Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Life Positive: What we can all learn from Luis Montanez

(Cover story in the Fairfield Weekly. Dec 20, 2007 )

There was a time in human history when it was common for people to die from a simple cold, and they were even expected to. It only took one step outside without a jacket or one cold night's sleep.

A person living with HIV or AIDS was once equally as fragile. Maybe you'd live for a year, or 10 years, but there was always an expiration date. Since 1981, AIDS has been responsible for the death of over 25 million people around the world. In 2005, the disease took the lives of over 570,000 children. In the U.S., 60 percent of all AIDS cases are minorities (black, Hispanic or Asian)—and in CT that number is 63 percent. The fact that it only takes one slip-up—one pass at sex without a condom or one foggy night's drug-induced error—only enhances the fear that surrounds this still-misunderstood disease.

"Am I going to have this? I repeatedly told myself, 'I don't have it. I don't have it. Am I going to die?'" The question once haunted Luis Montanez, a 24-year old resident of downtown Bridgeport who living with HIV. He tested positive for the virus at 18 after finding out that his boyfriend at the time, with whom he'd recently had unprotected sex, was a carrier of the HIV virus.

We sat in the very doctor's office where Montanez was first tested six years ago, at the Ryan White CARE wing of Optimus Health Care in Bridgeport. "I didn't fear getting tested," he said. "I had to know. I made that decision to have unprotected sex. I made that decision to sleep with him. I thought I loved him. It ate me up inside."

Today, in the U.S., HIV and AIDS have become largely manageable. Because of medical and pharmaceutical advances, thousands of people who contracted HIV like Montanez, have now been deemed "undetectable," meaning their HIV viral loads are so low that they test negative for HIV. They still have the virus, of course, but the medication is able to keep it at bay. Thousands are happily living their lives with HIV.

With the medical advances, however, has come something of a sense of complacency; a reliable treatment is available, but there are many young people who were not around to see the devastation caused by AIDS when it first appeared, and have become somewhat complacent about it.

It's still a scary and life-changing diagnosis. But at some level, the fear lingers because a larger ignorance about the disease lingers.

So powerful is this almost willful ignorance that even some of our leaders remain in the dark ages about it. We live in a country that is taking a long, serious look at a man running for president who has said he wants to quarantine Montanez and anyone else with HIV.

And Iowa loves this man. Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee suggested in 1992 that we "isolate the carriers of this plague," saying that now is "the first time in the history of civilization in which the carriers of a genuine plague have not been isolated from the general public." It's been 15 years and Huckabee has still not publicly changed his stance. In fact, he stated on Dec. 8 that he will not "recant" his remarks.

Huckabee is obviously not helping to de-stigmatize HIV-AIDS. And it's to the detriment of young people in the U.S., many of whom are so afraid to get tested that it has literally become impossible to tell how many teens in U.S. may be carriers of the virus, which makes them the most important AIDS-prone demographic. The reported number of people in the U.S. with HIV or AIDS under-20 for 2005 was just over 2,000, but it is widely recognized that the actual number is much higher than that.

Perhaps not enough is being done to accurately educate young people of the seriousness of HIV and AIDS. Perhaps young people are so afraid to die that they don't want to know that they already have a life-threatening disease, even if it means they can save themselves. Is their sense of invincibility to blame, or is it their ignorance? Or is it something concrete like cowardly health classes in high school?

Montanez doesn't blame anyone. "Learn about it," he says. But he does believe HIV and AIDS patients have the responsibility to open up and inform the public. "We are giving this disease a bad name," Montanez says. "If you look at people with HIV and AIDS, not all people are open about it. Not everyone is coming out with it. If you're open with it and you explain how your life is with it, then people will come to an understanding that this is an illness. It's not a death sentence. If we don't have a loud voice and get out there with our stories, then people are going to be ignorant. They're going to look at it like, 'Well if you're so afraid to talk about it, then why should I be so calm?'"

Montanez is also a diabetic. He can't walk or stand for long periods of time like he could before and he's been unemployed for two years because of it. "I have more fear for my diabetes than I do for my HIV," he said. "The HIV virus I know is under control."

Montanez is one of the lucky ones to be taking only one pill per day. He pays for it every month by showing his Connecticut AIDS Drug Assistance Program (CADAP) card at the pharmacy, a card that's part of a pharmaceutical assistance program that pays for HIV/AIDS medications approved by the FDA. The Department of Social Services administers this program to people living in poverty with the disease. Not everyone is eligible for such a program, but according to published reports, it is currently saving the lives of over 1,339 people in Connecticut and 96,121 people in America as of 2006.

