Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Forbidden Island

“Don’t ever tell anyone I brought you here. And speak softly when we’re by the water’s edge.” With those words, our indigenous friend began to lead us down the steep trail to Forbidden Island, an outcropping off Saipan's eastern shore. It’s called “Forbidden” for a reason. A place of raw beauty, with a butte rising out of the sea, rock formations, tidal pools, and secret cold water caves, the ocean there swallows life. Any local will tell you, talk too loudly and the voracious sea wave will roar up from of the calmest day, like a screaming beast, foaming teeth bared, and snatch bewildered talkers from the shore, pull them deep, wring soul from bone, and maybe burp a broken body back, a floating consolation for family to bury.

And so again this week, the community mourns the death of four. College students out for a hike, a celebration of youth and life, turned tragic as friends watched helpless and stunned.

An island is defined by the sea. Without the sea, it does not exist. Its beauty comes from the sea. Its life comes from the sea. And death, too, comes from the sea. The sea is a life-giver and a life-taker, and when you grow up by the sea, you respect it as such. You fear it as such. You know the names, woven through the tapestry of generations, of those gone into it, never to return.

Learn to swim, and you may have a savior. But learn to swim and you may also have confidence, and cockiness and hubris that will draw you away from the safety of land and air, and into the seductive liquid arms that will grip you and teach you who is master. Learning not to swim is a greater savior, many a local family will tell you.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

CNMI Men's National Football Team Enters the World Stage!

The CNMI Men's National Football Team won the admiration and respect of their nation and of the East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) this afternoon by playing competitively against Guam in the CNMI's first ever international match. Although Guam prevailed 3-2, the CNMI kept the match close, tying twice at 1-1 and then 2-2. Most remarkable is that the CNMI National Team has existed for only about six weeks, and the average age of the team is around 35, with the oldest player at 46. The oldest player on the Guam team is 25.

This was the first match in the East Asia Football Championships 2008. The team travels to Guam next week for the second qualifying match.

Congratulations to the CNMI Men's National Football Team, and to Coach Jeff "Ziggy" Korytoski! A national soccer team is born through Coach Ziggy's "Circle of Death". FIFA here we come.

(I took this photo from The Saipan Blogger . Visit his site to get a more personal view of the game. He's a starting member of the team.).

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Tropical Naw-Ruz

Yesterday was Naw-Ruz, the Bahá’í New Year. We took the kids out of school, and to celebrate, took a boat ride over to Managaha, a tiny picturesque island about 20 minutes off of Saipan’s western shore. The island is reserved for recreational use, and no one lives there.

Naw-Ruz also marks the end of the 19 day period of fasting for Bahá’ís. Below is a brief talk that I gave a few years ago explaining Naw Ruz, the Fast, and an overview of the Bahá’í Faith at our community's celebration. That's followed by some photos of our day at Managaha.


We would like to welcome you all here to this celebration of the Bahá’í New Year, Naw-Ruz. Naw Ruz is a time of hospitality and rejoicing, and we thank you all for being here to celebrate this festive occasion with us.

The Bahá’í year begins each year at sunset on March 20, the day of the vernal equinox. The equinox is the day on which the sun equally illuminates the whole earth. In many cultures, the equinox is a symbol of life and of divine illumination.

The Fast

Sunset today, also marks the end of the 19 day period of fasting for Bahá’ís. For the past 19 days, Bahá’ís around the world have arisen before dawn to pray and meditate, and have abstained from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. The fast is symbolic – a reminder. Its significance and purpose are fundamentally spiritual in character. It is a time of self restraint, a time to focus more actively on our spiritual side, a period of spiritual recuperation.

So we are honored to have you with us this evening, as we end our fast, and move into a new year.

The Bahá’í Faith

This evening marks the 160th (2007 is the 164th) year of the Bahá’í calendar. The Bahá’í Faith is the most recent of the world’s major religions. It began in 1844 in what was known as Persia, amidst tales of heroism and great sacrifice.

Bahá’u’lláh taught that there is a creative force, a creative energy in the universe, which is unknowable to us, and which humanity has called God. Throughout human history, this creative force, this unknowable essence, God, intervenes in human affairs, giving guidance to humanity through individuals that have come to be known as the founders of the world’s great religions – through Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Abraham, Moses, Christ, Mohammad and, Bahá’u’lláh.

