Monday, January 31, 2011

Blizzard 2011 NYC: "(Snow) Resting on a Bench"

Monday Meditation: Over the weekend snow was still resting on benches, trees and frozen sidewalks. It's Monday. It's time to more on. Yet, I have the feeling that the snow will linger a little while longer...

Stay warm and have a marvelous Monday!
As always, thanks for visiting,

Alina Oswald

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Pranayama--BREAD for Stressful Days

Stress. Now that's something we can do without. Or can we? Most of the time stress is unwanted, unhealthy, sometimes even unnecessary. Remember our New Year's resolutions? How many of us have vowed to have less stress and more tranquility, peace of mind, etc? I'd like to share with you an article on how we can ease our stressful days using the BREAD technique, an article I wrote years ago for a South Florida holistic magazine. I believe that the described techniques on dealing with stress are timeless. Hence the reason I decided to share them with you in this blog post.

Hope you enjoy the read. As always, thanks for visiting,

Alina Oswald

waterfall reflections among green vegetation at the Rainbow Falls, Hilo, Big Island of Hawaii. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Rainbow Falls, Hawaii Island: "Green Waterfall Reflections" Photo Copyright 2010 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

Stress is an even more serious issue for cardiac patients and people suffering from high blood pressure. The high-level stress and excitement of the holidays, combined with a less healthy diet, can increase the risk of complications.
How can we handle stress, in general, and holidays’ stress, in particular? There is a pure medical technique that addresses this.
Dr. Mala Cunningham, Ph.D., founder of the Cardiac Yoga program and counseling psychologist in a private practice in Charlottesville, VA, advises to take a deep breath when under stress. Pranayama may, indeed, help lower blood pressure and reduce stress. Proper breathing is part of the “BREAD” concept Dr. Cunningham uses for her patients—an acronym for Breathing, Relaxation, Exercise/Yoga, Attitude, and Diet.
During the Cardiac Yoga program, patients learn deep relaxation and breathing techniques, healing imagery, and gentle yoga. “Cardiac Yoga is a holistic program designed for heart patients dealing with risk factors and it also includes family members,” Dr. Cunningham says, explaining the techniques. The program supports individuals throughout their “heart healthy program,” and further. Cardiac Yoga techniques are also recommended for people living with stress on an everyday basis or for those who pass through a stressful time in their lives.
“Breathing is vital,” Dr. Cunningham explains. It calms down the sympathetic nervous system and kicks in the relaxation. Stress arouses the sympathetic nervous system, which, in turn, sends alert messages to the brain. The body is flooded with responses, “as if chased by a bear.” We start to breathe fast and shallow. Our blood pressure increases. We perspire and become tensed. This takes its toll on everybody—especially on someone with heart disease.
Deep breathing expands the lungs and calms down the sympathetic nerves that pass through that area. This signals the brain to relax. This results in decreased muscle tension, blood pressure, and respiration.
Relaxation may cause the hypothalamus to respond. The effect is a decrease in sympathetic nervous system arousal. One relaxation technique recommended by Dr. Mala Cunningham is “healing imagery.” Even in stressful situations, we can fool the brain by thinking of something peaceful and relaxing. The brain cannot distinguish between thought and reality. In conclusion, it reacts to the thought as if it were real.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Reflections on a Lifetime of AIDS: My CNN iReport

Reflections on a Lifetime of AIDS: My CNN iReport

I'm a CNN iReporter. I don't post much, but I try my best to post something every time I can. I'm glad to say that CNN vetted two of my images taken at the Polish monument in Jersey City when the Polish president died in a plane crash.

I also posted images from my trips. Even more, I posted some of the images I took during last December's total lunar eclipse.

Last week I visited the City of the Dead for a few days, with high hopes of researching my next vampire-related book. Crescent City did not disappoint.

