In the movie Postcards From the Edge, there’s a terrific scene where Meryl Streep argues with her mother, Shirley MacLaine. Streep shouts, “Ma, I’m middle-aged.”
MacLaine reacts with horror: “Dear, I’m middle-aged.”
Streep chuckles. “Really. And how many 120-year-old women do you know?”
Not long ago, in the gym, a pretty boy in his early twenties sidled up to me and whispered, “I think daddies are very sexy.” I thought, “Dude, I’m so not old enough to be your daddy.” Then, several days ago, after discovering my first gray chest hair, I did the math.
Against all odds, it has happened. I’m 37—middle-aged. Many people spend their middle ages accepting that yes, they truly are going to die one day. But when you’ve already battled all the denial, depression, anger, bargaining and acceptance that full-blown AIDS confers, death doesn’t scare you much. Although I’m now healthier than I expected to be,
I will die one day, even if at 95. That fact is freeing: If I’m not going to live forever, then what the hell am I waiting for? Why not write the book or risk having my heart broken again? That’s why I left a boring PR job last year to start my own nonprofit.
In the past few years, my friends have started to have mid-life crises. For straight guys, as best as I can determine, this usually means sports cars and busty blondes. For gay men, it often involves drugs. Several of my closest friends, HIV-negative guys in their mid-forties, became addicted to crystal meth. These are smart, accomplished men, but they were trying to keep up with much younger guys, to keep dancing as fast as they can. Gay or straight, most of us do stupid things when confronted with the fear of 50.
Note to friends: Next time, get the sports car.
On the other hand, my friend Hank says that living with HIV taught him to take his chances, to go for what he wants. Not long ago, he ditched a big-time corporate publishing job and went to Argentina for a month to study Spanish. I admire him enormously—he’s who I want to be when I grow up.
Psychologist Walt Odets has written eloquently about what he terms “the worldview differences between positive and negative men.” He says:“As a group, positive men more often contemplate the real possibility of death than uninfected men, and this often creates a capacity to be in the present rather than merely existing in it and leads to lives lived more intensely and fully.”
AIDS has taken a lot away: For me, it’s Paul and Terry and David and the other David and Randy and Howie and—yes, that entire damned list is still in my head and always will be.
But we can take back from AIDS the capacity to live our lives more intensely and fully.
I once knew a man named Michael Callen, one of the first PWAs to go public about his illness. Though weighing about 75 pounds and covered with scars from having Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions burned off, Callen said, “AIDS is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
I ascribed that to AIDS-related dementia. I was about 21—what the hell did I know?
But Callen had learned that life was short. AIDS had taught him that profound truth, and for that he was grateful. He died at 38.
Have I mentioned I’m 37? For God’s sake, I’m middle-aged. And 50’s looking nifty.