The teachings brought by these manifestations of God bring two sets of teachings – spiritual teachings and social teachings. The spiritual teachings address the spiritual life and growth of humankind, and remain essentially the same – that we be loving, kind, merciful, just and peace-loving. The social teachings change from age to age because humanity changes, and the needs of society change. The social teachings become the basis of the laws of society, and upon them, great civilizations are built.

The teachings of the Bahá’í Faith address the needs of an emerging global civilization. They include the recognition of the essential oneness of humankind, the elimination of all forms of prejudice, the equality of men and women, the need for universal education, and the essential harmony between science and religion. So the fundamental teachings of the Baha’i Faith – that there is only one God, that all the world’s religions have come from the same source, and that humanity is one – are captivating the hearts and unifying people around the world. The Bahá’í s here tonight come from Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim backgrounds. We live and work believing that humanity is now on the threshold of that long awaited day when peace will envelop the earth, when we will regard ourselves as all one people, and the earth as a common homeland.

Again, we welcome you and thank you for joining us, on this celebration of the Bahá’í New Year, the festival of Naw-Ruz. We hope you will all enjoy yourselves. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh, “Rejoice with exceeding gladness”.

(Click on any of the photos to enlarge)

Preparing to Leave Saipan

Approaching Managaha. Look at that blue water!

At the Managaha dock.

Clear water, white sand, palm trees, blue skies. Just another average day in the South Pacific! Click on this photo to really appreciate the beauty (then click "back" to get back here).

Staying in the shade.

Managaha's eastern shore has been eroding. The soil is now gone, but the trees are still there. The whole island can be circumambulated in about 15 minutes (even with a two-year-old). That's Saipan in the background.

Managaha is the burial place of Chief Aghurubw. This is his statue and the plaque on the monument.

Ready to head home, after a great day. (This photo taken by a pair of Japanese tourists. Very nicely done! Domo arigato gozaimasu!).

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Saipan Dining Adventures

My friend and colleague, Mark, and his wife, Bev have probably eaten in every restaurant on Saipan. They have an adventurous streak, which you have to have to explore the full range of dining experiences here.

Take for example the time they went back to the new Mexican restaurant. The burritos had been fantastic the first time, so they returned for a “known known.” Again, the burritos came smothered in sour cream. But the first bite betrayed the true identify of tonight’s sour cream. Not sour cream. What is that taste? It's familiar. Could it be...??? Yep. Sure enough. Thick rich creamy white mayonnaise glopped on top of that hapless burrito. Yummy. The kitchen was out of sour cream, so the cook used the next best thing – the next white thing. Mayonnaise. Makes perfect sense. That’s why you just keep eating.

The following week they ventured out to a Korean restaurant. They are warmly welcomed at the door with halting English and a sense of excitement that real live Americans are visiting the establishment. This could be a new beginning, a whole new market! Mark and Bev are seated with grace and a flourish at a table for two, a red plastic rose on the white plastic tablecloth. They are given menus.

One of the nicest things about many Asian restaurants is that the menus include photos of the food, which is necessary in this case, because the rest of the menu is in Korean. But the photos are still not completely helpful to Mark and Bev, because they are only slightly larger than a flattened clove of garlic.

Mark strains to make out the details of the pictures. Bev can do no better. The logical thing to do is to ask the waitress for help -- try to get enough of a description from her to make an informed choice. So they begin, and ever so slowly, work their way, item by item, down the menu. The waitress struggles to find words – any words – but particularly words for foods that have no English equivalent. “Is this spinach?,” asks Mark, pointing to the picture. “No,” says the waitress. “Is it kelp?,” asks Bev. “What ‘kelp?,’” inquires the waitress. “Oh, kelp is like seaweed,” offers Mark “What seaweed?,” asks the waitress. “Seaweed is nori,” explains Bev, drawing on her knowledge of a Japanese word that might be familiar to the waitress. “Ahhhh,” says the waitress as her face lights up, “No, not nori.” “What is it then?” asks Mark. “Like spinach,” reports the waitress. Ahhhh, full circle. Not spinach. Like spinach.

