Friday, November 28, 2008

Halfway Around the World is Halfway Home

Do you believe in coincidences? Do you think events happen at random? Do you feel alone in this big universe, with no direction and no meaning?

I emailed my sister happy Thanksgiving--"aren't you glad your daughter is not in Mumbai?" After the events of the last two days with over 160 dead and more injured due to terrorists in Mumbai, India, this greeting seemed appropriate, since my niece had spent last summer as a student from Princeton working on setting up housing in Mumbai. Yes my sister agreed, although in fact, at the time my niece was in Mumbai in July, there were a synchronized terrorist attacks in a nearby town, Ahmedabad, that now appears may have been a dry run for this week's horror.

At the time my niece was in Mumbai, my sister was "skype"--ing her from her laptop in a hospital room at Mass General, where my mom was about to undergo heart bypass and aortic valve replacement surgery. Mom was feeling pretty good, and didn't want to be constrained in a ward room in Boston when her favorite past time was to play several rounds of 18 holes of golf at her home in Palm Beach, FL. 80 years young, symptomless, and active, that's where mom bumped into her cardiologist who wanted to test some new fangled equipment for measuring heart blood flow in cardiac stress tests, and suggested while walking down the fairway that mom try out this equipment for free, on the house, 4 months before she was due for her regular cardiac check up. That's when they found the 2 life-threatening situations--clogged arteries and a very narrow aortic heart valve.

That's how the tall, handsome physician of Indian descent explained it to mom and me in the hospital room in Boston (I had flown in from Los Angeles in case mom needed extra moral support) the day before he was going to open mom's chest and "easily" repair the problem, which otherwise would "kill her momentarily." Seemed like divine intervention to me at the time, what with the cardiologist "bumping" into my mother on the golf course, and her not having any symptoms to make her run to the doctor's office for a checkup. The tall handsome Indian heart surgeon said she may have weeks to live without surgical intervention, certainly not months. If mom was ever going to hit the links again, she was going to have to have the surgery right away--they wouldn't allow her to leave the hospital.

I had heard about the terrorist attacks in Ahmedabad and decided not to mention it since my sister and mom might not have heard about it, and my niece was within shouting distance of the area of travesty half a world away in Mumbai. Meanwhile, this very busy and business-like heart surgeon said he just got off the plane from Holland; he had been at a medical conference in Eindhoven. He asked politely, expecting a "no" answer, had we ever been to Eindhoven, Netherlands? It just so happened that Mom had married a guy who ran a subsidiary company of the giant electronics firm Dutch Phillips, headquartered in Eindhoven, so she politely responded yes, she'd been there many times, and how was the doctor's trip, considering he was going to do lengthy surgery on mom the next day she hoped he'd had a comfortable and restful flight...How many Indian heart surgeons who had just been to Eindhoven were there at Mass General last July?

Then a young Doctor trepidatiously entered mom's curtained-off space, with permission from mom's surgeon, to ask if he could do a study during mom's open heart surgery about the accuracy of an ear thermometer--the most exact measurement of human body temperature comes from the chamber of the heart accessible directly during open heart surgery, which made my mother's upcoming procedure convenient for this young researcher's needs. He wouldn't be in the way, and only needed to take several dozen measurements of her heart temperature and compare it with the ear thermometer while she was under anesthesia and wouldn't know about it anyway. Mom definitely wanted to help advance the cause of knowledge in medicine considering the circumstance under which she would probably be dead shortly had it not been for that very same advanced medicinal knowledge to which she had the advantage. When the young Doctor said he was from India (another one!), after we asked about his obvious and almost unintelligible non-American accent, my mom said her granddaughter was there right now, and as I cringed about what was next on the conversational agenda, this nice young fellow asked had we heard about the awful violence going on over there right now, almost exactly where granddaughter/niece was? Oh well, my half-hearted attempt at keeping the international news secret was for naught, it might have popped up on the CNN news crawl on the TV hanging over mom's bed any minute anyway...

