Monday, December 15, 2008

December Shivers

Winter has arrived in Minnesota. The high temperature today, December 15, 2008, was negative something. Negative. Less than zero. Not even none. To make sure we got the point of the hopelessness we face for the next three months or so, the wind was gusting, creating a wind chill that felt like even less than zero, none, negative degrees.

I don’t know about you, but I NEED degrees. The older I get, the worse winter seems. I long ago observed that Venus is too hot for human habitation. Mars is too cold. Minnesota is right on the border, barely warm enough this time of year to sustain life.

Let’s not stop there. Let’s add guilt. For the last four weeks or so, I’ve been battling the worst case (in terms of uninterrupted duration) of sciatica I’ve ever had the displeasure to experience. For three weeks, I needed a cane to help me get around. I’ve been doing without the third leg for the past week, but the pain is constant, albeit subdued. As you may know from my Prairie Pondering profile, I live on a farm. With horses. Horses who suffer silently in the cold in exchange for being fed and watered regularly and, with respect to six of the 13 who call Meadow Breeze Farm their home, being let in and out of the barn on a daily basis.

Where’s the guilt? Because of my sciatica, I haven’t been able to help my wife with barn chores for four weeks. The last four weeks. The last freezing cold four weeks. Every morning and most every evening, she bundles up and becomes the guardian angel of equine dependents. She spends almost an hour in the morning, starting at 6 a.m., and half that in the evenings, tossing hay, filling heated water buckets, cleaning stalls, pouring grain, adjusting blankets just to care for the horses.

The farm is Deb’s dream come true. However, I have a hard time watching her work so hard in this weather as I sit incapacitated, shivering from just the thought of those missing degrees. The guilt is so encompassing that I am at the point where I’ve decided to pursue alternative medicine to get rid of the pain. I have managed to avoid chiropractors for the nearly 40 years since I hurt my working during a summer job while in college. I have dismissed the suggestion of acupuncture as a solution inconsistent with my aversion to needles. Similarly, one need only mention cortisone shots to me to abruptly end a conversation.

But enough is enough. My darling, thoughtful wife bought me a head-to-toe coverall and some Willie Sutton headwear last year with which to survive life on the prairie during the Minnesota winters. If I tough it up and visit one of the “intrusive pain” specialists friends admiring my cane suggested, I should be able to get back outside, carrying my own supply of 98.6 degrees, and shovel horse manure like the pro I aspire to be.

For those of you reading this in Arizona who refer to me as “Son” or “Dad”, I’m glad some of us made it out.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Que Será, Será Observed

I had the occasion to share Irv Stern stories with Sean Rice on Election Night, November 4th. We ran into each other in the ballroom of the Democratic Campaign headquarters hotel at about 1:00 a.m. We had met before but hadn't seen each other in a few years. Sean, who used to work for Governor Rudy Perpich and had been appointed to the staff of the St. Paul World Trade Center at about the time its 36 story headquarters was built, had traveled the world in the 1990's with my dad. Dad had been appointed to serve as the chairman of the Executive Commitee of the St. Paul World Trade Center.

Sean laughingly recalled the time he, Dad and former Congressman Rick Nolan traveled to Bombay. They had checked into a fancy hotel. Dad and Rick had gone to sleep. Sean awoke to the sound of what he thought was gunfire. He thought the hotel was under attack. His terror resided only after he discovered that the explosions causing his distress came from a nightly fireworks display in the park across the street from the hotel. The levity in the story came from the fact that my dad slept through the entire incident, peacefully oblivious to the "threat" while Sean calculated an escape.

The story was relayed on November 5th. The hotel was the Oberoi in what is now known as Mumbai.

This is a strange world. Three weeks after laughing about Sean's needless concern for his safety, the Oberoi was attacked by terrorists targeting western visitors to the luxury hotel. It was as if Sean was describing being in the wrong place at the right time. If it turns out that the terrorists were Kashmiri separatists, their attacks could have just as well occurred while Father was sleeping peacefully. The dispute over Kashmir is not a 21st century concept.

The incident made me realize, again, just how tenuous our hold on life is. The senseless attacks last month in Mumbai, snuffing out the existence of fellow human beings who fully expected to return home from the café or from their business trips or from their mundane daily routine, underscores the preciousness of each moment we have to share with our loved ones.

Our lives are as precarious as a tree frog on a flower petal. There is beauty all around us but for one unlucky gust of wind.