Mark and Bev are enjoying their detective work and are quite content to explore the menu in this way. But the waitress, who has never experienced happy inquisitive Americans before, must believe that Mark and Bev are struggling and suffering as much as she is through this ordeal to place a simple order.

Eager to bring some relief to everyone, she offers a great solution. “Maybe you go eat someplace else. Maybe someplace that have spaghetti.”

In that instant, her suggestion doesn’t quite register with Mark and Bev. But after a few seconds pass, their comprehension catches up with their hearing. Did she really just ask us to leave?? To go eat spaghetti??? They glance at each other over their menus and try to hold back their laughter.

Undeterred and ever adventurous, Mark and Bev plow forward, asking a few more questions, making a decision, ordering their meals, and enjoying it all. And tonight they have an opportunity to use their recently gained knowledge -- to taste everything white to make sure it’s not mayonnaise in disguise.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Time Slowed Down

First he saw a flash of light. Then he felt clear fluid on his cheek. Next the smell of blood. Then darkness and searing pain. Finally, he heard the explosion.

In the Emergency Room, that’s how my friend Jeffrey described to me the slow motion of instantaneous events he experienced when the bottle-rocket blew apart his eye. It made sense. The flash of the retina being compressed, before the anterior chamber ruptured and spilled its clear contents on his cheek. Then the blood from the explosion of vessels and tissues deeper in the eye. Next the shearing of the optic nerve leading to darkness. And finally the activation of pain impulses. Then… then the sound wave, slower than both light and electricity, arrived at his eardrums, and he heard the explosion. Like the delay of thunder arriving after the lightning. His body buckled forward. All within a split second.

He wasn’t using the fireworks. And they weren’t being used by kids. He was just one of the adults standing around at a party while everyone “enjoyed” the fireworks. Light. Noise. The smell of gunpowder. Laughter suddenly gone still.

On an island where you’re the only ophthalmologist, you don’t have the hope of calling in a detached colleague to do the surgery on your friend. I told Jeffery it was serious. That I would do everything possible to put the pieces of his exploded eyeball back together. That he would need more surgery later. And that his chances for recovering any vision were slim. He was 21, right out of college, a volunteer teacher at one of the schools. He thought of the life ahead of him without the sight of one eye, and sobbed. He was my friend. I put my hand on his shoulder. It was the first year of my career. I wasn’t yet 30.

He spent the next seven hours under general anesthesia while I pieced together his mangled eye. Microsurgery. Sutures smaller than human hair. I used package after package of 10-0 nylon suture, 9-0 nylon suture, 8-0 nylon suture. “How many stitches,” everyone wants to know. Probably a thousand. You just stop counting. Within the first hour, I knew his vision was lost, but I didn’t have the heart to remove his eye. Better it be done at a tertiary care center where there would be no doubt that everything humanly possible had been done to save that eye.

As the sun rose, I walked out of surgery into the tropical half-light, drained and exhausted. Before we went into the operating room he had given me his parents’ phone number. “Call them for me,” he had asked. Now it was up to me to break the news to them. I had to pull them out of President Clinton’s Inaugural Ball to take the call. They were thankful.

Within a day, they had flown Jeffrey to Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital, one of the finest eye care facilities in the world. The surgeons called me. They just wanted to talk to the guy who had done more to rebuild an eye than they had thought possible. Then they did what they had to do. They removed Jeffrey’s eye and plunked it into a jar.

Jeffery has a glass eye in his empty socket. He looks normal. But he wears glasses every waking second of his life. They're there to protect his remaining eye from the harrowing possibility of a stray rock, or finger, or shattered windshield, or elbow or gunpowder propelled projectile, snuffing out his sight. No spare left. A lifetime in darkness.

I’m happy -- no, eager -- to give up one small aspect of all of my celebrations: fireworks. Their joyful sounds will never be enough to drown out the sobs of a person losing an eye. It’s not a common occurrence, but it’s not a rare one either. I hear those sobs every single year.

Ban the fireworks.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Oh, you mean, "How old is your daughter!"

Mara and I have a date night once a week. This week we went out to Giovanni’s for a nice dinner. We then drove down to “The Beans” to get some dessert, but they were already closed. Being so far south, we decided to head over to PIC and just walk around the resort. After a bit of a stroll, we headed into the gift shop to browse. We were holding up some swim suits that might fit our 8 year-old daughter. The sales person came over to help and said only two words: “How old?”. I looked at her, paused, pretended to be puzzled, and said “Forty-four.”

