The chronicle of a lonely do-gooder family doctor who survived.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Stevens Pass

So despite spending most of my free time this winter training for a marathon, I did manage to get up to Stevens Pass last week. Stevens is 2 hours away in the Cascade mountains. We're having record snow this year. I went up with three of my best friends: Kim, Darius, and Kevin. Darius got a helmet cam for Christmas and we had some fun with it.

Kim, Me, and Kevin

Sometimes I just can't believe they serve alcohol at ski slopes. Especially to a guy like me who clearly looks like he's going to hurt himself out there.

Marathon training update: I just finished my first half-marathon! And it felt really good! Check me out here.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Obama, decisively.

So I had no idea what to expect.

The 43rd district of the Washington State Democratic Party is known for being very active. I remembered going to the caucus in 2004 and to various meetings all held to strategize ways of unseating He Who Cannot Be Named. I was impressed and energized that so many in my own community were as outraged as me and it made me glad to call a place like Wallingford home. But this was 2008. I had my own fairly strong preference for presidential candidates and I knew Obama had a shot here; still, I hadn't seen any local polls, there were only a few posters around town for Obama, and I knew that the possibility of America's first woman president would galvanize a large segment of potential Democratic caucus-goers.

My first clue came on Friday night.

"Did you hear about the rally? Fil tried to go and couldn't even get near Queen Anne."

"The same thing happened with my coworker, he said people were so packed outside that you could not move."

Obama had held a rally at Key Arena that day in which a 17,000 person standing room only crowd heard him give a 50 minute speech while thousands more surrounded the stadium outside. I heard several people say they simply turned around when they saw the crowd that extended for several blocks around the arena.

The next morning I read a New York Times story on the Washington state caucuses. Hillary Clinton had drawn 6,000 at a local university but seemed resigned to losing the state. The Times made this rather insulting statement:

But Mrs. Clinton, who has not done as well in the caucus states as Mr.
Obama has, winning only two of nine so far, suggested that she did not expect to win in Washington, as many of her supporters would be too busy working to break away from their schedules and spend the time to caucus for her.

“If this were a primary, where everybody could vote all day, I’d feel pretty good about it,” she said. “But it’s not. It’s a caucus.

So that morning, all of us unemployed slackers with nothing better to do than give up our Saturday to make the country a better place made our way up to the local middle school, feeling good that Hillary's support seems to be people who aren't able to do more than check a box on a ballot. As we drew near to the caucus site, it was clear that something remarkable was happening.

In 2004, the first caucus I had ever been to, people were fired up. It seemed like the entire city came out in force. The nominee had not been completely decided yet, Howard Dean hadn't flamed out and Kucinich was still in it. Our precinct had about 20 people show up and we had a lively ,reasoned discussion, unified in our disgust for the Republicans. I went away thinking about how great the process was, that I had really participated in my democracy.

This year would be different. There were easily 100 people per precinct, and about 20 precincts total (each precinct only includes 200 households, Democrat and Republican). And more astonishing, 8 out of 10 people were wearing an Obama t-shirt, button, or sticker. There were many people who had never caucused before. There were people I knew from work or the gym that I hadn't even realized were neighbors. Nearly all said they had never felt this way about candidate before and were a little surprised to find themselves coming out to support him.

The caucus began, as they all do, by someone reading the rules aloud to a room full of several hundred people. "Before we begin, the DNC has asked that we all stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance." We all looked around each other uncomfortably. Flag waving nationalism is not something indigenous to Wallingford.

A lone voice from the back of the room shouted. "Come on, this is Seattle!" Everyone laughed. Then we stood and said the pledge before we broke into groups to do something truly patriotic.

I was going to bring cupcakes for each Obama supporter, but in retrospect I am glad I didn't. I would have spent $300 on my precinct alone. Instead, knowing that any speech I would give would be limited to less than a minute, I had three short deal killers for anyone thinking of voting for Hillary.