Montanez started on three pills and with the introduction of Atripla, he says it's like taking a vitamin every day. A decade ago, "pill cocktails" were the only way to go. Today there's the one-pill option for some. It has only light side effects and it's easy to swallow, reported Montanez. "I felt dizziness for about two weeks and then the body adjusts and it's a breeze, really," he said. He takes it before bed.

The cocktail is a prescription of a couple dozen pills the patient needs to take at specific times of day with food, no matter how sick they are. Each pill comes with harsh side effects like diarrhea, gas, nausea, heartburn and severe headaches, and there's always the possibility of becoming resistant to one or more of the pills. For some, the cocktail alone was enough to bring on serious depression.

The one-pill miracle has obviously made the treatment aspect of living with HIV and AIDS easier. Because of the stigma, every day is a fight. Physically, the disease is treatable. But mentally, its toll can be unbearable. Montanez talked about his ex-boyfriend's (the one who gave him HIV) ugly struggle with the disease.

"He was the type of person that knew he had this and he didn't care. It was malicious. He had the intention. He was angry at the world and he didn't want to live. I've heard from other people that he knew he had AIDS before he even got tested. But even after he found out for real, he gave it maliciously to other people. This disease is something that can really mess with your mind. Some people take it seriously and take care of themselves, but some people don't care and they hurt anyone they can on top of it. He wanted to bring everyone else down with him."

Montanez has learned from this part of his life that any time spent not being honest with yourself (or others) is time wasted. He's seen the drugs, he's seen the death, and he's still dealing with depression. (His CADAP card covers mental-health appointments and medication, too.) He hasn't turned to alcohol like so many of his friends, but he said his cigarette and marijuana habits have been known to jump considerably during hard times. His 2008 New Year's resolution is to cut them both out of his life.

"So many people turn to drugs when this happens," he said. "They really don't care. They just want to go. I have friends with HIV and AIDS who are on crack cocaine who had never done it before." Though its physical effects can be debilitating, Montanez has come to the realization that you must never ignore the deep, dark psychological side of HIV.

"I've been through the self-mutilation," he said. "People ask if it's because of HIV and I say 'no.' I'm sitting here looking at people who have relationships, people who are married. And I look at my life and I have to sit here and explain to every guy I meet, this is who I am. This is what I have. I'm HIV positive."

Being honest with yourself is one thing, but it's the daily tests. Montanez is young, he still wants to date and be social. "If you want to be trusted," he said, "you deal with it and you tell them, you say 'I feel deep within me that I need to tell you this. I'm not going to hide this from you, this is something serious." He said that not everyone responds in a kind way, and that he needs to be the bigger person. "I look at them and I say, 'Thank you for being honest with me, but please give me a chance.' But they're scared of me. They automatically zone you out sometimes."

He said, "You're going to get depressed, you're going to get miserable and you're going to feel like the world is over. You'll feel like you have nothing to live for, but you do."

Montanez goes out regularly to dance clubs—Gotham in New Haven, Cedar Brook Cafe in Westport—to socialize with friends and he's even had sex with a guy he dated for a few months who didn't have HIV. He says all this is a testament to being honest with himself and everyone around him. His dedication to mental health has brought him his physical health.

"I do everything that I used to do. This doesn't deprive you of anything. You deprive yourself. If you want to look miserable, if you want to be miserable with it, then that's all on you." He even went so far as to compare HIV to paying the bills. "What are you going to do? Depress yourself because your bills aren't paid? No, because then it gets worse. You're going to work at it. You're going to work until that's paid off and you're relaxed and comfortable. And then it's, 'OK, I have that done, what's next?'"

"I don't feel any different than I did before," Montanez said with a smile, "other than I do have it. It is in my system, I do have it. I'm living to fear the world instead. What we're going through now with war across the world is more fearful than this, but this is an epidemic. It's growing higher and higher, and more people need to get tested."

Rudolph the Red Meat Side Dish

(As published by the Fairfield Weekly on December 20, 2007)

Ill apologize up front to anyone who sympathizes with reindeer this time of year (teachers, parents, children, vegetarians) because I fully endorse eating them.

