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MAY 14, 2004


Good Night! Which put the Candle out?

A tale of aid for AIDS
By Betsey Culp

The Mother Of Everything walked slowly into the observation room and lowered herself onto the platform in the center.

“Ohhh,” she grumbled, sliding off her sandals. “What’s the good of being a goddess if you can’t keep your feet from hurting?”

Gabriel stood nearby, fanning her softly with his wings. “Have you tried disembodiment?” he suggested.

“Many times,” Her Motherness replied. “But it never works — as soon as I lose the pain, I lose all other sensations as well. And observation entirely by mental power just doesn’t work.”

She massaged the ball of one foot as she peered through the floor-to-ceiling windows in front of her. As her eyes became accustomed to the darkness outside, she began to relax.

“Oh, there’s Cassiopeia,” she exclaimed, pointing to a W-shaped cluster of stars. “I always like to see her, whirling around proudly in her celestial chair. And look how beautiful the Horsehead Nebula is tonight, silhouetted against its bright red cloud of dust. But where’s my pet, where’s little Planet 3”

She turned slightly, and frowned.

“What’s this? What happened to it?”

Gabriel leaned forward, following the line of her pointing finger. He saw a crinkled sphere, a brownish-gray lump, wobbling in a lopsided circle around a brightly shining star.

“What happened to the green continents?” asked the Maternal One. “What happened to the bright blue oceans surrounding them?”

“My apologies, Great Mother,” Gabriel said with a bow. “I was so busy watching the birth of the new solar system in Quadrant 74 that I didn’t notice. Planet 3 appears to have been extinguished.”

The Great Mother gasped. “You don’t mean… did they finally blow themselves up?”

“Nothing so dramatic, I’m sure,” answered the tall soft-spoken angel. “It was probably more like extinction by inattention. I don’t know if Your Motherliness remembers, but some time ago one of Planet 3’s subdivisions decided to deliver democracy to another part of the globe. The planet’s usual delivery procedures were put into effect, with rockets and missiles followed by well-armed human invaders in large vehicles. Because this particular venture was regarded as particularly important for the future of the entire planet, extreme measures were instituted, and the inhabitants were bombarded with horrifying visual images that heightened the conflict.”

“Wait a moment,” interrupted Our Mama. “You keep using the passive voice. Someone must have been responsible.”

“That was one of the problems. Each side pointed out the reputed villains on the other, but no one stepped forward to claim credit for the pain that was being inflicted. Nevertheless, even though it took no credit for the escalation, the seemingly Ubiquitous Side, the one with the large vehicles everywhere, soon found that its part in the enterprise had become more expensive than anticipated. The US requested more financial support, and then more, and more again. As you may recall, O Mater Nostra, a substance called money makes Planet 3 go ’round. But unlike your wisdom, the supply of money is not infinite.”

Our Mother grimaced. “I’m in no mood for your flattery tonight, Gabriel. Please finish your explanation.”

Gabriel said, “The US began to call back the money it had promised to other projects. This meant that budgets everywhere had to tighten, and problems that had been kept under control by infusions of cash started to grow. In a tiny subdivision called Afghanistan, the once-dangerous opium poppy again took root, crowding out wheat and other less lucrative crops. In the US itself, thousands of low-income people tossed and turned with nightmares, imagining they were living on the streets because their housing allowance had been cut. And on, and on.”

“But these problems had come and gone before. Surely, they couldn’t kill an entire planet.”

“No, you’re right. Doom came from a half-forgotten source. You see, many orbits ago, a disease had emerged, a kind of plague that affected the immune system of the people on Planet 3. This disease was given the clunky name “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” and was usually known by the convenient acronym AIDS.”

The Mother Of Everything nodded, remembering the leaked memos she had seen where she herself was referred to as MOE, or simply ME.

“When the disease first came to the attention of this little world,” Gabriel went on, “it incited great horror, especially after it cut short some extraordinarily creative lives. But time defuses tragedies. And soon it became obvious that the disease was not spreading indiscriminately, that much of it centered in communities of homosexuals or drug-users — communities that many USans considered marginal — or in far-off places that they considered of little value. Interest waned. And as the war to deliver democracy become more expensive, contributions to AIDS-related organizations, which were spotty at best, declined.”