1. She voted for the war, the greatest crime that has been committed in my name in my lifetime. Now, one may argue that really she was voting for inspections with teeth, but come on -- everyone in the world knew what that vote was really about. She even voted against an amendment that would force the president to come back to congress before invading. Supporters might explain that we were still in the midst of post 9/11 hysteria, that it was an understandable lapse in an otherwise fine legislative record; but the U.S. needs a leader with the moral courage and wisdom to stand up when it is called for and if she couldn't do that then, how can we trust her to be the leader this time of crisis call for? No, Obama, wasn't in a position to cast a vote in the Senate, but he did give an impassioned speech at the time against using military force and honestly, that's a cop out excuse for Hillary.

2. She can't win. Clearly, Obama speaks to independent swing voters and people who don't typically vote. People recognize that this is a new kind of leader, who doesn't take money from lobbyists, who knows how to compromise to get things done, and who knows how to take a tough moral stand when it is called for. If Hillary runs against McCain, a republican who can appeal broadly to independent swing voters, there is no way she can win. The Republican party is largely in disarray and cannot agree on a candidate but I don't think you could come up with a democratic candidate who would mobilize them more than Hillary Clinton.

3. There has been a Bush or a Clinton working in the White House since 1980. The U.S. does not, and should not, support oligarchies. People want a change.

Of course there are thousands of other specific reasons and I was armed with Shireesha's iPhone if I needed to look up statistics. But in the end it didn't really matter. The initial vote broke 72 to 14 in favor of Obama (4 delegates to 1 delegate). There were 6 undecideds, 4 of whom changed to Obama, 2 remained undecided. (One of the undecideds was a neighbor who reasoned "Both candidates have virtually identical platforms. If Obama's only advantage is that he's the candidate of 'hope', that's not a good enough reason for me to support him."). During the discussion period, while I was making small talk with my neighbors, Shireesha actually convinced a Clinton supporter to change to Obama. So the final vote went 77-13, four delegates for Obama and one for Clinton.

The caucus process is a good one. I firmly believe it is too easy for someone who's ill informed to cast an irresponsible vote. I mean, I get to see a real cross section of America in my practice and it is shocking, really, how misinformed people are. The political process in so much of America goes like this: Rush Limbaugh --> the ear of some 80 year old guy with borderline dementia --> checks a box on a piece of paper and mails it in. Think about it: a little old lady in a nursing home whose opinion is entirely informed by Reader's Digest has as much say in the election as someone with a graduate degree who travels the world, reads three newspapers, and has daily on line political discussions with other educated professionals from all over. It's controversial and smug, but I'll say it: if you can't spend part of one day defending your viewpoint to your neighbors, maybe your opinion shouldn't matter so much.

So at the end of the day, feeling good about the caucus process, they asked for people to serve as delegates to the state convention and I volunteered. Should be a hoot.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Mira Nair and Shantaram

I just saw the film The Namesake, after having read the book last year. It is an incredibly moving story of an Indian man who comes to America as a graduate student and raises his family here where they struggle to balance their own cultural identity with the pressures of assimilating into the United States. The thing that is so remarkable about the story is actually that it is so unremarkable, having been repeated tens of thousands of times by many different Indian families, including my own adopted one. I think Mira Nair, the director (who also directed Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, among other films) did it justice. She has such a way of capturing on film whatever it is that makes India such a beautiful, complex place. And she does this by portraying scenes on the street with a realism that is at once ordinary but also astonishing.

So I finished reading the book Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts on the plane back from India. It's this mostly true story, about an Australian political activist who becomes a heroin addict. He had been given a 20 year prison sentence for armed robbery when he escaped, ultimately making his way to the slums of Bombay. There, he redeemed himself, learning Hindi and Marathi, establishing a free clinic, falling in love, and generally being embraced by the inhabitants of Bombay. He also joined the Indian mafia, went to live in a rural village, acted in Bollywood movies, and fought with the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan.

Aside from being a totally amazing, engrossing thousand page adventure story, it is also a love letter written to India with some brilliant observations about the country, from the perspective of an outsider who is taken in and ultimately becomes Indian.

