On my birthday this year, at the AIDS International Conference in Washington D.C., there was a press release saying that two more patients treated early with antiretrovirals, they had been cured. Cured. Of HIV/AIDS. Incredible.
Of course it wasn't phrased like that. What it said (and you can see for yourself here: http://www.aids2012.org/WebContent/File/AIDS2012_Media_Release_HIV_Cure_26_July_2012_EN.pdf ) was that two French adults who had been treated with the antiretrovirals until their viral load of HIV was in the "negative" range, and who then stopped taking the meds, their tested HIV cells remained in the "negative" range for six years so far. But it was released as you can see under the banner of the "HIV Cure" initiative, and it was for these folks as much of a cure as any cancer patient gets--that is, an indefinite remission. Without the sometimes--physically-brutal and always-mind-consuming duty of taking daily antiretrovirals.
Imagine if we said this about cancer: Get a blood test every six months, and if we find anything we can "cure" it. The line would be out the door. But HIV/AIDS isn't like cancer. It never has been.
I had my first child the year the Quilt was first displayed, and I remember thinking that I had brought her into a scarier world than the one I'd been born into. I had my second child the year that "Lisa" above died. Our third and fourth kids were born in 1990, and contrary to what I expected, all four have grown up in a world where they've been told to have "Safe Sex" but otherwise not to worry nearly as much as I supposed they would have to. There are treatments now. There are possible cures. We are an optimistic land. We think we've turned the bend.
Sunday, September 30, 2012
Sunday, September 23, 2012
A related term was "Brain Fade," which originally came from the "brake fade" term in racing where if you ride them too long and too hard they give out. Brain Fade would be if you were concentrating on a report or a project for ten hours and by the end you could barely remember what it's about, or cramming for finals. Interesting, but since I'm not capable right now of this kind of concentration and effort, it doesn't apply either.
This fits with my mother's sense of my brain working about as well as hers does. She turned 71 this week and looks fabulous, by the way. There's hope for me in that department at least. And she's always been smart so she won't be surprised to have been right again here. The way I search for words, and objects, and make silly, stupid mistakes and errors in judgement is as familiar to her as it is frustrating. You can almost feel the mental plaque forming up there; the brain refuses to repel aging any more than the rest of the body does. We empathize with each other.
Except I'm not supposed to be there yet, which makes me wonder why I it happened to me. Anyone who has something bad happen to them has to. My gorgeous sister-in-law this week who needed to have a prophylactic double-mastectomy because of the terrifying state of her breast tissue. My father who needed his left hip replaced last week (though his right is perfectly fine, a mystery no one seems to be able to answer to my satisfaction). My son, who was beaten up and found out this week his ACL is torn and needs reconstructive surgery. Anyone.
But that's the real revelation in the book. She says from her experience there are almost always positives to be gained from such a struggle, and the place you come out is different, and better, than you would have expected. That happened with the burnout, and I have to imagine it will happen with this. Already, I suspect it has--I've found a yoga class nearby on the beach, I've joined a writer's group in New Haven and I'm trying to take a class on writing romance. Not sure if these things are better in any way than being able to shop for groceries or drive trouble-free or remember all the steps to baking a cake, but they're good and they're a lot better than the alternative of focusing on what I can't do well. They're gifts, that you get for something hard happening to you. And for this, for helping me find the upside to head trauma, I thank her.
Sunday, September 16, 2012
Yalta was our last stop in Ukraine, the setting for the second peace conference at the tail end of World War II though it wasn't about peace so much (since Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt were all on the same side) but about divvying up the land controlled by the Axis powers and determining German reparations. It was remarkably cozy, with each delegation having a separate palace to spread out in; Roosevelt's was the Livadia Palace, a rarely-used summer home of Czar Nikolas II before his family, the Romanov's, were killed during the Russian Revolution. We toured the palace and heard various takes on the differences between the leaders. Churchill, and some of Roosevelt's advisers, didn't trust Stalin not to grab control of Eastern Europe as a "buffer zone" against future German aggression but FDR and Stalin got on well and Roosevelt refused to believe that Stalin would abuse their trust.
