Iconoclast


This may be just another useless explanation, the kind of futile attempt at finding meaning and logic that we all resort to in response to grief, but sometimes it seems life has it in for you in a very personal way. You go along for years feeling spared and protected, taking credit, even, for your relatively undamaged life. You go to bed feeling lucky one night and wake up cursed the next day. You tell yourself this is just a glitch in the road, the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to you, a deviation from the normal course of things. But then the pieces start to fall out in the most random, unexpected ways; the single crack in your once-gleaming good fortune grows branches and spread roots, and, before you know it, the litany of hard knocks has become a permanent soundtrack. 

So you try to make sense of it, and when you can’t, you sit up late at night and trace the long road  to despair back to its place of origin. When, exactly, did the bad stuff start to happen? 

We all know that no life is entirely charmed, no doorpost really painted with lamb’s blood. But we also know that the Pharaoh was doing just fine until he was sent the Ten Plagues. It wasn’t a random thing, the boils and locusts and death of the firstborn; something out there really had it in for the guy. There was that moment when his luck turned sour and, after which, nothing went quite his way anymore. I haven’t followed up of late, but I’m willing to bet the frogs have come back every year, dependable as the tide, centuries after he let the Hebrews go. 

I asked my cousin-by-marriage once if he believed that a single loss, however great, can alter a person’s luck. It was a Sunday afternoon during Passover, in one of those houses in Holmby Hills where you need a bus to get from one end of the dining room to the other in a reasonable amount of time. Our hosts were a young couple with a pair of beautiful children, the kind of family you think should be posing for pictures all the time. This was in the late ’80s, when many Iranians still lamented the losses they had incurred during the revolution. For some, the loss was mostly financial; for others, like this cousin, it cut much deeper. 

Before the revolution, my cousin-by-marriage, Farhad Nahai, was an English major at UCLA and just about the kindest, most authentic, innocent and funny young man you ever met. He was a writer and a poet and a genuine, reliable friend. He never forgot a birthday or closed his door on a stray, and he deserved all the love and attention he received because he gave it all back in spades. He had a house in Encino and a shiny new Trans Am, three very successful brothers and parents who would have looked out for him, stood between him and any of fate’s perfidies, to the last breath.

Before the revolution, Farhad survived a horrific car accident without major injury, drank cognac and told stories as rainwater rose above his ankles during a storm that flooded the house he was staying in with his best friend and cousin, Homayoun. The worst thing that happened to him was getting arrested for an unpaid jaywalking ticket in Los Angeles. There was no death or illness, no major loss, no reason to think they would ever occur. You could just see him going on like that — loud shirts and D.H. Lawrence novels and a Richard Pryor humor that made the ugliest reality somewhat palatable — for another hundred years.

In the heyday of the revolution, Farhad lost his 54-year-old mother to sudden illness. For him, something big and essential tore in the fabric of the universe and remained beyond repair. One Passover a few years later, he lost his 32-year-old best friend and cousin, Homayoun, to a long illness. Last Sunday, again during Passover, Farhad himself died after a long illness, at age 58. He had suffered more than anyone should, left behind a lovely, devoted and still-young wife, a delightful 14-year-old son, three caring brothers and their families, many a tender friend. 

We sat around last Sunday afternoon at Farhad’s aunt’s house in Los Angeles — “City of Cars and Creeps” is what he called it — and read aloud from his old essays and poems. We talked about him before and after the revolution, about his youth and middle age, how cruel fate had been to him at times, how lucky he was in marriage and fatherhood. I remembered that day in Holmby Hills, how he was convinced that his life would have been different had the revolution not happened. It occurred to me now that I had asked the wrong question that time: Instead of asking if he thought the revolution had changed his life forever, I should have asked if he thought he had changed because of the revolution. 

The one thing I can say about Farhad is that he was not — ever — like anyone else I’ve known. His English professor at UCLA once defined him as an “iconoclast.” To Farhad, this meant “a person who does things in his own way,” and he was very pleased with this, so fond of the title, he would write it into a video he made of his life for his 40th birthday party. He did do everything in his own, sometimes inexplicable, way. That’s how he was throughout, regardless of circumstances. It’s what made him so lovable most of the time, so difficult to understand at others, the one thing that remained constant in the midst of the storm. In the long run, I suspect it’s what will make him so uniquely memorable, the kind of person who never really dies because he never quite complies. 

In his 40th birthday video, Farhad appears in a yellow-and-white silk Versace shirt, next to a shiny new sports car, while the word ICONOCLAST flashes in giant letters on the screen. I’ve always found that image enthralling, but after last Sunday, I think I’ve found new meaning in it: Maybe there really is no purpose, nor a beginning or end, for all the bad things that happen to us; maybe life is just a series of disappointments that happen at random times to random people, and all we can hope for is to have the courage and forbearance to go through it with grace and humanity. 