While walking on the streets of French Quarter, I had the wonderful surprise to be contacted by a CNN iReport producer. See, the AC360 piece on the AIDS pandemic led to an iReport assignment asking iReporters to post something--their thoughts, stories, etc--on HIV/AIDS. Having documented the pandemic for almost a decade, I felt compelled to post excerpts from the stories I've covered. The CNN iReport producer was interested in checking out my "Reflections on a Lifetime of AIDS" post, which is actually a short excerpt from my book, Journeys Through Darkness, which tells the story of a long-term AIDS survivor and activist, award-winning, legally blind visual artist Kurt Weston.

Needless to say, I was humbled and honored by the interest in my post. You can check it out, including the CNN iReport producer's comments, at "Reflections on a Lifetime of AIDS on CNN iReport."

Thanks CNN iReport for the opportunity of posting HIV/AIDS stories on your site. Thanks everybody for visiting,

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bloody Fall: Vampire Photography Series

Just got back from City of the Dead and still sorting through the images I took while there. Some of the images will become part of my new vampire photography series. But vampires are not only in the City of the Dead, aka Crescent City, but also all over the world, maybe even in places like Big Island, Hawaii, where I took the original image that then became the "Bloody Fall" image. As I mentioned before, the title itself is a work in progress, as is my vampire photography series.

As always, thanks for visiting,

Alina Oswald
Author of Vampire Fantasies

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Fashionable Action: Covering the Housing Works Event for A&U Magazine

Fashionable Action: Covering the Housing Works Event for A&U Magazine

Housing Works. As a New Yorker (and not only) you must have heard of them, the thrift shops and coffee/bookshop in Manhattan. Maybe you stopped by to check out the goods displayed in their windows, maybe you opened their doors to take a closer look, shop or donate. Housing Works has centers not only in New York City, but across the country and around the world. The nonprofit helps two communities--the AIDS and homeless communities--providing its clients with vital support and resources.

This past December (12/2010) I had the opportunity to revisit Housing Works and cover its, Fashion For Action event, for A&U Magazine--America's AIDS Magazine. While at the event, I got to meet and talk to a few celebrities--an award-winning actress, designers, models, organizers and many more--all supporters of Housing Works. To hear what they had to say, you can check out my article, "Fashionable Action," published in A&U.

Thanks for reading. Thank you, A&U, for the opportunity.

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

Sunday, January 16, 2011

AIDS-Inspired Artwork: Kurt Weston's Blind Vision Series

 AIDS-Inspired Artwork: Kurt Weston's Blind Vision Series

No matter its tragic outcome or maybe it's the tragedy of AIDS itself that , to this day, has inspired many artists, especially those having to deal with the disease during its darkest of times--the eighties. In that sense, examples are many, some more well-known than others: 
* Randy Shilts' body of work, in particular the book (made into movie) And the Band Played On
* Angels in America, by Tony Kushner, a play that later on was made into movie
* visual art is part of Kurt Weston's photography work

I'd like to share with you an excerpt from my book on the life and art of Kurt Weston, Journeys Through Darkness, an excerpt which talks more about the visual artist's body of work inspired by AIDS and his losing his sight to AIDS. Hope you'll enjoy the read.
As always, thanks for visiting,

