How on Earth Did I Come to Be?

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When I was a kid I wanted to go to outer space. But I was also afraid of everything—airplanes, coyotes, ponies, the flag salute—let alone a 200,000-pound rocket. I don’t think my desire to go to space actually had anything to do with space. I wanted to travel to the outermost reaches of thought. Perhaps it isn’t an accident, then, that I ended up studying Ancient Greek Philosophy.

When I told my father I was going to graduate school in Philosophy, he laughed and said that in India philosophers stand around wondering how bullshit got on the walls (the answer is obvious to everyone but the philosopher: someone threw it up there). Anyway, it was too late. Now, we are both Dr. Grewal, but in very different ways.

Mohinder Grewal, 1975.

Dr. Grewal, the Elder, came to America in 1963 propelled by the promise of science and mathematics. After earning degrees from Punjab University, UCLA, University of Michigan, and USC, he became an expert in applying equations to help GPS navigation systems filter out errors. His books and courses on “Kalman Filtering”  have drawn specialists from all over the world—NASA, JPL, KARI, TERN, TUBITAK, and pretty much every other acronym you can imagine.

Although I worked for a summer at Raytheon as a MATLAB programmer, the gist of my father’s work is “Greek” to me. I suppose we are even, since my knowledge of Ancient Greek is Greek to him.

Sonja Grewal, 1972.

My parents met at the University of Michigan on a canoe ride, auspiciously down “Hell River” (a real river in Hell, Michigan). My mother told me that she was not “in his canoe.” She studied clarinet, piano, voice, and music education at Lebanon Valley College, and then, as a graduate student at the University of Michigan.

In the 70s, she drove across the United States with her acoustic guitar to teach music at a Navajo school in New Mexico. She spent all of her money on long-distance phone calls to my dad in California. She later moved and taught music to runaway and troubled adolescents in Los Angeles County.

Between the two of them, I look like the progeny of Socrates’ imaginary city in Plato’s Republic—combining the rigor of mathematics with the flexibility of music, not to mention my ten-year gymnastics career. Socrates advises all three, and, later, dialectic, which might be considered philosophy, understood as a study that determines your course of study.

But I’m not an only child. My older sister works for the “Mouse.” When we were younger, we put on a slipshod version of Cinderella, complete with an inflatable basketball-pumpkin. She played Cinderella; I played every other character. Maybe this mock persecution is also to blame for my starry eyes.

I have a wonderful memory of lying with my mom on our driveway staring up at the stars. Neither one of us recalls how long we were out there. My mother remembers that the cement was still warm from the day. I remember desperately wanting a telescope for Christmas. Instead, I got the book, 365 Starry Nights, which tells you what you can see in the sky from every position on every night of the year.

As I was staring up at the sky, I was already looking at Ancient Greek Philosophy—Pollux and Castor, Lyra, Pegasus, Perseus with the head of Medusa. The sky is an endless nothing that tempts you to think of space as if it were timeless. I looked into space and saw the future in the past. I lost myself in a constellation of wonder. And I took great delight in losing myself… “On account of wondering, humans now and at first began to philosophize” (Aristotle Metaphysics 982b).