The Charter for Compassion (first appeared in The Norwalk Patch)

Treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. This golden rule formed the basis of a wish expressed by Karen Armstrong, one of the most popular authors on religion today, to restore the ethic of reciprocity as  a central global religious doctrine. The Charter for Compassion, launched in November 2009, is a product of thousands of people from more than 100 countries who provided their input on principles embodying the golden rule. A multi-faith, multi-national group of religious thinkers and leaders (the Council of Conscience) crafted the final version of the document. As we celebrate religious holidays and ponder personal as well as societal suffering, vividly captured by the Brazilian photographer, Sebastião Salgado, it is worth pondering abbreviations of the thoughts expressed in the Charter:

  • The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.
  • It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain.
  • We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the center of morality and religion
  • We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous, and dynamic force in our polarized world.

These words may sound hollow in the wake of a sluggish economy, personal problems, natural and man-made disasters. One might be forgiven for suffering from compassion overload as 24/7 images of different tragedies flicker across televisions, computer screens and mobile devices.  After all, there are only so many hours in the day to attend to responsibilities. However, more than 95,000 people have signed the charter and many of them have heeded the call to connect digitally and in real life by “walking a mile in another person’s shoes.”

Seattle was the first city to affirm the Charter in 2010 and has been designated as compassionate, i.e. a location that recognizes compassion as an ethical imperative in its policy decisions. The Seattle Heart Map is a public information resource connecting  individuals, groups, and organizations committed to creating a culture of compassion in the region. The Greater Vancouver Compassionate Network was similarly inspired to keep ethics and spirituality alive in their communities and workplaces. Closer to home, the Louisville Society for Human Resource Management has compiled a list of organizational policies designed to instill compassion in the work environment.

Skeptics may counter that altruism is the prerogative of youth or a selected subgroup known as the “givers” among us. Indiscriminate “giving” of time/emotion/help can leave one vulnerable to “takers or users.” Adam Grant, who juggles roles as a Google advisor and researcher on workplace dynamics, has published several studies in leading journals arguing that the key to success is tirelessly helping others. According to a NY Times magazine article, the most successful givers are those “who rate high in concern for others,” but are strategic in their giving.

The choice to focus compassion on selected people in our immediate environment or to join an international quest for peace and justice is one that is already being made by people around us. To quote Ghandi: You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

Bonding over coffee

It feels good to be a Norwalk resident, especially if one runs into neighbors and other familiar faces at one of the recently revamped Dunkin’ Donuts shops. Old friends and friendly strangers can spin tall tales over coffee and engage in debates over issues of the day (eg, the presidential election). The pleasant suburban scene could not have been envisioned centuries ago, when Ludlow and Partrick first independently purchased land from the Indians, and the name, Norwalk, was derived from the name of an Indian chieftain, Naramake (also spelled ‘Naramauke’ or ‘Norwauke’).

However, the past was not on the minds of most customers. For instance, the Haitian cab driver, pausing briefly for his cup of java before heading out for a night shift, had little interest in the question one could pose to Indians today to find out if they were better off than their ancestors. He was only interested in the present and the future. As the night shift loomed ahead, he was contemplating how many Norwalk bar flies would be calling upon his services to take them to their homes. How many fares would equal his economic survival for the next month? When talk inevitably drifted to the recent political conventions, he shrugged his shoulders. He was a first-generation American who did not mind that politicians did not court him in a similar manner as Latin immigrants. Instead, he was grateful that he could pay for food and shelter for his kids.

Tonight he celebrated another milestone in his life that, to him, felt every bit as momentous as the heroic accomplishments of ordinary Americans mentioned at the political conventions. He had chronicled his life story on yellow legal pads, while waiting at the interminable red lights dotted along Norwalk roads. These notes had finally been compiled into one book. Others, who left the coffee shop to stare at the book in his car, were quick to rain on his parade. No one would be interested in his story. No one would care. The cab driver would have none of this negativity. He had already lined up likeminded folks and would be barnstorming the local churches and community groups, preaching the gospel of self-reliance along the way. One felt humbled. Here was someone made stronger and not cowed by political rhetoric or adversity.
Back in the Dunkin’ Donuts shop, Mr. X, an adult approaching his golden years, was happy to sip coffee and chat to other customers about his problems. Mr. X is disabled. More precisely, he is a mentally disabled, non-institutionalized adult. Given the level of his disability, work was never an option. In the absence of a strong family or religious support system, he is also a poster child for entitlement usage or victim of any Medicaid cuts, depending on one’s point of view. It is worth noting that one analysis of 2010 census and budget data estimates that more than 90 percent of the benefit dollars that entitlement and other mandatory programs spend go to assist people who are elderly, seriously disabled, or members of working households — not to able-bodied, working-age Americans who choose not to work.