Maybe defiance is our only hope, intransigence our best revenge.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.

Marty Kaplan: Is luck dead?


The trouble with kids these days is that they think luck counts more than they should.  That’s the diagnosis of America’s young people offered by a New York Times opinion piece this past weekend.  Generation Y has moved back home and given up on gung-ho because in these recessionary times, they’re putting too little weight on the importance of effort and too much weight on the riskiness of risk.

This indictment of “” target=”_hplink”>Thinking, Fast and Slow, the one most startling to me is the power he attributes to luck.  This isn’t a philosophical or theoretical point that he’s making; it’s an empirical observation, based on data.

Stock traders, financial analysts, economic forecasters and CEOs may believe that their results are based on research, experience and skill.  On the contrary, says Kahneman, the overwhelming evidence – and he provides plenty of it – is that monkeys throwing darts would be just as good (that is, as bad) at doing their jobs.  Small businesses fail: that’s the rule.  To believe you’re going to be the exception requires not just confidence, it takes a resolute denial of reality.  (Intuition, by the way, is also wildly overrated.)  Every startup inevitably, and usually fatally, overestimates the brilliance of its own vision and underestimates the genius of its competitors.  Entrepreneurs maintain that success derives from sweat and indefatigability, but in fact it nearly always hinges on random, unpredictable events.

Look at the case histories of the wizards of the digital age, says Kahneman, and virtually all of them are testimony to luck.  Pundits and political scientists who get it right are shockingly rare, and when they do, the reason is luck.  The track record of clinicians and therapists depends more on fortune than is humanly bearable to acknowledge.  How an athlete performs on a given day always involves a roll of the dice.  All of history is driven by chance.  Choose any historic figure you like; the sperm and egg that produced them were brought together by blind odds, not by destiny, design or divinity.

This weekend also brought word of the death at age 87 of ” target=”_hplink”>Chance and Necessity, the book by Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Jacques Monod published a few years later, that opened my eyes to the disturbing notion that chance, not a Book of Life written in the clouds, was the name of life’s game.

Back then, when I first entered college, an ” target=”_hplink”>Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Can a believer in God believe in luck?


Perhaps the most sobering realization I have come to in the second half of my life is the role of luck in life.

I have always wanted to believe otherwise. And I suspect that most people want to believe otherwise. For that reason, many, perhaps most, religious people believe that God wills whatever happens to us: “It was God’s will,” “God took our daughter for His reasons” and so on. Even many people who are not actively religious ascribe whatever happens to God (“My musical talent is a gift from God,” “God made me gay,” “God sent me my wife/husband” and so on). Meanwhile, in Eastern religion, luck appears to play no role. Whatever happens to us is the result of karma — what we get in this life is the result of our behavior in a past life.

We humans are loath to ascribe so much of what happens to luck — good or bad — because it offends our sense of justice and order and because it seems to undermine God’s role. If I was hit by a drunken driver solely because it was my lousy luck to be driving in a certain place and at certain time — not because God had any hand in it — what role, if any, does God play in our lives?

I will answer the God question. But first, let’s figure out what alternatives there are to luck as an explanation.

The most obvious is that everything that happens is due solely to God’s causing it to happen. This became the dominant Muslim belief in the early Middle Ages. The belief arose that to ascribe any other cause than God to anything that happens is to reduce God’s power. If an arrow hits its target, neither the archer, nor the wind pattern, nor any laws of physics are responsible. It was solely due to Allah’s will. That is a major reason the Muslim world did not develop scientifically beyond the early Middle Ages. Science is predicated on identifying laws within nature. But mainstream Islam argued that if laws govern the natural world, then God doesn’t govern the world.

Of course, all of us who have traditional beliefs believe that God governs the universe, and that He created the laws of nature. If God did not will electrons to revolve around the nucleus of the atom, then there would be no universe as we know it. But that is not the same as saying that God willed every individual killed by a drunken driver on the San Diego Freeway.

Aside from the scientific problems that result from attributing to God all that happens, there are also moral and theological problems.

For one thing, if God wanted your child to be born with severe birth defects, your mother to die of breast cancer at age 35, or your wife and young daughters to be raped and then burned to death (as happened to Connecticut physician William Petit a few years ago), it would seem rationally — not to mention emotionally — very difficult to find this God worthy of love, let alone emulation or worship.

A world in which every individual killed in a tsunami, a flu epidemic, by a drunken driver or by some falling object was personally chosen by God to die at that time and in that way is a world governed by a God whose morality is inscrutable. And Judaism has believed since Abraham argued with God that God is morally understandable.

So, guided by reason, I have concluded what has to be rationally concluded: There is a lot of luck, good and bad, in life.