“But I don’t understand, Gabriel. If this disease was confined to a few irrelevant groups, how could it cause a major planet-wide disaster?”

“Your Maternalness missed my meaning. What the USans considered marginal was actually part of the mainstream. By the end of Earth Year 2003, more than 40 million of the people on Planet 3 were living with AIDS or its precursor, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus; nearly a million of these infected people lived in the US. Some 5 million people on Planet 3 had acquired HIV in the previous year. And during that year, 3 million other people died.”

“But still, weren’t most of these poor souls in what you call marginal communities? Their situation was sad, Gabe, but not likely to destroy an entire planet.”

“In a tiny place like Planet 3, boundaries blur easily. The disease emerged first mainly among adult men, but by Earth Year 2002 most of the new cases were either women or adolescents. Two years later, a planet-wide group known as the World Health Organization announced that AIDS had become “the leading cause of death and lost years of productive life for adults aged 15 to 59 years worldwide.”

“But wasn’t that a clear warning of imminent danger? You don’t mean to tell me that the US let the losses continue?”

“I do indeed, Mamma Mia. In fact, at the very same time that the WHO was releasing its report, the US was reducing funds for AIDS patients in its own cities and obstructing the supply of inexpensive generic medicines overseas. The US government, which had proclaimed itself the world’s greatest warrior against the disease from the very beginning, now announced a limit on the number of scientists it was willing to send to international AIDS conferences, on the grounds that the conferences did not pay enough to the prevention programs of faith-based organizations.”

“Faith-based organizations? That’s us, Gabriel. Did they ask us if we wanted to withdraw?”

“No, ma’am.”

“It makes me so angry when someone puts words in my mouth! Where’s my thunderbolt?”

“It’s a little late for that, Mother Of Us All. Planet 3 did the job for you. Orbits ago, the disease spread halfway around the world, traveling by ship and airplane. Later on, if it held sway in even one location, there was no way to prevent it from continuing its journey. And so it traveled. It crossed state lines and national borders. Medical cocktails for the wealthy slowed its progress. But for the poor — and for the children of the poor — there was no such respite. Eventually, yes, the US gave up its military ambitions, for there was no use bringing democracy to a dying place. But by then, it was too late.”

The goddess stared out the window. Slowly, a tear rolled down her cheek. She wiped it away with the back of her hand.

Once more, she looked up, staring not out the window but at it.

“There’s a large smudge on the glass, Gabriel,” she said. “Please wipe it off so I can see more clearly.”

The angel took the edge of his left wing in his right hand and gently cleaned the offending spot.

The Mother Of Everything looked out again.

“Why, I was wrong! I can see the green continents of Planet 3, and the blue oceans surrounding them. There’s still life on that little orb. Were you spinning yarns, Gabe?


"You mean there's still hope?" She glared at him. “Don’t you know it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature?”

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The San Francisco AIDS Candlelight Vigil, taking place Sunday, May 16th at Castro & Market streets at 8pm, is the local observance of the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial held in over 3,000 communities in 85 countries.

As in the past, the candlelight procession will leave the intersection of Market and Castro Streets at 8pm, followed by a short program of speeches, music, performance art, and remembrances in the Civic Center.

The vigil began in San Francisco and New York in 1983 and was led and organized by people with AIDS to publicly empower themselves and honor those who had died. It was the world's first public demonstration of solidarity for people whose illness made them the target of fear and discrimination.

Since then, the vigil has become the world's oldest & largest annual grassroots event.

Thousands look to this grassroots event each year to acknowledge the toll that AIDS has taken on all our lives, rekindle the hope against this disease, and empower more voices to arise against an indifferent government. AIDS is now a national economic threat as well as a security threat. In April 2000, the Clinton administration declared AIDS a national and global security threat, saying it has the potential to destabilize governments.