When multilingual communications offer the opportunity to cause confusion, take the opportunity. Even she laughed at my answer.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Bullet Behind the Eye

This is why, as an eye surgeon (and as a human being) I hate pellet guns, BB guns, and all the rest. This 11 year-old boy and I spent several hours together at the hospital on a recent Friday evening because a friend accidentally shot him with a "toy" gun while he was eating a bowl of cereal at his own kitchen table. The X-ray, is a profile view of him facing to the right. You can make out his teeth towards the bottom. The big dense white blob in the middle is the fragmented pellet that entered through his lower eye lid, completely missed the eye (lucky!), didn't go into his brain (lucky again!) but lodged itself deep in his eye socket behind his eye.

Kids and guns aren't a good mix. Well, people and guns aren't a good mix either. The skin is just too dang soft to keep the bullets out.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The relationship between moral health & a blind wife

I called our friend Marta to invite her to dinner. Her housekeeper answered the phone. “Good afternoon, this is Mary.” Quite impressive, I think, to be greeted with a time-of-day specific salutation and a name. “Hi, this is David. Is Marta home?” “Sorry, Sir. Nothing Marta.” Over the years, I learned that “Nothing Marta” does not mean that Marta has been vaporized. She is simply not home.

Now I am faced with a choice. Should I leave a message, or call back later? What would you do?

I’m feeling both lucky and a little dangerous, so I decide to leave a message. “Could you write this down please?” I ask, realizing that maybe I don’t feel as lucky or as dangerous as I first thought. “Nothing pencil. For a while, sir.” I listen to papers shuffling and wait for Mary to come back to the phone. “Okay sir.” “Please write this down and give it to Marta when she returns home.” “Okay sir. Ready.” “Dinner tonight,” I say. “Okay, ‘Dinner tonight,’” she repeats slowly as she writes it down. Five o’clock.” “Okay, ‘Five o’clock,’” she writes. “David and Mara’s House.” “Okay, ‘David’s moral health,’” she writes.

Huh? Say what? What happened? Did “David and Mara’s house” really become “David’s moral health”? I guess it did. I’m fluent in English, and conversant in two other languages in which I often miss things, so I know some funny things can happen on the way to mutual understanding. And I am not conversant in any of this region’s languages, so I can’t quickly switch to Mary’s native tongue to clarify things. So we’re stuck right here at “David’s moral health.” What should I do? Keep trying? Give up? What would you do?

I pride myself on my perseverance (i.e. I’m hard-headed), so I decide to keep going. I will say it again, offering some clarification. It never crosses my mind that the clarification could possibly lead to further confusion.

Here I go. “No, ‘David and MARA’s HOUSE,’ NOT ‘David’s moral health.’” “Ohhhh,” she says. “David not have moral health?”

Time to change tactics. “Mary, if it’s okay with you, I’m going to spell this. Are you ready?” “Yes sir.” “D-A-V-I-D A-N-D M-A-R-A-S H-O-U-S-E.” She repeats each letter as she writes them down, getting it perfectly, except that she adds an “i” to “Mara,” making it “Maria.”

I should stop, don’t you think? But I can’t. I’m thinking to myself, there are lots of Maria’s on this island. Marta might know a “David & Maria,” and could end up at their house for dinner, causing an awkward moment for everyone just because I didn’t want to clarify things. There is only one “David & Mara” on Saipan. Best to clarify. And plus, I realize that Mary is going to give a message to Marta about Mara who has morphed into Maria, so surely, by pursuing this a bit further, there is more humor to be had. I keep going.

“Mary,” I say, “Mara is my wife. Her name is MARA , not MARIA. MARA has no “i”. “Ahhhh,” she exclaims sadly, “Your wife nothing eyes? Cannot see?”

I pause, and realize that I am, in this moment, truly content. I am in the midst of one of those beautiful multicultural multilingual Saipan moments, that make you want to either laugh, or shoot yourself, or if you are fully experiencing the nuances of the situation, both. I offer to call back later, smile, and head off to ponder the pity that Mary must feel for me, my blind wife and my poor moral health.