Alina Oswald

It’s only natural for the body of work Weston created during the eighties to be inspired by his friends’ and his own experience with AIDS. Living with a terminal illness has allowed the artist to discover and connect to a more complex reality, one that resides somewhere between the physical and metaphysical spheres of human existence. Being so many times on the brink of death, Weston has become very conscious of the multidimensional world surrounding him. The physical reality was only a small part of this world. There was something more to it. The artist could only wonder if this something had anything to do with the chi energy—the energy of life pulsing with such strength through his body—the acupuncturist had mentioned at the SWAN workshops.
Or maybe it had to do with the survivors the artist had met at SWAN and from whom he learned to keep alive the belief in his ability to survive AIDS and turn it away from a sure death sentence and into something more manageable. Along the years, these survivors, Weston’s “first angels,” have inspired his life and also his art. Elements of the artist’s view of his physical and metaphysical journey towards recovery are found in works like his Blind Vision series of self-portraits that show people the physical and emotional impact that visual loss can have on an individual.
The Blind Vision series is only one of Weston’s works to capture an allegorical portrait of the visual artist as he traverses through his journey. In that sense, art becomes an amazing vehicle for Weston, allowing him to use his own life experiences to communicate, inspire, inform and also to visually intrigue his audience. From his perspective, Kurt Weston considers art a means through which people can experience the nature of their humanity. Art can be silly and fun, and it can be entertaining. It can communicate a tremendous amount of information, emotion, and inspiration. In today’s society, consumed by superficial realities, Kurt Weston’s art goes beyond the physical realm of human existence and into a metaphysical dimension, connecting with the viewer on a more profound and spiritual level.
“I think my life is meaningful,” Weston comments, talking about his source of inspiration. For him life is so fragile and it can be gone in an instant. That’s reason enough for the artist to capture his experience with disability, loss, pain and death in his visual art, because the experience defines him as a real person and also as an artist.
Although his most recent works include digital photography and sometimes require no camera at all (just a flat scanner which he uses to scan in people’s faces and also his own face), Weston uses regular film and he prints his images on silver gelatin paper so that they can last forever. He wants future generations to be able to look at this work and say, “This was happening at this time in history and this is the impact it left on people whose lives it touched, this pandemic.”
To Weston, black-and-white is a medium in itself in terms of representing reality. He doesn’t want color to be an “intrusion” in his work, a “distraction” from the message his art communicates to the viewer. Black-and-white offers Weston’s art a concentration of expression. And he likes that intensity, in particular in his portraits.
Kurt Weston began creating the Blind Vision series in 2000. To represent his visual disturbance described as “pieces of cotton stuck in my eye, floating every time I move my eye,” the artist sprayed a glass with foaming glass cleaner and took a self-portrait sitting behind it. “You see my hand pushing away the foam, which is what I would love to do,” he explains, “I would like to be able to wipe away all that cotton that keeps floating in front of my eye and get a clear view of what I want to see out in the world.”

Saturday, January 15, 2011

HAART (pronounced like "heart") and Life Lotteries

We've all heard about the mega-million lottery. Two winners had to split the hundreds of millions right in the middle. But what if you're dying and a lottery--a drug lottery that is--is the only way you can stay alive? Then, all of a sudden, the millions cease counting, become meaningless... 
Drug lotteries became more... popular... if you may, during the mid-nineties, at a turning-point in the fight against the AIDS pandemic. Because of the newly introduced, life-saving medications known today as HAART (pronounced like "heart") many AIDS patients could put their names on the list and, a few lucky ones, got to be winners. The reward? They didn't only get to survive the disease, but to thrive and, in time, begin to live active, normal lifespan lives. Here's a short excerpt from a survivor's story and experience with drug lotteries, as he told it to me. The survivor is award-winning photographer Kurt Weston. AIDS has left him legally blind, but winning the drug lottery has saved his life... or so he believes.

Hope you enjoy this excerpt from Journeys Through Darkness. As always, thanks for visiting.