Two major consequences of this belief are humility and gratitude. If our life has gone well, we should be very, very humble, not to mention extremely grateful. Even “self-made men” are inordinately lucky. So, too, people can take some credit for a happy marriage, but not much — happy marriages are overwhelmingly the result of good luck, the luck of meeting and marrying the right person, and the luck that each spouse has grown in compatible directions.

As for children, parents can take some credit and take some blame. But children, too, are often the products of good and bad luck. Many troubled kids come from fine homes, and many fine kids come from troubled homes — because genes, peers, environment and free will play a huge role in how children turn out. And if we have good health, it is overwhelmingly the result of good genes and/or good medicine, neither of which we had any role in creating.

So, then, if luck is so powerful, where does God fit in?

1) God allows luck. God (usually) allows the world to proceed without His intervention. What other choice is there — that God stops every drunken driver’s car from starting? That He intervenes with nature every time cells begin to metastasize?

2) It is our task, not God’s, to fight evil and to conquer nature. Thus pacifism is immoral — it enables evil to prevail. And so is much of the environmentalist movement. It has become so worshipful of nature that it has often abandoned the need to conquer it on behalf of humans. To cite but one example, Western environmentalists have been directly responsible for the death of millions of Africans due to their having DDT universally banned.

3) Through the Torah and the Prophets, God has told us all we need to know about conquering evil. Therefore, our primary concern with regard to God should not be about what we want Him to do, but about what He wants us to do.

4) God apparently does work through nations — much more than in individual lives. That is what the Founders of America called Providence. I believe in that.

5) Because of the above, I also believe that God works in the lives of some individuals who affect the lives of others. I believe God worked in the lives of the people Israel’s patriarchs and through the life of Moses and in the lives of America’s Founders.

6) Whatever the injustices of this world, there is an afterlife. It is there that God works in the lives of each and every one of us. If there is no afterlife, luck is God.

Everyone works out these issues in his or her own way. For me, not wanting to abandon either reason or faith, I believe both in God and luck. And that, in the end, God prevails.

Don’t Hate Me ‘Cuz I’m Happy


If you’re anything like me — and for the love of God, I hope you’re not –you’ve found dating in Los Angeles to be nonstop inferno of disappointment, frustration, anguish, horror, tedium and depression.

And those are the dates that work out fairly well. It’s not hard to understand why some battle-scarred veterans of the singles scene have completely sworn off dating, substituting other, nondating activities in life, whatever those could possibly be. I understand jogging may be one of them.

And then there are the gluttons for dating punishment, such as, say, oh … myself, who trudge on through the singles scene, doing it all, experiencing it all, meeting them all, confident that Ms. Right is just around the corner. Apparently, I’ve been turning the wrong corners. Had I applied the time, energy and effort I’ve put into dating to any other career, I’d now be CEO of a major corporation and wouldn’t have time for a relationship. I understand that Bill Gates’ wife sees him just two and a half times a year. I’m guessing his being a billionaire eases some of her loneliness.

But sometimes you can win. Sometimes it all pays off. The cherries line up across the slot machine windows. The ship comes in. The race car crosses the finish line. There is a God. Ms. Right is, in fact, just around the corner. How else do I explain Lauri, whom I met at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica, just over three months ago, via an online singles site? How do I even describe her without gushing? How do I talk about how perfect we are for each other without making you jealous, nauseated and anxious to kill me? Hey, get a hold of yourself — you really have issues.

The thing is, guys know within the first few minutes of meeting a date that there’s no future here. And then the rest of the evening is just treading water until you climb out of the pool, spitting chlorinated dating water from your mouth. But it can work the other way around, too, when you know that the person has all the right stuff. In the first half hour of meeting Lauri, I mentally checked off the categories: intelligence, looks, personality, sense of humor, energy, enthusiasm, optimism, creativity, love of intimacy and, the all-important one, interest in and attraction to me. Thumbs up on all counts. I was stunned, because this doesn’t happen often. This doesn’t happen at all. This clearly was the Halley’s Comet of coffee dates and I hope it lasts, otherwise my next good prospect isn’t due for another 76 years.

And because this kind of relationship is so rare, Lauri and I are both taking full advantage. We simply don’t care how many frustrated singles we’re nauseating with our mushy phone calls, e-mails, flowers, gifts and public displays of affection. We just can’t help it. The sun is shining brighter, foods are tasting better and the lyrics to love songs make perfect sense. Romeo and Juliet? Amateurs!

So please don’t hate me because I’m deliriously happy. After all, just because I’m walking on air each day doesn’t mean that this new relationship doesn’t bring with it another whole host of potential mine fields: How long will it last? Will I be able to not disappoint her? Will there be growth? Will our equal passion for one another remain equal? Will we stay healthy? Will we stay true to one another?

