‘The long shot’

Posted in Uncategorized by Sean Holton on January 8, 2010

I wrote this piece in May 2000, for the occasion of the wedding of my friend John Glionna and his beautiful bride Lily Xie. John is an LA Times reporter now based in Seoul, South Korea. But he was based in Los Angeles when he met Lily in the late 1990s. John grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. Xie Li Ping (Lily) was born and raised in Beijing, the daughter of a general in the Chinese army. She came to America on her own as a young woman and carved out a career for herself as an ace accountant. It always amazed me that John and Lily were able to find each other and fall in love.

I’m a wordy S.O.B., and this turned out to be too long to read at the wedding in its entirety. So the guests at the Santa Barbara ceremony (including the Chinese general) just got an improvised, stammering, abbreviated version. Below is the full text, which I just rediscovered today (1/8/10) when cleaning out some old files from my computer. Ten years later, I’m still inspired by the story of John and Lily and what it can teach us about the mysteries of life, love and fate. So I thought this was worth posting.


 When John asked me to speak at his wedding, the first thing I thought about doing was trying to calculate the incredible odds of  a person born in upstate New York at the height of the Cold War, like him, meeting and marrying a person born a few years later in Beijing, China, like Lily. Being in the newspaper business, myself, I was not at all daunted by the fact that my idea amounted to kind of a shallow and simplistic exercise with vaguely jingoistic undertones. I just forged ahead.

 I envisioned finding some statistician or some chaos theoretician on the Internet who could cook up a grand equation that would impress you all. I’d get him to figure in things like U.S. baby-boom birth rates in the late 1950s and Chinese population and emigration trends from the 1960s forward. I’d try to pinpoint it even more with variables and multipliers reflecting the myriad and discrete turns in history, geopolitics and in each of their private lives that brought Lily across an ocean and John across a continent — and only then granted them the long shot chance of picking each other out in the overflowing metro-maze of Los Angeles. I’d get whatever geek I could find to reduce as much of their lives as he could to numbers, and plug all those numbers into his master equation. Out would come a figure so staggering, I was sure, that it would make the odds of winning an 18-state-powerball-lotto jackpot look like a sure bet by comparison.

 But my plan flopped. All I ended up with was a bunch of unanswered e-mail to mathematics user groups, and web addresses for several competing versions of the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’’ parlor game. I suppose I could have stuck with my cleverly stupid idea to the bitter end. And I’m sure I might have demonstrated that John and Lily both, at some point in their lives, had ridden in an elevator with someone who had been in a fender bender with someone who had delivered pizza to someone who had co-starred in a movie with Kevin Bacon. But I would be unable to account precisely for the wonderful calculus that brought John and Lily, themselves, together.

 Then I remembered my own reaction upon meeting and getting to know Lily: “Glionna has found a treasure,’’ I thought to myself.  And I wasn’t thinking in the common, throwaway usage of that metaphor – as in “what a gem of a gal you found in the next cubicle, you lucky stiff.’’ No, the feeling I had was that this woman Lily Xie and the factors that brought her across the Pacific Ocean and into my friend John’s life, and he across North America into hers, amounted to a real-life treasure —  the kind you have to have investors and ships and good maps to find, and only then if you’re really, really smart and really, really lucky, and the weather and currents are perfect. And here my friend had gone off and done this – he had brought something truly more precious than silver and gold and more lustrous than pearls into his life, simply by coming across her picture in a book and tracking her down. I was so happy for John, and the palpable sense I had about this made me feel lucky and blessed, just being associated with such a rare happening through close friendship.

That is when I realized what a mistake it had been to try to reduce the magic of that meeting to numbers. I had wanted to quantify the irreducible power and beauty of what we are all here to witness and celebrate today: Two people born on opposite sides of a planet, two people out of several billion, finding one another and creating a life together. And their families and closest friends here from around the world not merely as spectators, but as participants tied also to this day and this moment by their own countless, unfathomable strands of personal circumstance. It has nothing to do with mathematics, and everything to do with mystery.

Life is nasty, brutish and short – and full of its random cruelties. You pass a million cars on the freeway without incident, and then the next is the one crossing the median strip head-on into your lane. Or you breathe a million breaths of air, and then the next is the one carrying the asbestos particle that will lodge in one of your lungs. But for every random cruelty, we hold out hope for that thing of random beauty to balance the books. The glacier carves the mountain in such a way that will catch the light just so at the end of your hike 10,000 years hence. Or two hydrogen atoms bump into one oxygen atom to make a water molecule, and enough of those molecules conspire to make a stream. Or purely by accident, you stumble across a buried treasure. Or you pull a ticket from your pocket, read the number on it and realize you have the winner. Or you step into an elevator and standing right there in front of you – zero degrees of separation — is Kevin Bacon, himself. Or…

Lily Xie meets John Glionna.

John Glionna meets Lily Xie.

And all of us come together here

In this place, on this day.


5 Responses

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  1. Jamie said, on January 8, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    As it happens, I was re-reading Emerson’s essay on Fate today. The balance between that which exists outside ourselves over which we have no control and that which exists inside ourselves that dictates how we hand that which life presents. Somewhere between “God has a weird sense of humor” and “shit happens” there are human beings dealing with events. Your friends were handed an accident of events and you got to celebrate the result.

  2. Ann H said, on January 9, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    This is beautiful, Sean. Almost as weird as a German boy and an English girl born in 1938, brought up to see each other’s nations as the enemy, meeting in South Africa after her house burned down.

  3. Karen Skilling said, on January 9, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    Dear Sean,
    I have been following your travels this last year through my Dear friend Judy Doyle. We have been friends since our children were babies and Katie was my “craft” buddy.
    I have never been blessed with the ability to put my thoughts onto paper and thus I feel that you express what I feel at times in my own life. You have made me laugh and cry. I was diagnosed with a sarcoma (1% of all cancers) of my elbow in 2008, had reconstructive surgery, radiation and now follow-up every three months with a C.T. at Shands.
    Cancer makes you learn about who you are—How can I say that it’s made me a better person but it has. Looking forward to more from you!! Karen

  4. Charlotte said, on January 9, 2010 at 10:55 pm


    The night is slipping deeper into its restful stage, as my mind walks along side. I have just read, listened, and slid between the lines of your blog, trying to imagine your world and you. You, a stranger 30 min. ago, now someone I have been introduced to, thanks to Judy D.

    Thank you for taking the time to write, a release that creative people feel comfortable with if its their medium, and because you can write and compose collages of family and friends I am grateful for the time you have given, but not nearly as grateful as everyone you know.

    I’m presently very stuck with a visual design that is due next week. Totally constipated better describes this moment.

    Its Saturday night, a time I love to be home alone with. The radio programs, folk sampler, Garrison and now a bit of Irish. Judy’s email arrived and created a crease in the smooth slab of time as I worked on or rather sat in front of this design that seems to be dead in the water. Sleep will let me know if I have the courage to rip it up and start over.

    I have Katie Doyle’s billboard photo smiling down on me now, reminding me of so many things…. now creating a thin connection to your world.

    Good night Sean. I will remain a part of you now as you wait for the latest medical test results.

    Carry on dear sir!


  5. Mary Frances said, on January 12, 2010 at 11:29 am

    You know, Roger was only yards away, feet away, for 15 years, I find it no less miraculous that we found each other — eventually!

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