Friday, January 25, 2013

On Fifty-Two Weeks


Dear Mackenzie,

Fifty-two weeks.
Twelve months.
One year. 
A small fraction of the average human life span. 
The blink of an eye in the history of time.

About a year ago I decided to try to write you a letter each week for a year. And now fifty-two weeks and letters later, I am done.

In many ways I suspect these letters reveal more about me than about you or your sisters.  I spent part of the last year in physical therapy fixing my creaky body. My physical therapist, a talented young woman named Sharon, would laugh at me every week. “You address the letters to Mackenzie,” she would say, “and then you write about you”. 

Sharon was probably right, but that’s okay. Maybe subconsciously that was no accident. How you and I will experience each other when you’re an adult and I’m an old man is different than how we experience each other now, when you’re still very young and I’m still reasonably vibrant.  I wanted to capture that snapshot for both of us. I hope I did.

So these letters are about you and the world as I experienced you both in 2012.  No more and no less.

52 weeks of my thoughts about life, love, courage, faith, family, and how to negotiate a bigger allowance.

52 weeks of meditations about your place in my heart, and hopefully about my place in yours.

52 weeks of lessons for the both of us to learn.

May these letters guide you and comfort you.

May they give you a boost and a helping hand as you go through life.

May they bring abundant joy and a couple of smiles to you and your sisters, and to your future families. 

May they forever remind you how much your amazing mom and I love you guys with every breath we take.

Many years ago when I was just a boy, I was sitting around with your great-grandma Granny Goldberg and your great-grandma Lilly. “May you live to a hundred and twenty”, Granny Goldberg said at one point.  Your great-grandma Lilly smiled and replied, “and why would you limit him to only a hundred and twenty?”  She was only half kidding.

By the time you’re the age I am as I write to you now, most likely your mom and I won’t be physically around. But if we are, my sweet daughter, we’ll remind you to be bold and courageous. We’ll remind you to dare and to risk. We’ll remind you to love fully and profoundly.  We’ll remind you to be kind and considerate. And most importantly, we’ll remind you to see life for the amazing adventure that it is.

When I set out to write you these letters, I never imagined the personal fulfillment and satisfaction I myself would get from writing them. But in the end, the joy that you, Heather, Jamie, and your wonderful mom give me each and every day is more than should even be legal.

Now and forever, of thee I sing.

All my everlasting love,

Dad

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On Things That Go Bump in the Night


Dear Mackenzie,

One night a few weeks ago my cell phone rang at 3 A.M. I groggily looked at the screen and saw that it was you calling me.  I knew you were home and having a sleepover with your friend Peyton. Weird.

"Hi," I mumbled into the phone. "Daddy", you said in an urgent whisper. "Come downstairs quick. Someone is breaking into the house".  I bolted out of bed and down the stairs. In my fog, my mind was not processing what you were doing downstairs at that hour, or where Peyton was, or for that matter what I could possibly do to combat an intruder if indeed there was one.  In the nanosecond that it took me to get downstairs, I had a horrible flashback.

Many years ago, the year I graduated from law school, I spent the summer studying for the bar exam.  My girlfriend at the time lived in a small two-bedroom apartment in a sketchy part of town. But the rent was cheap and when you're young you feel immortal, so neither of us paid too much attention to our surroundings.

Throughout that summer, I would often study late into the night with my good friend and classmate Jon Panzer and then head over to my girlfriend's apartment. I would bring all my notes and study books with me to her apartment and then go to the review class in the morning.

My girlfriend had a roommate, and her roommate also had a boyfriend.  Since neither she nor her roommate knew who would be sleeping over when, they each got in the habit of closing their respective bedroom doors at night.  On this particular night, we knew her roommate wouldn't be coming home but we closed the bedroom door anyway. Force of habit.

At about 2:30 AM, my girlfriend shook me awake and whispered "someone's broken into the apartment".  As I started to tell her she was imagining it, I saw a light go on inside the apartment and heard several sets of footsteps. My heart jumped to my throat and my girlfriend whispered, "what should we do"?

