reading