LOS ANGELES - April is supposed to bring with it the renewal of life and the warming breath of springtime. But, as I looked out the plane window descending on Toronto's international airport, I saw the landscape blanketed in white. It was a beautiful snowscape but it didn't look like spring. It was going to be cold in Toronto. On the plane, there were a few people wearing surgical masks. Friends back in Los Angeles had cautioned me about SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, which seemed to be occurring in unusual numbers in Toronto. Instead of the spring renewal of life, the air in this Canadian city was cold and chilled with the fear of death.
I was flying into Toronto to begin work on an exciting new television film about which I will write more extensively in August - a sly tease to build up interest in a show that will air in September.
I was flying into Toronto because I had work, and I was forging on despite friends' concerns because I felt that the media had over amplified the fear of this mysterious disease, SARS. One should, of course, exercise reasonable caution, but I think too many people have a tendency to be stampeded by media reports without placing them in context. Many more people die every year from influenza than they have from SARS. Toronto is one of the cleanest, most fastidiously sanitation conscious metropolitan areas in all of North America. And the city had acted quickly to contain the few people who were sick.
Certainly, I think it might be prudent to avoid travel to China, where the disease seems to be spreading in worrying numbers. But irrational fear can be just as damaging as an epidemic. Chinese restaurants all over North America have been empty desolation zones because of this irrational fear. Without fear, I had my first dinner in Toronto at a Chinese restaurant. I love Chinese food but, more than my fondness of Moo Goo Gai Pan, that night, I was making a statement. "There is nothing to fear but fear itself," said President Franklin Roosevelt. But, alas, my Chinese restaurant was skimpily patronized. The food was great and the service was fantastic. I dined in regal semi-solitude. The next morning, when I opened up the local paper, there was a photo of the Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Cretien, dining with gusto on delicious Chinese cuisine. It's ironic that in these hysterical times, delightful dining can also be a show of courage and political leadership.
I had another wonderful dining experience in this month of holy religious observances. Jewish friends invited me to their Seder dinner.
They hosted a gathering of their friends that embraced the religious, ethnic, cultural, and generational diversity of the Los Angeles community. Before dinner, Passover rites were observed and then each guest was asked to read selected excerpts from the writings, thoughts, and observations of someone from history. The shining words of Thomas Jefferson were read as well as those of an anonymous slave. The wise words of Kofi Anan were read as well as those of a victim of the Armenian holocaust. The ringing words of Robert Kennedy were read as well as those of a migrant farm worker. The words of Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, which sent Japanese Americans into World War II American internment camps, were read as well as those of an Arab American civil liberties advocate. At this very special Seder dinner, the food for the spirit was as nourishing and savory as the delicious food for the body.
April is also the month of my birth, and it was wonderful to have so many friends, and fans remember my birthday on April 20. Through this column, may I give each and every one who sent me their birthday wishes, my heartiest thank you hug. You all make it a joy to continue collecting more of the many, many birthdays that I have already collected. You make it a true blessing to "live long and prosper."