When the “honeymoon period” ends, will we still be able to give one another what the other needs and desires? Will we keep things fresh? Dear Lord, this relationship thing just never ends! I’m going jogging.

Mark Miller is a comedy writer who has written for TV, movies and many
celebrities, been a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate,
contributed to numerous national publications and produced a weekly comedic
relationships feature for America Online. He can be reached at markmiller2000@comcast.net.

Chinese Box


So there’s a fairy-tale wedding: a thousand guests in a flower-filled ballroom, a dozen violins playing Mozart, a grainy-voiced singer belting out an old Persian love song. The bride is 20 years old and ravishing, of course, but she’s also blessed with charm and charisma, the kind of exuberance that turns heads and drags stares behind her. She’s been breaking hearts since she was 14 years old and walked into a cousin’s wedding in a frilly white dress and a wide lace headband. Now she dances on stage, next to the singer with the forlorn music, and the crystal beads on her wedding gown glow like fireflies in the dark.

The groom has class and pedigree. He’s smart and kind and, yes, so in love with the girl on stage he can’t stop smiling at his own good fortune for meeting her. For years he’s been the target of young girls’ desire and their mothers’ designs.

"Look at him," a woman says the night of his wedding. "Green eyes and more money than God."

So there’s a fairy-tale wedding, and the bride wakes up to a sky full of sunlight and laughter and the promise of everlasting joy. In the old country, where luck was believed to be contagious, she would have been the woman asked to grind sugar cones over the chuppah held above other brides’ heads, the one grandmothers touched hoping her luck would rub off on them, that mothers held up as an example of success and good fortune.

In the old country, luck was a light reflecting off some women’s foreheads: you were born with it, or you were doomed to what was called a "dark forehead."

But in America, luck is a many-faceted creature. It’s like those lacquered Chinese boxes that hide many other, smaller ones inside them.

Each day after her fairy-tale wedding to the green-eyed prince, the girl with the beaming forehead opens one box and reaches in to seek its treasure. She finds good friends and a devoted family, an ever-widening horizon, a daughter as smart and beautiful as her parents. She finds other children, other kinds of success. Then she finds a son.

He has the most striking pair of eyes anyone has ever seen, a face that is impossible to turn away from, severe disabilities that will mark him for life.

The girl with the beaming forehead stares into the little box in her hand and wonders at the forces in the universe that have brought her this gift. Her little boy is smart enough to know and understand everything that goes on around him, alert enough to engage the attention of anyone he chooses. But he can’t walk and can’t put his thoughts to words and he even has trouble, when he likes a red flower his mother has put in his hand, closing his fingers around the stem.

The girl with the beaming forehead could close the box and store it away out of sight. Or she could run with it — to the safety of her home, where many a woman has been known to endure misfortune and loss. She takes a moment to catch her breath. Then she nestles the box in her hands and brings it out into the light: see what this day has brought to me, she tells the world. Watch what I can do with this kind of luck.

She puts her little son in a stroller and takes him to a school at UCLA where they’ll teach him to speak through a computer and communicate through painting. When the school runs out of money to keep teaching him, she gathers her friends, the other moms at the school, and raises money beyond anyone’s expectations. When he’s too old for this school and she can’t find another like it, she gathers her friends again and this time builds a school. Day after day she opens the little shiny boxes hidden in the darkness of larger ones and reaches in to find her fortune.

In the years since the little boy with the stunning eyes is born to his fairy-tale parents, many a tragedy and much good fortune will occur in the lives of everyone who knows them. Still the girl with the Chinese boxes manages to remain the great source of inspiration to them all. This is my life, she says without fear or shame or even the slightest indication that she may bend. These are my children.

I don’t know what this girl, and other mothers like her, would have done in the old country. I can’t imagine they would have acted differently, that they would have been more afraid, weaker, less capable than they are here. We are, if nothing else, a resilient people. We have lived with more "dark foreheads" than we should have, and we have come through it, if not unscathed, then certainly not defeated.

I don’t know what they might have done in another place, but every year when they pull their friends together and spearhead another effort on behalf of the little boys and girls who can’t hold flowers in their fists, every time they inspire hundreds of mothers with healthy children to drop their own daily concerns and lend a hand to long-established American institutions still in need of aid, every time I see the light they cast into the lives of friends and strangers who have crossed paths with them and their children, I think that it was luck — the other children’s, their mothers’, the institutions’ that have benefited from her strength — it was their luck that brought these mothers from the old country and into the new one.

Maybe each one of us is a little Chinese box nestled within the course of others’ destinies.

The Enrichment Foundation for Handicapped Children, a California nonprofit corporation, was founded by a group of concerned parents dedicated to improving the lives of handicapped children and their families. For more information, call (310) 470-1972.