So I and my family had Thanksgiving lunch yesterday here in the San Fernando Valley at the rest home of my mother-in-law who has befriended an elderly man of 90 who comes from Boston, where I lived so long ago and met my ex-wife, who I haven't seen or heard from in 30 years. So we dined with my mother-in-law's pal's family as well. It turns out I found out recently that my mother-in-law's elderly friend had moved out to California from Boston a few years ago, is my ex father-in-law, whose only surviving daughter is (coincidentally) my ex wife, and somehow her dad and my mother-in-law became close friends in the rest home without knowing the former connection of their children, as well as the children not knowing either. As Spock would say, the odds of this chance relationship are astronomical, and as Captain Kirk would respond, the odds are always improving.

My ex-wife's present husband is an immigrant South African who as an attorney handles immigration cases--mostly Indians. He was explaining to me during our lunch about the value that these people bring to the United States, and how awful so many of them were feeling about the current events in Mumbai. My ex-wife's husband also said that based on his travels and experience, he felt that America is the greatest country on earth. His welcome of immigrants wouldn't be extended however to those from "south of the border," as he explained, because of the deleterious effect on the economy the huge numbers of "illegals" presented. I started to reply that US government statistics show an economic boost from all immigrants no matter of origin, but we were interrupted by lunch or whatever, and just as well, since I'm not about to change any opinions of the guy who married my wife during our first lunch meeting anyway.

I thought about the bigotry that surrounds us all the time, and of the tremendous anti-Muslim feeling throughout the world right down to my neighbors. I wondered about how many cross-currents and moments of serendipity we all experience, and pass off to coincidence, ignoring the underlying element of care and concern that the universe really contains for us all, regardless of our religions or nationalities. As we hear of events in South Asia, a place where most of us have never visited, and see Jews from New York being killed by murderers who aren't even clearly identified, and a major city in India under siege because it represents one of the biggest icons of freedom on earth, and the irrational increased hatred that will be engendered against Muslims because the killers may be Muslim, a voice of reason writes an op-ed piece in today's Los Angeles Times--Indian former undersecretary-general of the United Nations:

"If these tragic events lead to the demonization of the Muslims of India, the terrorists will have won. For India to be India, its gateway -- to the multiple Indias within, and the heaving seas without -- must always remain open."

Who may listen to these thoughtful words, and how many of us still believe in coincidences?

Friday, November 07, 2008

Welcome the Intellectually Elite Leader of the Free World

Obama's election is even the more remarkable because of the latent fear and suspicion aroused in the average American towards the intellectual elite. Obama is a supreme example of the educated, well-read, smart achiever who rises above the mediocre yet doesn't condescend to his audience. In fact, he is the ultimate teacher who asks those around him to rise to his level, while making them feel that it's possible if not inevitable.

The clarity of these aspects of his character--humility alongside of confidence--were clear in his first press conference today as President Elect. In his brief answer to a question about what he is reading to prepare for taking office, he simply stated,

"I have re-read some of Lincoln's writings, who's always an extraordinary inspiration."

What is fascinating about this remark is that, with all due respect to a good guess, Obama has probably read more than the reporter who asked the question, not to mention most of his fellow citizens. The reference to the Lincoln passages are assumed to be a throw-away line from a man who most likely devours more, in a single sitting, of articles and literature than most of us do in a lot longer amount of time.

So it came as no surprise in a short AP blurb in the Los Angeles Times to read that Obama is considered a peer among his fellow writers, including some of the greatest of living authors.

"Dreams From My Father" and Obama's "The Audacity of Hope" have each sold millions of copies and have been praised as the rare works by politicians that can be read for pleasure. Obama's student poetry was even lauded -- and compared to Langston Hughes' work -- by the most discerning of critics, Harold Bloom.

JFK, a speed reader and quick on his feet, and Clinton, a Rhodes Scholar and considered brilliant among presidents, were two who occupied the White House within memory who triumphed because of their intellect. No doubt Obama follows in this tradition, but even more obvious at this point in history, following the presidency of one of the prime examples of willful ignorance and stupidity, is the shining reason this country needs leadership of the true elite, intellectual as well as courageous. And we can take pride that's what we voted for.