It started with an uncle of mine who’s a head chef at a fancy Boston restaurant. He loves to cook up risky dishes for the family at Christmas. Once it was a hundred pieces of sushi that only he and I ate; another time it was fajitas and home-made (grilled!) salsa. He was outside in the snow grilling vegetables the whole morning that time. The best one though, was the reindeer he made in 2001.

After cueing the “red-nosed” song, he opened the oven and out came what looked like dark sliced beef, gently displayed on crackers with some sort of sauce and maybe some capers. He must have ordered a few pounds of the festive flesh for us, without letting anyone know what was in store.

“Come on down,” the chef yelled to the kids, “it’s time to eat Rudolph!” The adults were laughing and stuffing their faces with shrimp cocktail, hummus and Merlot while the youngest kids, at around three or four, cried when the drunken man in the chef’s hat kept insisting it was really Rudolph.

“Rudolph’s dead,” he said, “And I killed him for you! Eat up!” He either thought the kids would love the idea, or he knew they’d hate it. But he played the role very well, complete with his red-splattered smock (it was ketchup).

The two or three ethical members of the family wondered if it was right to be eating the holiday mascot—who’s making the rabbit stew for Easter?—but in the end it was too delicious to argue. If you’ve ever had kangaroo, reindeer tastes a little like that. If you haven’t, it’s like beef tenderloin. Smooth, flavorful and light as a feather.

But reindeer do not fly. They are like small moose. They are lazy, slow and stupid animals.

Canadian reindeer are the laziest, resting in roads all across the territories and running toward cars instead of back into the woods. They rest in the road because the roads serve as clearings from the miles and miles of thick forest, and they can sleep there without being bothered by mosquitoes. A smarter animal would worry about the cars and not the bugs, but reindeer seem to think they’re just as invincible as their fictional flying friends. I’ve read that a reindeer’s brain is a delicacy, and maybe that’s because they don’t use the brain for much else. Might as well eat it.

Tasteless? Well, Chez Uncle didn’t think there was anything wrong with his hors d’ ouerve.

“It’s like eating turkey on Thanksgiving,” he said.

It’s not anything like that. Rudolph was a red-nosed hero among heroes—a legend!—and not just a passive bird waddling in the woods.

Anyway, there we were chowing on reindeer meat and wishing there was more. Truth is, people have been eating this stuff for centuries and today it’s an expensive delicacy.

Roasts are hard to find in the U.S. but they’re out there, so ask your local butcher what he can scrooge up—what he can scrounge up—and have a tasty if truly tasteless Christmas.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Little Drummer Girl Phenom: 14-Year Old Caitlin Kalafus

(As published by the Fairfield Weekly on 12/15/2007)

Her videos have garnered over 525,000 views but Caitlin Kalafus, 14, is not just another YouTube fad; she's an actual drum star on the rise.

She lives in Milford and doesn't have a driver's license, so she's left with what the local music scene has to offer. So what does she do? She plays in three bands at once and frequently joins Connecticut's most popular jam-rock group, the Breakfast, onstage at Toad's.

One of her bands, Switch Up, consists of Kalafus and the Breakfast's Adrian Tramontano and Tim Palmieri. Its central idea is giving each musician a chance to shine. They write and play their own songs (with some covers thrown in) and switch instruments. The caliber of each musician is unmatched in the area. Tramontano is as subtle and intricate a drummer as any, Palmieri is one of the best guitarists in the business and Kalafus is just as gifted at songwriting and guitar-playing as she is a drummer.

But what is she doing with these vets?

Tramontano, who is also Kalafus' drum teacher, met the drummer girl at a competition at the Guitar Center in Orange a few years ago, where he was also competing.

"She was really fearless with engaging the audience before she even sat to play and that caught my eye," Tramontano recalls, "And then she played a drum solo and I was like, 'Wow, that's really good!' I could tell there was a real passion there, and I definitely thought I could show her some new ways of playing, you know, crackin' a whole other realm of playing." His regimen includes playing live as much as possible and becoming more aggressive with her playing.

Whitney Maus, a shocked audience member at a Toad's performance in October, said, "Oh yeah, she's good. I think she's a lot better than she should be!"

"She's up there," says Tramontano, "And another thing here is she's gonna be a great—and I mean great—drummer. She's gonna be really top-notch."

Caitlin Kalafus' passion to play rock music started at age 7, when she began learning the guitar. She quickly moved to drums and, as quickly, she outgrew her peers.

"In elementary school, my dad helped me to play 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' with some friends," she says, "and that was pretty much the only time I was with kids my age." It's not that she pushes them away or feels superior; she simply treats music differently, with more respect.