One of the most remarkable stories coming out of Mumbai, is that of Jonathan Ehrlich, a business executive from Vancouver, British Columbia. Mr. Ehrlich was a guest at the sister hotel to the Oberai, preparing to return home to Canada, the night of the terrorist attacks. A friend forwarded an e-mail Mr. Ehrlich sent to family and friends. It was drafted on the trip home to Canada and expresses more eloquently than any words I can dream up, so far removed from the incident, the sense of fortune, sorrow, anger and joy felt by those who were not merely neighbors to a fireworks display.

I'm reprinting the letter as written. As Mr. Ehrlich indicates, it is "raw and unedited". If frank language distrubs you, suck it up. This is not a Mary Poppins travelogue. Rather, Mr. Ehrlich, in effect, relates his rebirth in accordance with Japanese proverb, made famous by Ian Fleming: "You only live twice: once when you are born and once when you look death in the face."

From: Jonathan
Sent: Thu Nov 27 02:26:51 2008
Subject: Hey

Hey guys.

Got all your notes. Thank you. I'm ok. A little shaky to be honest but really just happy to be here. I can't thank you enough for your notes. You have no idea what the mean to me. Hope to see and speak to you all soon.

I wrote the following on the plane.

It's 3.33 am Thursday Nov 27th. And I am writing this from Jet Airways flight 0227, First leg of the Mumbai – Brussels - Toronto – Vancouver journey . It is a stream of "adrenaline" piece. I apologize in advance for the grammatical errors. But I wanted it raw and unedited.

First, some context.

I have always been truly blessed. Lucky to be born to the most love a child could ever wish for. Luck to be born into a family that prided itself on teaching me how to be a man. Lucky to have been protected and sheltered by three strong, decent brothers. Lucky to have found and married the kindest heart on the face of the earth. Lucky to be blessed beyond blessed with four healthy, beautiful children. Lucky to have wonderful friends who tolerate my idiosyncrasies.

Tonight, these blessings, these gifts of love and life bestowed upon me, this incredible good fortune, saved my life. And I honestly don't know why.

The details.

I am in Mumbai on business. I'm staying at the Trident hotel. It's sister hotel, the Oberai, is right next-door and attached by a small walkway.

I had dinner by myself in the Oberai lobby after some late meetings.

I retired upstairs to my room. About 10min later my colleague, Alex Chamerlin, text-ed asking me to join him and his friend in the Oberai lounge for a drink. I started to make my way out the door but decided that I was really too tired. I had a 7am flight, and needed to be up at 5. Rest beckoned. I closed the light, got into bed and quickly fell asleep. Lucky life-saving decision number 1.

About 1hr later there was knock at my door. A few seconds later, the doorbell rang (they have doorbells for hotel rooms here – who'da thunk?). I thought – who the hell is knocking at my door? Turn down service? This late? Forget it. So I just lay there and hoped they would go away. Lucky life-saving decision number 2.

Five minutes later I heard and felt a huge bang. I got up and went to look out the window. A huge cloud of grey smoke billowed up from the road below. I thought, “Fireworks?” I didn't see anyone milling about so knew something wasn't right. I started to walk to the light switch when - BANG – another huge explosion shook the entire hotel.

Oh fuck, I thought. Is that what I think this is? I opened the door to the hallway. A few people were already outside.

I heard the word "bomb".

Oh shit. Oh shit I thought.

I'd like to tell you that I calmly collected my myself and my things and proceeded to the exits.

I didn't. An adrenaline explosion erupted inside me and almost lifted me off the floor. And I began to move. Really move.

I went back inside, quickly packed my stuff and went back into the hall.

I ran to the emergency exit and started making my way down the stairs (I was on the 18th floor).

There were a few people in the stairwell. I was flying by them. I swear I could have run a marathon in 2hrs. I felt like pure energy.

About halfway down, I called my friend Mark, told him what had happened and asked him to get me a flight – any flight – the hell out of Mumbai.

I got to the lobby level. There was a crowd of people in the corridor. No one moving. No one doing anything. No hotel staff. No security people.

Shit. I thought. We are sitting ducks.

I decided to get out of there. First, into the lobby.

I stepped through the door into the silent lobby. My first sight was a blood soaked plastic bag and bloody footsteps leading into the reception area. I proceeded forward. The windows were shattered and glass was everywhere. There wasn't a soul around.