All of us hope, my sweet daughter, that we will act courageously if and when that need ever arises. But I can tell you from experience that no amount of planning can prepare you for a moment like that. As I write you this letter some thirty years later, I am still embarrassed by the first thought that went through my mind. It was "please God, don't let them steal my bar review materials or I will fail the exam". I hope my former girlfriend can forgive me.

I put the absurdity of that thought out of my head and tried to think. Whoever was in there was making a lot of noise and we were both petrified with fear. In a whisper of my own, I asked my girlfriend if it was possible her roommate had come home, but she responded that her roommate was out of town. Besides, we could hear whoever was out there dismantling the stereo system, which I seriously doubted her roommate would be doing.

"Go out there and see what's going on", my girlfriend whispered to me.  Now I loved my girlfriend, but there was no way I was going out there. Whoever had broken in was not being at all quiet, and was taking their sweet time robbing the place to boot. To me that meant that either the burglars thought no one was home, in which case surprising them didn't seem like a good idea, or they didn't care if anyone was home, which seemed even worse.

I called 911. Now this was in the days before cell phones, and to make matters worse my girlfriend's apartment still had one of those old rotary phones.  So when I dialed 911 it sounded like machine gun fire. The 911 operator put me on hold. Then she hung up on me, hopefully by mistake. I kid you not.

I didn't dare try to dial again. So we lay in bed, no doubt silently praying, for what seemed like an eternity and was in reality about twenty minutes. At one point we heard the footsteps coming towards us, and we could see shadows by our bedroom door.  

They lingered there for a few seconds and then retreated. My girlfriend later told me that at that moment she was going to whisper to me that she loved me, but she had this vision that if she said that, the door would burst open and we would be killed. So she stayed silent.

At some point the sounds stopped.  We lay there for at least fifteen more minutes, and then I softly opened the bedroom door. The burglars were gone, and so were the stereo and everything else that wasn't nailed down.  Well, except for my study notes.  For some inexplicable reason those didn't interest the thieves. We called the police, who came and took a report, and then we went to Junior’s Deli to celebrate that we were still alive.

All of that raced through my head as I bolted downstairs. You and Peyton were huddled in the media room, where you had fallen asleep hours earlier watching a movie. "The bell on the alarm system chimed", you said. "There's a woman with her hands on her hips in your back yard." added Peyton.

Adrenalin pumping, I quickly scanned the downstairs and fortunately no one was there. The "woman with her hands on her hips" turned out to be a chair by the pool. And I was able to show you and Peyton that the alarm had been triggered by a set of French doors, still locked, which sometimes gets toggled by the wind. I hugged you both, and I told you that nothing bad will ever happen to you as long as your mom or I, or your older sisters, are with you. You gave me a kiss and the two of you went upstairs to bed. Before doing the same, I said a little prayer of thanks.

In truth, the notion that nothing bad can happen to you as long as you are with us is more a meditation than a certainty. But I'll keep saying it to you, and I'll make sure you keep believing it, and I would not hesitate to do whatever it took to will that prayer into reality.

Of course, a little luck and some divine providence wouldn't hurt either.

All my everlasting love,

Dad


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

On Filling My Heart With Wonder


Dear Mackenzie,

One of the many wonderful things about being your father is that I get to experience the world anew through your eyes.  

As a child I never went to Disneyland.  By the time I first visited the park I was already in my mid twenties.  It was a lot of fun and pretty amazing, to be sure.  In fact, some of the nuance of Walt Disney’s magnificent creation is probably better appreciated as an adult.

Yet I missed was the chance to take in the marvel of Disneyland through a child’s innocent eyes.  Then I started going there with you, and I saw Disneyland in a new and wondrous way.  

I’m having a similar experience right now, though not at Disneyland.

The Screen Actors Guild Awards happen every year around the last week of January.  This year ‘s ceremony will take place at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles just a few weeks from now, on January 27th.

The Academy Awards. The Emmys. The Golden Globes. Rarified air if you work in the entertainment industry. What could be more fulfilling, or better for your career, than hearing your name called after the words “and the Oscar goes to”?  I can’t even imagine.  And yet over the years, many actors who have won those particular statuettes have told me that by far, the most humbling award an actor can receive is a SAG Award. 

