Author: Julie Parr

Bacterial, Fungal or Viral? That Is the Question

I already had a backache during Donna Shalala’s plenary session at the 11th International AIDS Conference. During my flight to Seattle a few days earlier, I noticed I was particularly uncomfortable. But who isn’t on a transcontinental flight? Over the next week, I grew so ill that I had to lie in the hotel bed all day with the curtains drawn. I couldn’t stand the light of day. I felt like the very air I was breathing was toxic. If I take one more breath, I thought, the poisonous atmosphere might kill me. My back and my neck and my brain all hurt like nothing I had ever felt before. It was even worse than the worse migraine I had ever experienced — and those typically felt like someone was stabbing an ice pick through my forehead and rubbing the back of my eyeballs with a cheese grater. I was present at the conference as a representative of Philadelphia’s needle exchange program, one of the first in the country. More than 10,000 people attended as …

Kids These Days! Why Don’t They Watch TV?

By the time I took “History of the 60s” in college, I already knew a bit about intergenerational perspectives on the Vietnam war — mainly based on watching Archie and Meathead fight bitterly about it. In my rural middle-class neighborhood, I never would have understood that stark class differences existed outside my slim circle if it weren’t for Good Times. I never would have known that stoops existed, that people sent mail from blue boxes on street corners and that trash cans were propped outside of brownstone buildings if it weren’t for Sesame Street. My son has never seen any of these shows. There is never a moment in his life when, given the freedom to do what he wants, he chooses to watch television. His dad and I have tried to get him to see some of these old shows, but just from the opening credits, he can identify an otherworldly production — lengthy credits in an ‘80s or ‘70s-style font will immediately make him leave the room and scoff, ”What? Is this a …

How a Community of Drug-Users Saved Us From Violence

In the mid-1990s, I worked for Philadelphia’s needle exchange program, Prevention Point. Twenty-plus years later, I cherish the community that the needle exchange created — that odd and random assortment of people of all ages, races, economic strati and degrees of addiction. The ties that bound us seemed so tenuous. Hundreds of people would line up at the sites — street corners in Kensington or Germantown known for open-air drug markets, sex work and gun violence. And we, the “helpers,” would arrive in a van to distribute supplies that would prevent the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C and other infectious diseases. I didn’t know then that I would be helped at least as much as I helped others. Many of the exchangers (people who used the needle exchange) were extremely tense when they arrived at a site because they were jonesing and had been waiting for a clean needle. To an outsider, our safety may have seemed at risk though those of us who volunteered or worked at the needle exchange rarely gave it a …

Betty: Boss of the Bus

Sixty minutes is a long school bus ride, especially when it’s 92 degrees in early September with no air conditioning, the seats are sticky with sweat, and every row is filled with hormonal middle schoolers. That 60 minutes seemed interminable to us, the said middle schoolers. From my 47-year-old vantage point, I know now that it must have seemed even longer to Betty, my middle school bus driver. Our ride was protracted because we were Catholic school kids in rural Southwestern PA. There wasn’t a neighborhood school on every city block. We had to wind our way through several towns and along mountain roads: Possum Hollow Road, Rustic Knob Lane, Fish Hatchery Road, Zion Church Road, Rectory Road. Reminiscing about the street names takes me right back to the mountain environment. Gorgeous wilds, sparse population, and a uniformly Christian citizenry. Not uncommon: the shack with a washer (dish-or-clothes variety) and a couch on the front porch. There was no “as the crow flies” route. The only option was to pack 72 eleven through 13-year olds …

A License to Self-Unite: Why We Decided to Marry Ourselves

First, I was a single person. Then, I was a mother. Next, I became a homeowner. Finally, I became a wife. As you can see, I didn’t become “wife” in the order that most people would expect. It’s a long story. The short version is that my husband and I met, dated, broke up, got pregnant, had a baby, lived apart, had other relationships, rekindled our romance, went to therapy, lived together, co-parented a child and then finally, and only when we had decided that we needed to move to another city together for work, got married. It was a functional decision, one based in the idea that we should be more committed if we were going to tough it out through an enormous change, like moving to another state. Plus, we’d already survived more ups and downs than most newlyweds. And we didn’t get married in the traditional sense. If you happen to be from Philadelphia, then you may have heard of the “self-uniting license.” It exists in Philly because of that city’s relatively …

Gray #2: Embracing My Roots

All the women in my office dye their hair. Nay, all the women in my profession (university development, aka fundraising) dye their hair. We aren’t investment bankers, but we are not terribly different culturally. Being a professional means fading into the background enough to highlight the seriousness of our purpose. Standing out with grey hair, though biologically normal for my age (46) is not culturally normal anymore. Everyone dyes. Sometimes it seems like we’re not allowed to go gray anymore. I’m seized with the fear that I’m the equivalent of John Travolta at the Oscars — befuddled by names, clinging to my fading youth, dyeing my hair too dark and becoming the butt of office jokes. I’d rather go willingly than try to pretend. I’m not sure what “aging gracefully” means exactly but it seems like the opposite of John Travolta. For years, I’ve been beating around the bush with my hair stylist, Vanessa, tentatively questioning her about what it would be like to go gray. “As I get older, will I look silly if I keep dyeing my hair this dark brown …

Lessons of Mandela: Remembering a College Shantytown in the ’80s

Last Thursday night, when I came home from work and turned on the TV, I was immediately absorbed in the news of Nelson Mandela’s passing. I quickly forgot about everything else I was supposed to manage that evening  — my son’s math test scheduled for the next day, in particular — and became lost in a vivid flood of memories. 1986. It was the second semester of my freshman year at Penn State. Disenchanted with fraternity culture and parties, I was trying to find my place among the 40,000 undergraduates. Like any college freshman, I had little idea of what my identity would become. Three years earlier, a group of students had formed the Committee for Justice in South Africa (CJSA). In the fall of 1985, those students managed to get 7,000 Penn Staters to sign a petition asking that the University divest its endowment money from South African multi-national corporations in a protest against the racist Apartheid regime. Somehow, CJSA found me, and one night that second semester, I found myself at an all-night …