None of this mattered to Mr. X. He had just spent $15 on a broken Walkman. Someone had obviously taken advantage of him; however, his only complaint was that he could no longer listen to Michael Jackson. His late mother had left him cassettes of his favorite pop singer and somehow Thriller and Bad just did not sound the same unless he was using those cassettes. The political and economic travails of our country remained unsolved, but in an instant, another solution was born. Someone remembered a working portable cassette player at his house. Mr. X would soon have a tangible link to his late mother and Michael Jackson again.

Determination, perseverance, and kindness ruled in a franchise founded by the entrepreneur, William Rosenberg. Some people may crush these moments by pointing out the financial state of the franchise; however, there is only so much information that one can imbibe on a Sunday night. Sometimes one can only focus on what is in front of you and take care of the person next to you. Tomorrow is another day.

Porsche

This midlife crisis fantasy appeared in The Norwalk Patch in 2012 for the first time. Enjoy!:

Summer means different things to different people. It could mean booking a ticket to see Mike Love belting out Beach Boys’ classics, dragging out the rock guitar from the attic to play Grateful Dead cover songs at the Tuscan restaurant (New Canaan), pontificating about the consequences of Justice Roberts’ deciding healthcare vote for the masses or, flipping between the extremes of watching young studs duking it out for the affections of the singer,  Rihanna, and Katie Holmes duking it out in court with soon-to-be-ex-husband, Tom Cruise,  over custody of their daughter, Suri. What is a nation  to do when the chattering classes recite the eulogy to the  “American Dream,” and beach reading consists of Rielle Hunter feeling the need to regale the stressed-out masses with more details about the Edwards’ marriage?

If you are a middle-aged guy without any prospects, marginalized by society and your own mistakes, it might just be time to escape into a world of fantasy. Forget about the fact that you are a fiftysomething graybeard way behind on child support (an appearance on Judge Judy looking suitably contrite might take care of those woes). Forget about the fact that your disability check will not be forthcoming, because some details got lost between filing a claim for an accident and the paperwork prepared by the lawyer you found on craigslist. Forget about the fact that you are now living on a wing-and-a-prayer in a room with other older adults, nursing your injuries with cheap vodka-laced juice and awaiting Obamacare in 2014. If society has written you off, your self-esteem is in the commode, and a midlife crisis is churning through your veins, it is time to reach for the motorcycle that survived the Great Depression, ie, the Harley-Davidson. It is time to hit the open road. Goodbye Connecticut, hello Florida.

Perhaps you had heard about that Shangri-La saloon in Florida from other members of your crew of outcasts. Perhaps you panic as you finally arrive at this hallowed destination, order a beer, and politely decline the attentions of  widows of a certain age. And then she arrives. The Madonna of Shangri-La. She is the twentysomething party-girl renowned for fulfilling the fantasies of every middle-aged dreamer. Her name/pseudonym, aptly enough, is Porsche. Two blissful days at a five-star hotel and several thousand dollars later (your kids’ inheritance money, of course), she steers you towards her uncle’s Porsche dealership. The uncle, obligingly, lets you take one of the cars out for a test drive. You contemplate purchasing the car to keep Porsche (the girl and the dealership) happy. Suddenly you feel young again.

One of your children (the responsible one who is just a few years older than Porsche) rushes to your side to bring you to your senses.

Then Porsche disappears (the girl, not the dealership). The dealership owner starts acting like Tony Soprano and you hightail it out of there back to Connecticut. Your long-suffering friends and family listen to your story. They laugh and add another burger to the grill. Ah, to be an ageing “boomer” during the summer of 2012.

Being poor and sick in America

This post, which first appeared in the pre-Obamacare days in the Norwalk Patch, still resonates with me today. I miss my friend and dedicate this post to her.

