Lately I had noticed that, save for a flash mob here and there, there was way too little joie in the world. The euphoria for Barack Obama's election was too fleeting to be weighed and counted. Since roughly December 2000, America has become a glum place in public and the 21st century has been a bust for us. The American swagger has gradually gone limp—has it been since 2007?
Yet we're still fond of saying stuff like, "We're the last best hope on earth." But hark! After a Biblical famine of mirth, we witnessed two exuberant events in one July week. By we, by Jove, I mean the wider world. It's not just about us anymore.
London stole its own show at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. For its riotously brilliant collage of British madcap humor, the Beatles and the Bard, queenly pomp in pink, and James Bond dash, you had to hand it to the mother country. Nobody but the British can do self-deprecating—yet celebrating—performance art. In a populist note, the 500 workers who constructed the Olympic dome lined the entrance to greet the torch. Was it the best outdoor theater ever? Yes. From the past up to the present, since Empire days, London knows how to lead on the world capital stage.
But darling, who knew you could cheer up a whole century? A letter, better yet an Elizabethan sonnet, is in the post.
The second global gathering that created a sense of brimming, positive energy was the week-long XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington. The convergence of 23,000 people from all over the planet here was a big deal; for the first time in years, HIV-positive people are allowed to enter the United States, the travel restriction lifted recently by the Obama administration. In other words, only by opening the doors could we make something truly exciting happen.
"I really appreciate that the U.S. changed the law," Joanna Glazewska, who works in the National AIDS Center in Warsaw. Poland's population with AIDS numbers 15,000, she said, adding she works on human rights and "nondiscrimination" issues.
A high pitch of engagement hummed throughout the throng. Hundreds of panels drew doctors, government policy directors, transgender and gay people living with the virus, and a smattering of sex workers, among many others. The conference had the entire AIDS community, writ large, under the sleek glass and steel convention center roof. You never knew who, from where you were going to meet next, with an invitation to visit the earth's end—such as the deputy mayor of Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
A small but serious legal angle, criminalization, was discussed. Should someone be charged for failing to disclose their HIV status to a partner? In several jurisdictions in the United States, and a few in Canada, yes, it happens.
Bill and Hillary Clinton each spoke, with the secretary of state promising to chart a course for an "AIDS-free generation." The global emphasis was not so much a cure but more how to treat, prevent, and live—not a living death—with AIDS.
"We can begin to understand AIDS as a manageable chronic disease, with a functional cure," said Dr. Paul R. Skolnik, chairman of Medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center. Patient care is much more hopeful than in the dark early days, he said. As a result, he now has AIDS patients that have grown old—a victory.
Zoryan Kis, 29, an NGO executive director in Ukraine, works on destigmatizing and empowering people with AIDS for his day job. But the work is personal, too, for this young gay man. The code of silence in his country expects gays to act straight in public. "I can't walk holding hands with my boyfriend in Kiev," he said, adding it would invite trouble and violence. Kis is not HIV-positve. But the trend of HIV-positive people in Ukraine is high and growing, with an estimated 350,000 cases.
Elton John and Sharon Stone showed up, lending their light, but then so did George Wilson, who hitchhiked the 45 miles from Baltimore. "I slept in the park. I've been here all night," he said. An outpatient at the Whitman Walker Clinic, he said, "I take cocktails," for his HIV condition. He said he acquired AIDS from shared heroin needle use. Being in the multitude, Wilson said, was worth the trip. "I'm not alone and I feel more accepted," he said.
From a personal viewpoint, I have seen the shadow of pediatric AIDS fall on my father, E. Richard Stiehm, a doctor and immunologist at UCLA on the front lines in the 1980s. As a newborn, his patient Ariel Glaser was the first U.S. patient to acquire AIDS passed through her mother's breast milk. In a double twist to the tragedy, her mother, Elizabeth Glaser, had had multiple blood transfusions after giving birth, which is how she became infected with AIDS, unknowingly, and passed it on to her infant. Nobody knew much about the ravaging disease back then.
In her remaining decade, Elizabeth Glaser accomplished and managed more than most of us do in a full lifetime. Along with raising two small children, she dedicated herself to founding and raising a fortune for a new foundation devoted to pediatric AIDS research. Her husband, the actor Paul Michael Glaser, pitched in. But nobody could match the dynamo that was Elizabeth. She took her cause to the White House, to President Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Nobody said no to Elizabeth.
Once in the 1990s, I went to visit her in her Santa Monica Spanish stucco house with an indoor courtyard. "You see," she said. "I was going to have a great life."
I don't know what you say to that, a sentence that has stayed with me since. That is the sentence that speaks for so many to me, with a question contained: What can you do to help?
Collectively, I felt the world was coming up with better answers and strategies for an Elizabethan global question.