Some samples:

"And the Indians, they love most of all. Your little friend may be beginning to love you...It happens often and easily, for the Indians. That is how they manage to live together, a billion of them, in reasonable peace. They are not perfect, of course. They know how to fight and lie and cheat each other, and all the things that all of us do. But more than any other people in the world, the Indians know how to love one another...India is about six times the size of France...But it has almost twenty times the population. Twenty times! Believe me, if there were a billion Frenchmen living in such a crowded place, there would be rivers of blood. Rivers of blood! And as everyone knows, we French are the most civilised people in Europe. Indeed, in the whole world. No, no, without love India would be impossible."

"At first, on that first journey out of the city into India, I found such sudden politeness infuriating after the violent scramble to board the train. It seemed hypocritical for them to show such deferential concern over a nudge with a foot when, minutes before, they'd all but pushed one another out of the windows. Now, long years and many journeys after that first ride on a crowded rural train, I know that the scrambled fighting and courteous deference were both expressions of the one philosophy: the doctrine of necessity. The amount of force and violence necessary to board the train, for example, was no less and no more than the amount of politeness and consideration necessary to ensure that the cramped journey was as pleasant as possible afterwards. What is necessary? That was the unspoken but implied and unavoidable question everywhere in India. When I understood that, a great many of the characteristically perplexing aspects of public life became comprehensible: from the acceptance of sprawling slums by city authorities, to the freedom that cows had to roam at random in the midst of traffic; from the toleration of beggars on the streets, to the concatenate complexity of the bureaucracies; and from the gorgeous, unashamed escapism of Bollywood movies, to the accomodation of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Tibet, Iran, Afghanistan, Africa, and Bangladesh, in a country that was already too crowded with sorrows and needs of its own."

"This is not England, or New Zealand, or Australia, or wherever the fuck else. This is India, man. This is India. This is the land of the heart. This is where the heart is king, man. The fuckin' heart. That's why you're free. That's why that cop gave you back your phoney passport. That's why you can walk around, and not get picked up, even though they know who you are. They could've fucked you, Lin. They could've taken your money, Khader's money, and let you go, and then get some other cops to bust you, and send you the fuck home. But they didn't do it, and they won't do it, because you got them in their heart, man, in their Indian fuckin' heart. They looked at all what you did here, and how the people in that slum love you, and they thought, Well, he fucked up in Australia, but he's done some good shit here, If he pays up, we'll let the fucker go. Because they're Indians, man. That's how we keep this crazy place together -- with the heart. Two hundred fuckin' languages, and a billion people. India is the heart. It's the heart that keeps us together. There's no place with people like my people, Lin. There's no heart like the Indian heart."

Roberts eventually was captured and finished his sentence before writing his novel. He has a pretty slick, and interesting, web site, which details his real life and his activities since getting out of prison.

The book was a gift for me from Daanish. Actually, Daanish picked it out after consulting with Metafilter, so in some way I guess it was a gift from Metafilter. Either way, it was a wonderful gift, and highly recommended reading for any white guy discovering India for the first time.

So bringing it back to Mira Nair...
Like most people who fall in love with a book, particularly one with a lot of striking visual descriptions or an unusual setting, I often imagine what it would look like if a movie was made of the book. In this case, there is so much that happens, I assumed any attempt to consolidate the story into a two and a half hour movie would be a mess. But then I heard that Johnny Depp had purchased the rights and that Mira Nair had signed on to direct it.

I have never seen anything like the slums of Bombay. Imagine a city, like New York, or San Francisco, only bigger and dirtier and hotter. Then imagine every empty space being taken up by shanties. Every sidewalk, every empty lot, every park. They encroach on the infrastructure of the city, into the roads, the train stations, even the airport runway. And it goes on as far as the eye can see. Given Nair's talent for giving the audience a singular, detailed, and stunning impression of a place, this film has great potential. I am looking forward to it.