I will never forget the first time I heard her voice in the university hallways. “Are you from Cape Town?,” she asked. I stopped momentarily, because that familiar-sounding accent brought back a flood of memories about South Africa. When I turned around, I saw a tall, middle-aged lady with a smile, reminiscent of the African sunshine in my former homeland, beaming at me. This was the beginning of a decade-long friendship between two lost souls in the heart of Manhattan. I quickly learned that Lady M., as I will call her, had been through a lot of ups and downs in her life. She had been diagnosed with an insidious oral cancer that eventually required surgical removal of part of her tongue, rendering her sounding like a female version of Scrooge McDuck. Lady M. did not let her condition get the better of her. She became a mother figure, who dispensed advice along with recipes for how to make tarts and stews based on the produce on offer at Jack’s World and other cheap emporiums in Manhattan. Visits at Lady M’s place were filled with laughter, stories and trips to the local bodegas to search for the Hispanic equivalent of South African staples such as Marie biscuits (a cookie with a hint of vanilla, best consumed with tea) and Milo (a Nestlé chocolate and malt powder product that we liked). She showed me tokens of her youth as a South African lass born to Scottish parents. I learned about the influence of friends on her formative years and about how she had cared for her aging parents before emigrating here.

While her cancer was in remission, we could both ignore the elephant in the room. In many respects, Lady M’s story was similar to those of others in households all over New York; however, she faced the added burden of being poor and without health insurance in a country that regards this item as a benefit and not a necessity. The first sign that her cancer had returned was marked by slurred speech and pain in her jaw. After finally securing insurance and consolidating her medical records from various institutions, experts confirmed her worst fears. The cancer had spread and this time it would be fatal. It was ironic that she was the one that ended up comforting the few people that knew her. Lady M quietly started preparing for her own death. She withdrew from the few friends that still kept in contact with her. Gradually her speech became incomprehensible. People would automatically assume that she had a mental disability when she spoke to them. So she learned to get by with a pen and paper.

And then she died, not registering a blip on the radar of thousands of passers-by in the busy city. In reality, dying of cancer is not as sanguine as euphemistically portrayed on television. People are not always fortunate to be surrounded by loving families or live in fancy houses. Sometimes people fight, because they want to live or they have someone waiting for them. Sometimes people are poor, they have no one and in the end the fight against bureaucracy and to improve the quality of their lives prove be overwhelming. I salute those people. May their struggles remind us of the human component of the financial equation in the search for effective, affordable healthcare for all citizens.

Jack and Jill

Hi Everyone!

This is another one of my old Norwalk Patch stories that I thought readers might enjoy:

Robert Frost ended his poem,” Mending Wall,” with the famous line: “Good fences make good neighbors.” In today’s world, it could mean the difference between minding one’s own business or becoming absorbed in the reality TV-antics of one’s neighbors. We all have stories to tell to illustrate the point. One urban legend that I am perpetuating relates to Jack and Jill (the story usually becomes more colorful as time passes). Given my urban surroundings and the anonymity of today’s world, I should really have been unaware of Jack and Jill’s business. Unfortunately, the paper-thin, apartment walls and their late-night arguments that frequently woke me up, meant that I had a front-row seat to the inner workings of their dysfunctional relationship. The fights about money and cheating were fodder for a Jerry Springer show.  On nights when the volume of epithets reached epic proportions, I visualized the Springer audience shouting in unison:”kick him to the kerb.” That would be the course of action of any rational person, but love or co-dependency (call it what you will), rarely goes together with rational thought. Besides, in real life villains are rarely one-dimensional and situations are complicated. Jack was well-loved because he helped little old ladies and did handiwork without insisting on being paid. He also treated Jill to an occasional dinner on the patio or whisked her away for a weekend at the local casino. They were also sickeningly sweet with their public displays of affection. So Jill stayed with Jack for years. During the day I would nod my head and scurry by, fearful of getting dragged into the morass of their problems.

 

One day I woke up in the early hours of the morning. I could hear Jack on the phone. Was he drunk-dialing someone? No. Jill had gone out of town and he was confiding his inner thoughts to a long-lost relative. He sounded simultaneously happy and sad. Apart from catching up, he was also trying to figure out what had happened to his other siblings that were placed in different foster homes. His dream had been to become a rap impresario a la Jay Z, but that sputtered when the talent he had scouted opted for the joys of selling weed instead of entertaining hipsters in a night club. Now he spent his days cleaning the house, cooking or drinking between part-time jobs. I drifted off to sleep. It seemed the preferred option compared with listening to this drama.

