LOS ANGELES - I hope you all enjoyed a happy holiday season. We celebrated Christmas with family and friends up in my cabin on a ridge overlooking the pine forest of the White Mountains of Arizona. On the day after Christmas, as we were relaxing after the day of merry making, news reports of a huge earthquake off the coast of Indonesia flashed on the television screen. The initial announcement was that it was an 8.9 tremor. We Californians immediately recognized that as a giant quake. Thankfully, we were in Arizona, where earthquakes hardly ever occur. The damages and fatalities in Indonesia must be horrible, we all speculated. Then, the toll of lives lost was reported to be in the thousands. It sounded terrible. Soon, more pictures appeared on the screen. We saw scenes that seemed like something out of a science fiction movie. Vacationers on the beach calmly watching in fascination as the waters strangely ebbed out to sea revealing boulders and rocks as an enormous wall of water loomed up in the distance. Then, the odd phenomenon growing and growing more ominously as it approached closer and closer to the beach. Then the monstrous mountain of water crashing down in a gigantic cataclysm engulfing everything in its path - people, boats, houses, buildings. Everything. Anything in its path was swept up, mangled up, and washed away. It was devastation on a scale beyond belief. This was what is called a tsunami - a Japanese word for massive killer waves produced by great undersea disturbances. The earthquake off Indonesia had produced deadly tsunamis that ravaged all the South Asian nations along the Indian Ocean and as far away as the east coast of Africa.
The Richter scale number has now been revised up to an incredible 9.0. The death toll numbers have also continued to climb - tens of thousands at first, then fifty thousand, then a staggering seventy-five thousand. The enormity of the number of human lives lost became inconceivable. As I write this column, the number of fatalities is at 155,000 dead and countless more are missing.
Now, the challenge is to help the survivors. The lack of food, water, medicine and the danger of disease spreading have become the great perils. This is a human calamity of inconceivable proportions.
We must do all we can to help in this global catastrophe. I immediately connected with the American Red Cross and made a financial contribution to the International Response Fund. I urge you all to pitch in and support the many proven humanitarian organizations that are working to help the devastated people of South Asia. Please know the history of the group to which you make your contribution. Make sure that they are experienced and established aid organizations. This is the time of year when we celebrate by sharing our blessings. We are so blessed and the survivors of the tsunami are so overwhelmed. I hope our compassion can swell to tsunami proportions to help these desperate survivors. Please send money to aid them. From what I have learned, money is the most effective way of sending aid. Donated clothing, blankets, and canned foods, as generous as they may be, require the additional cost of transportation and the logistics of distribution. Contributions of money can cut through all that. It will buy the most needed aid in the regions of need and cost-effectively deliver them to the survivors. The compassion from our heart should be expressed with the good sense of our minds.
When we witness random horrors like that of the tsunami, we have to be so grateful for the blessing that we enjoyed during a safe holiday season. I thought of the blessing of my December spree in London preceding the holidays. I appreciate so much more now the familiar sight of the giant Christmas tree dominating Trafalgar Square - always there, always sparkling, always welcoming me to a Dickensian holiday in London. I love and savor so much more now, the holiday hubbub in the London air; the delight on the faces of the people in the galleries at the National Gallery, where the admission is always free to see some of the greatest works of art in the world. As I take that bracing walk across Waterloo Bridge over the Thames, I enjoy more deeply now the spectacular vista of the London skyline from St. Paul's Cathedral spanning all the way over to Big Ben and the Parliament Building. Even as I approach the ugliest building in London, the National Theater on the South Bank, I'm comforted by the thought that the best theater in the English language is housed in that hideously menacing concrete fortress. And, as wonderful a theater town as London is, it can also palm off some of the worst productions that I have ever seen - on this trip - of all plays - "Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare! I also saw the most theatrically imaginative production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeny Todd." At the curtain call, I found myself leaping up and enthusiastically joining in shouting, "Bravo, bravo, bravo!"
A special blessing I squeezed into this London trip was a quick excursion to Paris by Eurostar. The three-hour train dash through the chunnel never fails to impress me. To cross the English Channel by a manmade underwater tunnel, the impossible dream of many centuries, always thrills me.
Paris is to me the greatest urban achievement of humankind. I love the grand boulevards as well as the narrow cobbled alleyways. I love the regal orderliness of the Tuilleries Garden as well as the tiny courtyard gardens. I thrill at the grandeur of the Beaux Art palaces as well as the charm of ancient buildings that seem to lean over from the weight of centuries.
Most of all, the great pleasure of Paris - dining - whether at premiere gastronomic temples like Ledoyen or small family-run brasseries on I'lle St. Louis, is always unsurpassed. It seems impossible to get a bad meal in Paris.
We are so blessed. We share our blessings with loving family and friends during this holiday season. It is heartbreaking that there are so many people in South Asia who have lost so much - they even lost their family and their friends. Let us share our blessings with our larger human family. Let us give generously. The need is so great.