Alina Oswald

Excerpt from Journeys Through Darkness
Chapter Five: Losing the Light

[...] [By the beginning of 1996] a new life-saving medication was coming on the market. It was one of the first protease inhibitors (or P.I.s) medications called Crixivan, and it was part of a new treatment called HAART (pronounced like “heart”) regimen, otherwise known as “the cocktail,” which was going to radically change patients’ lives, turning AIDS from a definite death sentence into the manageable disease that AIDS is today.  
The Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Treatment was (and continues to be) a revolutionary triple-drug therapy made possible by Doctor Ho of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York City. HAART put Doctor Ho on the cover of Time magazine and made him “man of the year” in 1996.
These new kinds of medications first started coming out in December 1995, so during the previous months, drugs like Crixivan were still under last, or phase three, of testing and on the verge of getting FDA approved. Because there were not enough medications for everybody needing them, some drug companies offered to give them to patients on a compassionate use basis only, otherwise known as expanded access programs.
EAP was (still is) a program through which pharmaceutical companies distributed upcoming medications that were already in the pipeline but yet to be FDA approved to people who needed them most. This process had been very rare and extremely difficult before the AIDS years. Usually, a doctor had to call the manufacturer and then the FDA, fill out hours-worth of paperwork and wait for months to get a drug sample, enough only for one patient. And then start all over again, for the next patient. And so on.
Fortunately AIDS has changed all that. The epidemic has forced people living with the disease and AIDS organizations to learn fast the drug industry regulations, to meet with people from the industry and with government officials and to draw proposals. But nothing really happened until people living with AIDS went out in the streets and demonstrated, literally, for their lives. A familiar example is the 1988 ACT-UP demonstration on Wall Street, New York City. [ACT-UP, or AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power was founded in 1987 (]
Only then, the FDA started allowing drug companies to open trial programs as soon as they had available at least some safety information on the drug. That’s how the “drug lotteries” started in 1989. There were several such lotteries and participants had to meet several criteria.
For example, in 1995 Glaxo provided a (then) upcoming medication called 3TC to over thirty-two thousand people in the United States. It was the largest expanded access program ever.
Merck announced its Crixivan lottery in July 1995. The company was giving away drugs to eleven hundred people in the U.S. and an additional seven hundred fifty patients from twenty-nine countries in Europe, South America, Canada, and Australia. Merck was to pay for the drug, including shipping, and also for post-selection central laboratory tests and the urine pregnancy tests when and if needed. To be able to participate in Merck-organized P.I. lottery, AIDS patients had to meet several criteria, including to be clinically stable, to be able to follow directions and have certain T cell counts and viral loads. [...]
The lottery took place in August 1995. In Chicago, Kurt’s doctor put his patient’s name in the program. By December, Kurt’s new doctors in California received a phone call from his former physician: Kurt had won the lottery. He was one of the eleven hundred AIDS patients approved to receive the new drug. Winning the drug lottery literally saved his life. To this day, the photographer seriously doubts his ability of staying alive if it wasn’t for the new medication.

Friday, January 14, 2011

All Aboard!: Embarking on My Journey Through Darkness

In this blog I mention my book, Journeys Through Darkness, quite often. Here's an excerpt from Journeys in which I talk about how I got to embark on this Journey and learn about the world of AIDS--from its dark years to its lighter times--an experience  that will stay with me throughout my entire life.