 

Jill eventually dumped Jack. Or maybe it was vice versa? After all, there had been many prior occasions where Jill had actually begged Jack not to leave her. In any event, a slammed door and “I’m outta here” followed by the sound of a car engine, heralded the demise of that relationship. Romantics rejoice. Jill is now in a stable relationship. She finally found a quiet guy. They moved out and, in a modern-day twist to the fairy tale ending, they put a deposit down on one of those foreclosed homes that you can get at bargain basement prices these days. Mary J. Blige would approve. Jack has probably found another Jill and will be cooking up a storm for her to prove his love. Thankfully, the new neighbors are discreet and I am finally enjoying a good night’s rest.

Frederick Douglass and “Hide Thou Me”

I am re-posting this 2012 article (based partly on information obtained from the archives at The Norwalk Museum) in remembrance of Black History Month in the USA:

We have just celebrated Black History Month and it is therefore fitting to pay homage to Frederick Douglass (February 1818 – February 20, 1895) , an African-American social reformer and statesman who was the antithesis of the notion that slaves “did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens.”

Wikipedia provides one with an overview of  his life, from his birth in Talbot County, Maryland to his successful escape across the Susquehanna River and final arrival in the house of the abolitionist, David Ruggles, in New York. His abolitionist activities, involvement in women’s rights, travels, fight for emancipation and suffrage during the Civil War years, role as a statesman during the Reconstruction era and writings (including his celebrated autobiography [Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845]) are cataloged online and in print at the Schomburg Center in Harlem, New York as well as at other locations. Schools, prizes, stamps and a bridge bear his name.

In today’s fast-paced, attention-deficit-prone world one could be forgiven for thinking of him as a bronze statue in a park or a remote historical figure of interest to only specific segments of society. However, even a cursory interest reveals glimpses of a charismatic man who defied the status quo in every possible way. After burying Anna  (his wife of more than four decades with whom he had five children) in 1882,  Douglass married a white woman, Helen Pitts (a graduate from Mount Holyoke College) in 1884. His response to the outrage at the time was that his first marriage had been to someone the color of his mother and the second had been to someone the color of his father.

It is in the yellowing pages of  the Norwalk Gazette dated 27 February 1895 that one comes across another facet of the man. Douglass apparently loved the hymn, “Hide Thou Me,” and sang it the day before he died. Part of the lyrics reads as follows:

Sometimes I feel discouraged

And I think my works in vain

I’m tempted oft(en) to murmur

To grumble and complain

But then I think of Jesus

And all he’s borne for me

Then I cry

Oh rock of ages

Hide thou me

Ohh rock of ages

Hide thou me

This was a powerful reminder how a hymn helped to sustain a former slave in his daily life and fight for disfranchised countrymen, just as it continues to strengthen peoples’ faith and resolve today.

Flipping back through the archived newspapers, it was interesting to note how Douglass was viewed through the prism of his own generation. Upon his death, the Norwalk Gazette of 23rd February 1895 felt the need to temper their effusive praise for Douglass by mentioning that he “lacked the scholarship” of a noted editor, Wendell Phillips, or the “masterful rhetoric” of the prominent American abolitionist, Lloyd Garrison.

However, in the vein of “a famous person passed through our town,” the article ended with a mention of Douglass visiting Norwalk a couple of times, where he was once the guest of Senator and Mrs. O.S. Ferry. The Norwalk Gazette redeemed itself with a moving description of the Douglass funeral on 27 February 1895. One could imagine being there as the train bearing his coffin entered Central Station in Rochester, New York. Throngs of people watched the funeral procession wound its way first to City Hall, where the body rested in state for several hours, and then to the Central Church, where the invocation was delivered by Dr. H. H. Stebbins. A male quartet sang his favorite hymn, “Hide Thou Me,” before the service concluded and Douglass was finally laid to rest.

 

 

 

Of Nehru and Norwalk (First appeared on The Norwalk Patch)

The sweltering heat can shorten anyone’s temper. Ask Mr. Singh (a fictional name). His temper tantrums when people dared park longer than fifteen minutes in front of his Norwalk store were legendary, and vagrants decided that they were better off rummaging through the garbage of the Chinese restaurant next door. His attitude towards customers veered from cloyingly sweet, if you were a curvaceous young girl, to patronizing, if you were a homeless person trying to buy batteries for a CD-player you found in the dumpster next door. Yet once upon a time he had been a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youngster fresh off the plane from India with his wife and young sons. America was the land of opportunity and, armed with stories of relatives who had struck it rich in Connecticut, he came searching for his dream. An Indian community would be waiting to welcome him and his family into their temples and homes.