"It's not that I don't take kids seriously," she says, "it's like, I'm on a level where I understand things differently, rather than 'Oh, yeah, I can play drums.' Music is my life, it's what makes me feel complete."

She has a boyfriend and friends her own age, but when it comes to music you'll usually find Kalafus playing with the adults (and because of age restrictions at clubs, she usually plays to adults too). She's in a band called Rock House All Stars, sponsored by the popular instructional DVD company Rock House Method, in which she plays with other teenage musicians (she's still the youngest).

"It's scary how good she is," says her father, a high-school music teacher in Milford. "[S]he doesn't go down [in the basement] for eight hours a day. And my thought is, imagine if she did! But it might ruin her, it might burn her out."

The support system Dad has set up for her knows no boundaries. Dad's her driver, her biggest fan, her lead guitarist in the band Caitlin on Drums (with family friend Chris Barber on lead vocals) and he's traveled as far as Los Angeles with her to play.

At the last gig in Milford, a gray-pony-tailed man with a Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt walked up to the band after a song. "These guys are awesome!" he yelled. "Where can I get a shirt?"

"I'm a huge music fan, man, and I've heard of these guys," he explained. "I just had to make sure I came out and checked them out."

It's off-putting to see Caitlin on Drums play in bars and family restaurants. And it's not quite because of Kalafus' age; it's that she possesses serious talent and originality—and it's clear she belongs on a much larger stage, in a much larger spotlight.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Burma Roads: Talking with Burmese Refugees in Bridgeport

(As published by the Fairfield Weekly, November 15, 2007. Everything interview-related by me. Additional reporting by Chandra Niles Folsom)

The Burma we hear about on the news today was once the "rice bowl" of Asia. Rich with all the natural resources and beauty a country would ever need, it was sometimes referred to as the Venice of the East. Today, Burma is a place where the "children have no future," according to Eh Lay, 34, and Po Ya Ko, 36, two Burmese refugees living in Bridgeport.

"People have no rights and they are at the mercy of the troops," said Tint Sheppard, a volunteer works Burmese refugee families in Bridgeport, including those of Eh Lay and Po Ya Ko. She left Burma with her family as a young child. She coordinates her efforts with the International Institute of Connecticut (IIC) in Bridgeport, but she works on her own time. She helps them write letters, find things like blankets and clothes, and generally adapt.

A member of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and recognized by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals, the International Institute has assisted more than 100,000 immigrants and refugees since 1918. Their volunteers offer services ranging from refugee resettlement services and job training to immigration counseling and pro bono court representation with special assistance to human trafficking victims.

"The Burmese-Myanmar refugees were in camps for years and the U.S. had asked the Thai government to host them," says Myra Oliver, director of the institute for the past 30 years. "But the problems in Thailand have been mounting and the Burmese who escaped from various countries kept piling up, so finally we started taking them in as refugees.

Eh Lay and Po Ya Ko have spent most of their lives in refugee camps in Thailand. Until now, their entire lives were centered on surviving, without hope of ever having a home of their own. They now share a three-family apartment building in Bridgeport with their wives and children and one other refugee family. They have American bank accounts, their children are in school, their wives are working at a factory in Milford and their apartments are furnished.

Speaking to Eh Lay and Po Ya Ko, through Sheppard as an interpreter, it was inspiring to see how high the men's spirits were in spite of recent news of poverty, torture and murder in Burma. Far from these tragedies, the simply-dressed men were in the IIC building to sort out some issues with food stamps and to discuss employment possibilities. They're as uprooted but they're with their families and they're getting by.

When they first arrived, the three families shared one head of cabbage, a bag of rice and a few onions but today consider themselves well-fed.

One major difficulty they're facing is how their children are being bullied in school for not knowing English, but they're working with the schools to alleviate this problem.

They described their new life in Bridgeport (they've been here four months) as a difficult and anxious one, but also as a massive relief of freedom from refugee camp life, and even more of a relief from life in Burma. Namely, they can now come and go from their homes as they please and they can begin building their lives on their own terms.

Both saw people getting picked up for forced labor by the military government. The soldiers would show up at Po Ya Ko's village and take any male older than 12 or 13, putting them to work on roads and buildings across the country. There is no avoiding this, Po Ya Ko said, and that's why it was necessary to escape with the rebels when he and his family had the chance.