Hope you'll enjoy the read. As always, thanks for visiting,

Alina Oswald
 Chapter One: The Runway

“All aboard!”
I’ve always thought of these two words as being part of some script, a symbol of departure, separation, tears and heartache… an ending. I’ve never thought of them as actually being used in real life. But there I was, on an early summer morning, in my own reality, the first time on a train in over fifteen years, settled comfortably in my seat.
“All aboard!”
The two magic words set the train in motion, the conductor’s voice still ringing in my ears as the train pulled slowly out of New York City’s Penn Station, heading to D.C. But, unlike the movies, my first Amtrak experience was not the farewell-y, teary kind, but quite the opposite. In a peculiar way, it symbolized the beginning of a journey and the start of a spiritual transformation.
I was on my way to attend the VSA Arts gallery opening event, personally invited by Kurt Weston. He was one of the twenty-three featured artists selected from a group of 560 artists from around the world. 
Formally known as Very Special Arts and founded in 1974 by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, VSA Arts is an international nonprofit organization promoting and showcasing the works of artists with disabilities from over sixty countries. Kurt Weston is not only a VSA Arts featured artist but also a member of VSA’s Board of Directors in California. Each year he attends the annual VSA National Convention in Washington, D.C.
As part of the event Kurt Weston and his partner, gay rights and AIDS activist Terry Roberts, attended in 2005, there was also an art show displaying works created by children with disabilities. One of the winners was a girl from California who, while paralyzed from the neck down, could paint by holding the brush in her mouth.
At this event it is not unusual for Kurt and Terry to meet with senators and to advocate for the continuation of funding for the arts and education, funding which is vital for the careers of many potentially good artists. It was during a reception following one of these meetings that the visual artist had the chance to meet Senator Ted Kennedy, his sister Jean Kennedy Smith and Senator John Kerry.
The three were squeezing their way through the reception room as everyone present reached out to shake their hands and greet them. As Kurt Weston took his turn to shake Ted Kennedy’s hand, the director of VSA Arts California, who was also present at the reception, took a snapshot of the quick handshake for which, even today, Weston considers himself lucky.
When he first mentioned the 2006 VSA Arts event to me, I was hesitant. I guess because it wasn’t something that happened to me everyday. Kurt Weston’s artwork has fascinated me ever since I first set my eyes on The Last Light, even if only through the samples posted on the artist’s website. But I had never had the opportunity to look at the actual photographs and touch them, and try to connect with them. The VSA Arts event opening provided me with this very unique opportunity, and there was no way I was going to miss it.
And so, on a glorious weekend in early June 2006, I found myself for the first time on the Amtrak. The train trip itself ended up being a surprisingly positive experience; the weekend, an artistic adventure.   
One of Weston’s winning entries welcomed us—Kurt, Terry and myself—as we first entered the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where the event took place. The featured photograph, Losing the Light, is part of Weston’s Blind Vision series of self-portraits capturing the artist’s vision of his blindness, showing people the physical and emotional impact that visual loss can have on an individual.
AIDS-related retinitis has left the photographer totally blind in his left eye and only with some limited peripheral vision in his right eye. Therefore, he cannot focus or see things clearly anymore. He can only make out tones of colors. He also experiences floaters, or what he describes as “pieces of cotton that are stuck in my eye and keep floating and flashing every time I move my eye.”

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Looking for Warriors...

In my previous blog post I mentioned the National AIDS Museum and its dedicated and fascinating founder, the wonderful Ashley Grosso. I was humbled by having one of my artworks, "Angel in Central Park" (inspired by Angels in America) as part of the AIDS Museum's permanent collection. I'd like to talk here, briefly, about how I got to get in touch with the museum and Ashley Grosso.

It was because Kurt Weston, one of my dear friends and mentor photographers, an award-winning photographer and subject of my book, Journeys Through Darkness, mentioned the AIDS Museum a few years back, during the final interview for the book.

Ashley Grosso was nice enough to post the first article I wrote on Kurt Weston on the museum's site. In the article called "Warrior Within," which was originally published in A&U Magazine, Weston talks about his experience with living with AIDS and AIDS-related vision loss, and also about our ability to become warriors when faced with extreme situations such as a deadly, life-threatening disease like AIDS or cancer. Hearing Kurt Weston's story made me wonder about warriors, about who can become a warrior and who cannot, and started me on a quest of finding these warriors... I did. Quite a lot of them. I've had the privilege of learning from them and becoming friends with some of them.

The truth is that warriors live among us. All we have to do is look around and notice them, and also learn from their experiences.

More on warriors in the upcoming posts. For now, I'd like to share with you my article, Warrior Within as it appears on the AIDS Museum site (you'll have to scroll down, but not much).

Hope you'll enjoy the read. As always, thanks for visiting,

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

Saturday, January 8, 2011

My "Angel" in the National AIDS Museum Collection

"Angel in Central Park" by Alina Oswald

I've always been awed by the Angel of the Waters, the Bethesda angel in Central Park, NYC. The statue appeared in one of my favorite movies, Angels in America. I called the image "Angel in Central Park." An older version of this image (no lensbaby photography) was part of several art shows, including my Visual AIDS' "Postcards from the Edge."

That was a couple of years ago...

The strangest thing happened to me yesterday. My AIDS-inspired lensbaby image of the Angel of the Water in Central Park, became part of the National AIDS Museum collection. Imagine that!
Among my many AIDS-inspired works created during almost a decade, this one is a personal favorite. Many thanks to Ashley Grosso, the dedicated founder of the National AIDS Museum. The experience was humbling and inspiring in the same time.

Many, many, many thanks!

Alina Oswald