The years passed in the blink of an eye and the vigor of youth faded. Mr. Singh invested in the stock market and paid the price. The tax man put a lien on his business and he had to figure out creative ways to pay for the college education of his sons. Mr. Singh kept going, in part because of his delusions.You see, dear reader, everyone else was always to blame for every calamity in his life. The fact that he did not fill out the proper paperwork to have a lottery ticket machine in his shop became the fault of the government. The fact that dear Mrs. Singh’s samoosas landed me in bed with a serious case of food poisoning was the fault of the dough he had purchased at Costco. For a second I found myself more annoyed at the fact that she had not made everything from scratch, before arguing with Mr. Singh about his irresponsibility.

However, Mr. Singh always managed to wiggle his ample girth out of tight corners. When his belligerent explanation that office workers who had purchased the same savory delicacies seemed just fine fell on deaf ears, he tried a different tactic. The heat outside was merciless and he swept away my defenses and a potential lawsuit with peace offerings of Haagen Dasz ice cream and the latest copy of the National Enquirer. Having honed in on my vices, Mr. Singh felt secure that he would not be losing a customer. I could not let him off that easily.

“So,” I interrupted sweetly (as he railed about the indiscretions of American stars discussed in the Enquirer),”Is it true that the first Indian prime minister (Jawaharlal Nehru), had been in love with the last British viceroy’s wife (Lady Edwina Mountbatten)?”

Mr. Singh was thunderstruck. He demanded to know if I had read it in the free copy of “that dirty rag” he had just handed me. No. My source was impeccable. I had googled the information and if anything appears on Google it has to be true. Mr. Singh was quick to set me straight. Nehru was revered in India and, according to Mr. Singh (who had it on good authority from an uncle who had been Nehru’s personal photographer), nothing happened. His opinion that revered men were obliged to have no flaws was not that far removed from our pre-Clinton (or was that pre-Kennedy?) view of charismatic leaders.

The conversation eventually drifted to more neutral terrain. One of his sons was getting married. The kid had been a straight A-student. Thanks to Mr. Singh’s sweat equity, or perhaps in spite of it, the younger Singh had graduated top of his class at Yale University and now held a prominent position at a local investment firm. Mr. Singh informed me that there would be two weddings. One would be held in India and then all the relatives would be shipped over here for a mega-festival that would last a couple of days. Mr. Singh had taken out a loan to foot the bill. I kept my opinion about a son allowing his parents to take on an added financial burden to myself. My ice cream was beginning to melt and there was no need to anger Mr. Singh again.

Summer means vacation time. So I did not see Mr. Singh for a few months. When I returned to Norwalk, I was surprised to see that Mr. Singh’s store had closed. I heard via the grapevine that he was broke and had decided to return to India with his wife. A part of me was sorry to see the old rascal leave and the other part felt happy. Hopefully he found that mythical retirement sanctuary that we all long for, aka the Marigold Hotel. Hopefully he will at long last feel at home.

Meditation on relationships (First appeared on The Norwalk Patch)

“Selfies” may be all the rage these days, but still-life pictures of couples can immortalize relationship moments in a manner that can move most people. The Kodak moments of yesteryear can convey the beauty of love flourishing in different settings. Lebanese-born photographer, Akram Zaatari, has used this medium to explore, among other topics, the nature of human relationships. Whether one meditates on a photo of a Lebanese couple taken in the 1970s or peruses a wedding album of a deceased relative, the magic of intimate moments experienced by prior generations is inescapable to the viewer.

If images from the “ Paris of the Middle East” fail to move hardened readers, the story accompanying photographs of centenarian, Jaap Polak, and his wife, Ina Soep, might do the trick. Their poignant love story of more than 55 years (which started in concentration camps), is revisited in a book and similarly-named documentary: “ Steal a Pencil for Me: Love Letters from Camp Bergen-Belsen and Westerbork.” Jaap, chairman emeritus of the Anne Frank Center in Lower-Manhattan, courted Ina under complicated circumstances and against the backdrop of World War II. Their faces in one black-and-white photograph radiate the joy of soul mates.