Eh Lay's life in Burma was intertwined with the rebel forces. His adopted brothers were among 41 rebels who were imprisoned in Rangoon by the government, because of a spy in their midst. Eh Lay's mother would bribe the guards at the prison and bring the men food. Their lives became very dangerous after this. She quickly became a government target and had no choice but to send her daughters to Thailand with her brother, who was a rebel smuggling goods into Burma. She was later able to escape with Eh Lay and his brothers before her scheduled arrest thanks to tips from the guards at the prison.

They left grandparents, friends and imprisoned loved-ones behind, but live was only about survival—no room for rememberance—in the camps. Because of malnourishment, Po Ya Ko's parents died from cholera shortly after crossing the border into Thailand and he worked with his sisters and brothers to stay alive and healthy in the camps. Eh Lay said that despite being separated from their homes, it was refreshing to be fed regularly and put in schools.

Eh Lay escaped Burma when he was a boy and has since spent 19 years, more than half his life, in refugee camps. Po Ya Ko, who escaped Burma in 1985, when he was 12. He spent 22 years in the camps.

Today, with both their wives working, the men are eagerly awaiting jobs. IIC is helping them with this, as well as many other social services and a local Laotian family is also helping them. Eh Lay has an interview coming up with a packaging company in Shelton. He is a musician too, and is hoping to find a used keyboard to play. The men explained a sport they enjoy together, what they called "Kim Ball," that is a cross between volleyball and soccer. The IIC was able to find an authentic ball from Thailand made from a native plant.

They said they're waiting for the conditions in Burma to improve, but they expect to stay in America for a "long time."

Clowns of the Year: Snipes, Cook, King

(My part of the December 6, 2007 Fairfield Weekly cover story)


For a man who has all the ingredients for being as big and untouchable as Denzel, Wesley Snipes came a little too close to becoming an inmate this year. Maybe you know Wesley Snipes for being a Playgirl cover boy in ‘98, or maybe you know him for his amazing teeth, but did you know that he avoided a court date in March that could have put him in jail for 16 years? The IRS has 800,000 pages in reports on him and he apparently didn’t pay taxes between 1999 and 2004. They also cite illegal refunds of over $12 million before 1999. He goes to court in January to answer these allegations.

All this and he was in three straight-to-DVD movies this year. The embarrassing Hard Luck, in which Wesley plays a drug dealer, couldn’t say it better. The others, Chaos and The Contractor, are basically the same movie: guns, girls, explosions, zero acting. He hasn’t made a decent movie since Blade: Trinity in ’04, and that wasn’t even a decent movie. Mr. Snipes, welcome to the ranks Robert Hatch, Crocodile Dundee and the lead singer of Everclear.


How does a respectable rising comedian with an outstanding sense of how to market himself to youngsters become a complete and utter disgrace to his own fans? We could ask Dane Cook, but he’d answer with some long story disguised as a joke, filled with a bunch of over-annunciated words. He’d pace back and forth in a circle, Sufi-ing us all into a stupor, punching bees in the face and eating “banana sangwiches.” Funny stuff, Dane, but that’s not an answer. How is it that you’ve become a parody of yourself?

In his most recent DVD, the unbearable Rough Around the Edges: Live from Madison Square Garden, released just last week, Cook doesn’t even tell whole jokes; he just throws out punch lines from old ones and waits for the screams to quiet. He’s tapped into every 15-year-old girl’s need to have inside jokes with everyone. But that’s not enough. He has to clown his way into movies now. Cook was terrible in Employee of the Month, outrageously appalling in Mr. Brooks (don’t rent it if you haven’t already) and his name in the upcoming Bachelor No. 2 is “Tank.”

Dane Cook is one silly bitch.


Don King did bring a major boxing event to Bridgeport but made a total ass of himself in the process. At a press conference for the WBA fight at Harbor Yard this summer, he said things like, “Here we are in Bridgeport, the…uh… city of bridges! And we’re here to sell tickets!”

City of bridges? That would be Pittsburgh. This is the “big city of dreams,” as the Young Souljahs “Bridgeport Anthem” music video demonstrates.

Then there was King’s attire. A denim jacket that looked like something out of a 1989 L.A. Gear catalogue, covered in sequins and national monuments—Mt. Rushmore and the Iwo Jima statue. He carried four or five little American flags, a couple Italian flags, a few Puerto Rican flags and he was waving them all at the same time, the whole time he spoke. It made no sense at all, but it was wonderful.