Ah, hindsight. The palace itself was quite lovely, of course, as was the "pocket palace" called the Swallow's Nest, which a hundred years old and a hundred thirty feet high, perched on less stone than there is building Swallow's Nest close-up . It is 66 x33 feet, designed to hold three levels of bedrooms up the tower, and a main foyer, but it has been used as a restaurant for many years. It's currently closed for what looks like needed shore-ups. And if they need a new location it would fit on my Cape-sized lot."I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of a man. ... and I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won't try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace." Franklin Roosevelt, 1943
Yalta was also the warm-climate retreat for Anton Chekov once he contracted TB in his thirties, and thus the the setting for Jessica's unauthorized excursions into the closed Chekov house and closed Chekov Theatre. Both ended with stories that she is best able to tell (or show, apparently there is a video on her iPhone). What I can say is that Yalta takes great pride in Chekov being there for his last few years, and writing the story the Lady with the Dog, less stream of consciousness than The Seagull and earlier works but still, to my mind, depressing. I read romance novels, on the ship, while Jess read Chekov on stage and communed with his spirit. If she directs any of his plays they'll be great. If she directs a movie about his life, he'll be Johnny Depp.
Sochi, our one stop in Russia, was comparably less interesting, though still beautiful. The port was perfect, not a freighter in sight, and the town picturesque, though largely unprepared for the Olympics coming their way in a year or two. The Winter Olympics, to be clear--though this is a summer resort, the winter competitions will be held in surrounding mountains, miles outside the town. Still, it may be tricky; Putin came in for a visit while we were there and his helicopter and security snarled traffic all around us. Our tour guide told us he likes to put on plays with his friends during his summer vacation. At the National Theatre, which was closed to the regular ballet company for the week as a result. Such a card, that one. We also saw folk dancing (lots of yipping), a tea plantation, and a lot of their immigration officials; Sochi was the only port we stopped at where you needed a tour guide or a visa to get off the boat. We were inspected both coming off and onto the boat. We were that fascinating.
Batumi was our only stop in Georgia, full of vigor and construction and art and food, and Roman ruins (the ancient walled town of Adjara). Reportedly St. Mattias was buried in the still-being-excavated site, and the day we were there an orchestra was practicing for a fundraiser under a big white tent. We were fed white pizza at one stop, and wine, and the strangest sodas I've ever tasted, tarragon lemonade and pear lemonade. Residents were proud of their Alphabet tower, still unfinished and touting the three different alphabets, influenced by everyone from the Armenians to the Greeks,in the Georgian language. One is more modern and most widely used, which is good because each requires it's own keyboard. We also saw a statue (actually a square) to Medea and the golden fleece, and to lovers (below). From one direction it looks like one person; from another it's two, very beautiful.
But the two stops we did have were both great. Trabzon is a pretty workaday city, surrounded by plain homes built up the sides of hills. The most impressive of these is the Trabzon Monastery at Sumela. The road to get here is a hike so we came here by bus, and then taxi, and then foot up many stairs and some remarkably reckless trails. Many were felled in their attempts, sitting on the edges of the trail or stopped at a turn in the road, stymied. But so worth it: 4000 feet above sea level, built at the site of a Virgin Mary sighting in a cave, if you can't be spiritual here you are a goner.
We saw an ancient church in Trabzon, Hagia Sophia (Saint Sophia), converted like many to mosques for centuries before tracing back the original architecture and frescoes. But this didn't compare to the one we saw in Istanbul, next to the Blue Mosque, both huge tourist attractions and rightfully so; and hard to find peace within. You'd have nearly as good luck at the Grand Bazaar, where there were repeats every few stalls, tee shirts and then leather goods and then jewelry and then tea, people haggling everywhere, goods and money flying. With thousands of shops, one after another, the place is crowded, and fascinating, and as promised by others who had been there who we met on the ship, where nearly anything can be found. Not the fist-sized diamonds and emeralds we saw on display at the Toptaki Palace (along with harem pants like you would not believe), but nice mirrored pens, and teas and tees. Enough, and we were ready to go home.
Once we had our last souveniers from our trip we needed to retreat to the ship to find our peace.
It was right there, waiting.