Pixels converted to images of intimacy and happiness can truly touch the hearts of different generations.

Nuclear relationships (First appeared on The Norwalk Patch)

Commuters from Connecticut to Cape Town have usually gained impromptu insights into different cultures by reading books written by brilliant wordsmiths. For example, the Russian writer, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, was masterful at translating everyday life in the Ukraine in a manner understood beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. His work was also used as a literary device by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, Jhumpa Lahiri, in her novel, The Namesake—a tale that focused on identity and the complexities of cultural assimilation into America.

Gogol’s childhood, filled with the Cossack traditions and rich folklore of his Ukrainian home, provided creative impetus for short stories that would form “the foundations of the great 19th-century tradition of Russian realism.” Using humor and a beekeeper as a narrator, Gogol introduced the reader to Ukrainian customs and folklore inEvenings on a Farm Near Dykanka. In another book, Diary of a Madman, the hero is an office drudge who ultimately ends up in a lunatic asylum. Such stories may also have resonated with the Indian-American author, Lahiri, in crafting a pivotal train scene in The Namesake.

However, the young woman on the train from Stellenbosch to Cape Town had no pretensions of seeking literary or cinematic fame by invoking Gogol’s name. She was far too caught up in her daydreams about a fellow commuter. If one could imagine a cross between the Hollywood actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Vin Diesel, the sensitive-looking soul with the biceps of a football player was her dream man. He usually sat across from her on the lengthy journey from South Africa’s wine heartland to the University of Cape Town. His nose was often buried in fictional books (mainly Gogol) or incomprehensible scientific texts. When she finally summoned the courage to talk to him, he told her that he was a physicist. The young woman, a humble secretary, was star-struck and tongue-tied at the same time. She did not wish to pester the young man with tales about her boring life where the only recent thrill was watching the formation of a new bee hive on the family farm. Besides, how could occasional intellectual spurts such as listening to the South African opera tenor, Gérard Korsten, compare with the sophistication of this smart man?

As it turned out, the pair shared a fascination for Korsten. The physicist analyzed the tenor’s performance as Canio in Ruggero Leoncavallo‘s Pagliacci and she told him about her love for Korsten’s role as a family patriarch in the long-running South African soap opera, Egoli: Place of Gold. Over time the physicist told her about his admiration for Sergey Korolyov (1907-1966, head Soviet rocket engineer and designer during the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s). She listened to his scientific tales and reciprocated with gossip stories she had read about famed South African heart surgeon, Christiaan Barnard, in the Afrikaans tabloids.

Finally he revealed the top-secret research he was conducting at a local nuclear power plant ( Koeberg, 30 km north of Cape Town). In addition, he confirmed reports about negotiations with the South African government to supplement the country’s growing demand for electricity by building more nuclear power plants. He explained that Russia has about 10%of the world’s reasonably assured uranium resources and considerableexpertise in the generation of nuclear power (employing 200,000 people in this industry). Furthermore, the exportof nuclear power and expertise were major economic objectives. To him it seemed like a match made in heaven. While a decision was still being weighed by the South African government, the physicist was excited at the idea of having more nuclear power plants on the continent and elsewhere. He viewed nuclear power as a “clean,” energy source and a means to offset the interminable energyblackouts that had become the bane of South African consumers’ existence.

Unfortunately the young woman did not share his feelings. Koeberg had opened in 1984, two years before the disaster at the Ukrainian power plant, Chernobyl.Radioactive fallout had spread several thousand square miles, driving more than a quarter of a million people permanently from their homes and causing numerous deaths. Her pessimism increased after reading reports about a faltering cleanupfollowing a subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.

It would be up to the physicist to convince her that the Russian government had learned lessons from the disaster. He would wax lyrical about improved crisis-management practices, cost-effective and safer nuclear reactor designs (citing innovations by TerraPower as an example), and also mention the possibility of using different reactors in the future. Although real-world applications were still decades away, he felt reasonably confident that he could assuage her fears and change her mind.

The next morning the ardent suitor decided to hedge his bets by presenting her with a list of alternative, climate-friendly energy sources which he knew would be more suited to her beliefs. Armed with both plans of action, he boarded the train and mentally rehearsed his request to resolve their debate over dinner later that night. He suppressed his excitement by feigning indifference, looking down at his briefcase, before settling into his usual seat near the window. He looked up expecting to see her face. Her seat was empty.