Truth and beauty, beauty and truth
I’d written a comment before I was subscribed and hadn’t thought to save it. It winked out, and I expressed my frustration to you back in October. So tonight I decided to try to remember what I’d written, and the turmoil of emotions your essay inspired. I don’t remember the essay that triggered me (though I could spend a lot of time looking instead of rewriting mine). So here it is, more a reassembled urn, most of its broken shards recovered, but necessarily discontinuous, a kintsugi of my original. Hope it makes some sense.
My dad entered the Bergen Belsen concentration camp at the end of WWII, among his fellow American combat engineers and a British contingent thirty days to the day after Ann Frank succumbed to typhus. Ordered to survey survivors and photograph the dead, dad met Miriam, a surviving cousin of his mom’s, the only family member to survive the war. The virtue of dad’s campaigning alongside British officers gave Miriam the chance to slip through the British Mandate that blockaded Palestine from refugee Jewish settlers. There she joined the Irgun, a citizen spear point of the revolt against Lord Balfour’s Mandatory Palestine and contributed to Israel’s founding.
I’d flown into Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport just before Christmas, 1968 with dad. I was sixteen and had a fever. We stopped and got a room in old Jaffa so I could sweat it out. A bit over a day later we flagged down a bus, to fulfill dad’s wish to see Miriam again under the cozier circumstance of her own home surrounded by citrus trees at a kibbutz near Kfar Nahum. The bus stopped and the door swung out. To my dad’s query whether Miriam’s kibbutz was on his route the driver said “Yes, get on. Who are you going there to see?”
From the back of the bus came a shout, “Abelowitz, Abelowitz, I am Abelowitz.”
I don’t think all coincidences are all that coincidental. Dad and Miriam had a grand reunion.
Miriam’s son gave me ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’, a science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein. I’d been making animations since I was four, evolving from simple corner flips of stacked sequential drawings to a stop motion film camera. Heinlein’s futuristic space opera revealed to me that someday I’d be able to make my animations using a computer.
I’d need to wait until the technology caught up with my 1968 imagination. Until it did I needed to become a professional artist with work that truly needed to be animated. Computer animation for real people finally caught up in 1983, when I was the senior medical illustrator at the Yale School of Medicine. I’d been composing thousands of illustrations of surgical techniques using a steel quill pen on polyester parchment and was desperate to shed my Sixteenth Century scriptorium and embrace the creation of digital moving images. My dean had other ideas, or rather, zero basis for groking my fancy. His last words to me were a dismissive “Young man, there’s no room in medicine for cartoons.”
So I quit Yale a few weeks later and mortgaged my life to found the first digital medical animation company in the world in January 1984. My fiancé was still in Yale’s Graduate School of Nursing and I was the ‘breadwinner’. I’d also never owned or used a computer. Or a company. Nevertheless I persisted.
I was invited to give a TED talk in 2007 to present a scientific animation called ‘The Inner Life of the Cell’ I’d produced for Harvard’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. This was before TED talks were online, so I had no sources of brilliance I could purloin. I was scheduled to give my 9 minute half TED talk on the fourth (half) day. By opening morning, I’d not yet written my talk. The visuals video, my work, took ten minutes to assemble. I brought some 3x5 cards and a sharpie, planning to harvest ideas on story arcs, humor, personal observations and ‘Ideas worth sharing’ by watching actually worthy TED speakers in-vivo over three days. I was sitting in the front row of the theater in Monterey, California with my wife to my right and Forest Whitaker to her right. Ten minutes before the program start time, Chris Anderson, who’d invited me to speak approached with an ‘I’ve had an idea’ look. “David, I’m so happy I found you. We’re opening TED this year with Carolyn Porco, who runs the Cassini Mission for NASA. She’s got all these beautiful pictures of outer space and you’ve got all these beautiful pictures of inner space. I love contrast, so go backstage now and get miked. You’re going on second. Be ready to give your talk in twenty minutes.”
In 2008 I was in Guiyang, China to give a keynote address at the Asian Youth Animation and Comics Contest (AYACC), essentially an expanded reprisal of my TED talk. By the last day of the conference I’d devoured an intoxicating mix of exotic art, people and food. I was settling in the window seat of a fancy bus, looking forward to our foreign presenters’ tour of Guizhou Province - temple-dotted lakes, a garden of ancient sculpture surrounded by equally ancient bonzai trees, a gargantuan waterfall - when a Chinese teen caught my attention. “Are you sitting alone?” My assigned college student translator/minder was sitting on the second bus with a friend. In a lilting BBC accent she continued “I’ve never met a native English speaker before. May I practice and ask you some questions?”
“I’d like that. It’s going to be a long day on the bus.”
“Can you tell me the derivation of the term antidisestablishmentarianism and how it might apply to China today?” We all know the answer to that so I won’t bore you. Fifteen minutes of 19th Century history later, her follow-on: “Can you tell me then, the distinction between how an obligate hegemony like the Communist Party of China and a non-obligate hegemony like the Church of England deal differently with dissidents?” Which was when I found out that my fifteen year old interlocutor had been forced out of school at thirteen under threat of grievous harm for political reasons dating back to her family being on the wrong side of the cultural revolution. After leaving school, this young dissident’s academic records were destroyed. Deciding to educate herself she chose to teach herself English, which had “so many more words than Mandarin which I’ll need to describe what’s in my head and my heart.”
In South Central China, among the few English books this poor girl could acquire, were copies of Shakespeare’s works. So she memorized entire Shakespeare plays, dozens of sonnets and even recited Churchill’s speech to parliament after the Battle of Dunkirk for me after I told her my dog’s name was Winston. We chatted for hours, with ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ peppering her speech. Who knew they weren’t contemporaneous?
I had a binary decision to make on that bus. If I merely wished her well and she disappeared, I’d tear my heart out in worry every day for the rest of my life. Twelve time zones from my wife and no cell signal, I instead promised her I’d get her a proper education and safety in the States. How, I had no clue.
That promise took three and a half years and four more trips to China to fulfill. She received an 80% scholarship to an iconic academic institution and a student visa.
At nineteen, her college matriculation was her first class since she was thirteen. Our foundling daughter went through college in three and a half years, met her future husband there and is now nearly finished with her MBA.
Your essay brought again to the surface the conundrum of jumping out of a fire and into, what?, as dad’s cousin Miriam had done, hurdling from a concentration camp to a hot war against an empire. Our daughter experienced the ‘deus ex machina’ experience of being lifted out of an impossible life into one of unlimited possibility. And yet, should Trump end America’s experiment, will she really be better off than had she remained in hiding in China? Unless the MAGA/Putin axis blows us all up, almost certainly yes - my pathological optimist rearing its head. But the heart-in-my-throat sensation I’d had from promising to protect her the day we met until she got her green card, over fourteen years later is showing up again. While we never cease to worry we weave it with hope where we can.