Bad decision, I thought. I quickly retreated to the corridor. The crowd of people had grown.

We've got to get out of here I yelled. Let's go.

I looked around for the emergency exit and started running towards it.

I made my way through the bowels of the hotel and out into a dark alley. It was empty and silent. I looked to my left and about 100m away saw a few security guards milling about.

Run they screamed. I began to move toward them.

I reached the main street and was immediately swept up into the Indian throngs (for those who have been to Mumbai, you know what I mean). People everywhere. But they were all eerily quiet. No one was talking. No car horns. Nothing.

I started yelling "airport airport".

Some one (a hotel cook I believe) grabbed me and my bag and threw me in a rusty mini-cab.

As I sped away, I didn't see a single police car nor hear a single siren. Just the sound of this shit-box car speeding down the deserted road.

Traffic was stop and go. I made it to the airport in about 1hr, cleared customs and buried myself in a corner of a packed departure lounge, called my wife, called my parents and brothers and started emailing those friends who knew I was in Mumbai.

Sadly, Alex - my colleague who texted me for a drink – and his friend were not so lucky. The terrorists stormed into the lobby bar and killed several people. They took Alex and his friend hostage and started to march them up to the roof of the hotel.

About half way up, Alex managed to escape (he ducked through an open door and hid) but his friend was caught. And as I write this, that poor man is still on the roof of the Oberai.

Alex is safe but as expected, extremely worried about his friend.

I'm telling you right now. If I decided to meet Alex for that drink tonight I'd either be dead, a hostage on the roof of a building 30 hours away from everyone I love or - if I had the balls of Alex – a stupid-but-lucky-to-be-alive jerk.

And remember that knock/ring at my door? Well, I subsequently learned that the first thing the terrorists did was get the names and room numbers of western guests. They then went to the rooms to find them. Ehrlich, with an E, room 1820. I'll bet my entire life savings that they were the knock at my door.

Thank god for jet lag. Thank god for "cranky tired Jonny" (as many of my friends and family know so well) that compelled to get into and stay in bed. Thank god for being on the 18th floor. Thank god for the kind kind people of Mumbai of helped me tonight. The wonderfully kind hotel staff. That cook. My cab driver who constantly said "relaxation" "relaxation" "I help" and who kept me in the cab when we hit a particularly gnarly traffic jam and i wanted to get out and walk. And for other people in traffic who, upon hearing from my own cab driver that I was at the Oberai, literally risked life and limb to stop traffic to let us get by (as again, only those who have been to Mumbai can truly appreciate).

Mumbai is a tragically beautiful place. Incredibly sad. But I am convinced that its inhabitants are definitely children of some troubled but immensely soulfully god.

I'm sitting on plane (upgraded to first class….see, told you I'm lucky ☺). Just had the best tasting bowl of corn flakes I've ever had in my life. Hennessey coursing through my veins. Concentration starting to loosen and sleep beginning to creep onto my horizon.

I still feel a bit numb. But mostly I feel like I've just watched a really really bad movie staring me. Because right now, it all doesn't feel real. Maybe a few hours of CNN will knock me into reality. But the truth is numb is fine with me for a while. If I do end up thinking about the what if's, I don't really want to do that until I'm much much closer to home. And I have 30 more hours of travel time to go.

But before I sign off, let me say this.

The people who did this have no souls. They have no hearts. They are simply the living manifestation of evil and they only know killing and murder. We – all of us - need to understand that. Their target tonight was first and foremost Americans. Why? Because they fear everything that America stands for. They fear hope and change and freedom and peace. Let's make no mistake; they would have shot me and my children point blank tonight with out a moment's hesitation. Most of us sorta know that but sometimes we equivocate. We can't equivocate. Not ever.

I know that I want to go back. Lay some flowers. Wrap my arms around these people. Say thank you. Spend some money on overpriced hotel gifts and tip well. And generally give the bastards who did this the big fuck you and show them that I am not – I repeat not – afraid of them.

But first I need to go squeeze my wife. Dry her tears. Then have her dry mine as I hold my beautiful beautiful babies who will be (thankfully) oblivious to all of this. Because isn't that what life is really about?

I appreciate you taking the time to listen.

With much much love.


Postscript: According to news reports, Mr. Ehrlich's friend Alex Chamberlin survived the attack. Mr. Chamberlin's friend who accompanied him to the bar at the Oberoi did not.

For more on this story, click here.