Sunday, September 9, 2012
|Lisa and Jessie in Athens|
Living all my life in a country with water lapping at three sides, in states with coast carved across and through, I can see why there's been fighting for access to water on this border between Europe and Asia for millennia. Each country we visited recited the list of who had conquered them, from the Romans to the Byzantines, the Ottomans to the Mongols; and, more rarely, those they had resisted. In modern times, the Soviet bloc used to control the entire European side of the Black Sea, protecting their warm-water ports with the Black Sea Fleet that could pour into the Mediterranean in a day. In World War I the battles at Gallipoli raged after the Ottoman Empire came into the war on the Axis side (reportedly because Germany offered one million dollars more than the Allies) and tried to cut off this access.
|Inner streets of Athens|
|The Acropolis, in disrepair|
Though I repeated this everyday in every port, not one of my letters or postcards have made their way home. If not a meaningless exercise, perhaps it was one in math; every country had a different currency. I brought bits and pieces of each home to my daughter Lizzy and she was thrilled. The one exception was Constanta, Romania. There are some deep local prejudices against the Romanians; when I thought my hairstylist on the boat, Radmilla, was Romanian she was horrified. "Do I look like a Romanian? I'm a Serb!" she hissed, and the knot-pulling intensified. I kind of understand her point; I couldn't breathe the air in Constanta without wheezing and had to stay below decks for the day. While all the ports were busy in one way or another, Constanta was heavy industry, the ninth busiest cargo port in Europe, though they said it was fourth. It led to an oily, coaly smell in the air, acrid, and so no postcards were sent and no currency saved. But pictures were taken, especially when Jessie went to Bucharest. These pictures are mine, the best and worse views from inside the boat.
Odessa was next, and stunning. My husband Mark and I went to Europe for our honeymoon, Innsbruk, and though we tried and tried to get to Vienna as well, the snow was thick in January and we were blocked by it on every effort. Well, plus once I forgot my passport and we were stopped where we had to pass through Germany...and we never got to Vienna. So I think Odessa is the closest I may get; it is so beautiful, old-world European buildings and squares, baroque pastel hotels, an opera house, those famed Potemkin Stairs. Well, maybe you haven't heard of them but they are famous, in Russia, a symbol of the first Russian uprising when soldiers on the Battleship Potemkin mutinied and found safe harbor in Odessa; when tracked down by the Cossacks in control of the region, not only the soldiers but the residents, for harboring them, were machine-gunned down the stairs, and elsewhere, in 1905.
It's all memorialized in a movie, the Battleship Potemkin, but like the similarly-depressing Gallipoli, just because the movie's a masterpiece won't get me to see it. Not even with a young Mel Gibson. The Allies had almost 50,000 men die at Gallipoli, most of them British, many of them Australian and New Zealand new recruits sent in as fodder. The Ottomans lost nearly twice as many, and that's not including other casualties; the total between both sides, deaths and injuries, was nearly half a million (473,000 in a campaign that lasted a year). And all for what ended up being nearly a draw; no one in the end could use the straits, because they were so heavily mined. Vicious, bloody tragedies--I can read about them, but I won't watch.
I have a feeling I'm not getting through the whole trip in this blog; we're less than halfway. I'll give you just one more port, and then the rest next week. Sevastopol. Pronounce it any way you want; the locals seemed to. It was a surprise, far lovelier than its name, at least in awkward English; it might sound lovely in Russian or Ukrainian, as named by Catherine the Great when it was first a fortress. Like most of the other cities we saw it's a resort city and we saw a lot of swimming in the Black Sea, though all adults, and diving off of a concrete grandstand. While other "beaches" in the Black Sea were made of sand, there apparently was none to speak of here so they made one. It's nicer than it seems, I almost dove in myself. We wandered the city up and down, through parks and , just the right size, on a candy hunt that led us to the central fruit and meat market. Lots of people were playing like we were. Few locals spoke anything but Russian or Ukranian, though we were able to buy things by holding up money and letting them have their way. It is the second largest country in Europe, behind Russia, with the second largest military, much of whose Navy is based here. This may be due to Sevastopol undergoing siege and occupation not once but twice, during the Crimean War and World War II. Both times the people within suffered mercilessly; the spirit they showed during the 1941-1942 siege made them a Soviet Hero City. The obelisk monument for this is prominently displayed at the entrance to the port, next to the one with the seagull for scuttled ships. Everyone pointed it out. It's quite beautiful. But to me, not as much as the Love Locks heart sculpture in Odessa, where sweethearts attach a padlock to signify their unending devotion. That's what I'll end with for now, the universal language.