The SAG Awards are significant to an actor because it’s your fellow actors who fill out the ballots.  Artisans who practice the same craft you do are acknowledging the excellence of your performance in a given film or television series. It’s the ultimate validation.

Very early on the morning of December 12th, 2012, the SAG Award nominees were announced by Taye Diggs, an actor on a television series called “Private Practice” and Busy Phillips (what a great name) who is on a series called “Cougar Town”.  There was nothing out of the ordinary about the presentation or about the way those two individuals announced the nominations. Yet they will be forever etched in my mind. Why?

Because when Busy and Taye announced the nominees for “Outstanding performance by an Ensemble Cast in a Comedy Series”, this was one of the nominated casts, in alphabetical order:

NURSE JACKIE (Showtime)
MACKENZIE ALADJEM / Fiona Peyton
EVE BEST / Dr. Ellie O’Hara
BOBBY CANNAVALE / Dr. Mike Cruz
JAKE CANNAVALE / Charlie Cruz
PETER FACINELLI / Dr. Fitch Cooper
EDIE FALCO / Jackie Peyton
DOMINIC FUMUSA / Kevin Peyton
ARJUN GUPTA / Sam
LENNY JACOBSON / Lenny
RUBY JERINS / Grace Peyton
PAUL SCHULZE / Eddie Walzer
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH / Gloria Akalitus
STEPHEN WALLEM / Thor Lundgren
MERRITT WEVER / Zoey Barkow
At the ripe old age of eleven you, my sweet daughter, are nominated for a SAG Award!

I’ve attended every conceivable awards ceremony in my career.  Over time I’ve had many clients nominated for various awards, and quite a few of them have won. I’ve been thanked for my efforts on national television.  I’ve ridden in the limos, hung out at the parties, and done more than my share of hobnobbing with the rich and famous.

Now I grant you I was never the one nominated, but just the same it’s heady stuff.  Yet I’m not sure I ever truly savored the experiences like I could or should have.  On the contrary, I was usually lost in the demands of the moment. Did I introduce this actor to that director?  Did John Doe spend enough time on the red carpet?  Did Jill Doe make it out of the green room on time? Mostly it was just another day at the office, and a stressful one at that.

You being nominated has made me look at it all from a whole new perspective.

I envision that over the next few weeks you'll have the time of your life. You’ve been invited to glamorous gifting suites that will make Christmas look like a dress rehearsal. You’ll attend the Entertainment Weekly Nominees party at the famous Chateau Marmont Hotel, where you’ll hobnob with stars, with producers and directors, and with studio and network executives. Do eleven year olds hobnob?

Your mom will buy you an expensive new dress to wear to the ceremony.  A professional stylist will make sure your hair and makeup look perfect on the day of the event. Showtime will send a car service to drive you to the ceremony and the glamorous after-party. It’s as close to living the fairy tale as a young girl of any age could ever dream of.  

And I am the proudest of poppas. My heart is filled with an innocent
wonder that I thought was no longer possible for this old lion. I’ll share with you the two pieces of advice I’ve given every client who ever found him or herself at this crossroad.

First, remember that the honor is in the nomination and that honor is yours for the rest of your life. Winning is frosting on the cake.  I believe this to be true with all my heart.  So have my clients, unless they won. Then they told me my advice was silly. At least until the next time they were nominated.

And second, savor the moment. You may be nominated ten more times in your career or never again.  Bask in the glow of the paparazzi flashbulbs as you arrive on the red carpet.  Be amazed at the people who are sitting next to you, and at the incredible company you’re keeping.  Enjoy the pit in your stomach as your category is called.  Be humble if you win and keep your head up if you don’t.  Either way it’s all over much too quickly.

I will be rooting for you and “Nurse Jackie to win, of course. More importantly I’ll be experiencing my first awards show through your eyes, and marveling at how fun it is.

All my everlasting love,

Dad


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

On the Meaning of Life


Dear Mackenzie,

Recently your mom took you to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. You must have enjoyed it because a few weeks later you suggested we all go again together, which we did.

As we walked through the museum, I watched the different exhibits arouse your curiosity as you absorbed the various phenomena of nature. At each exhibit you took copious notes on a little spiral notebook for your science class.  How much do you weigh on Mars? Check. Are human beings distant relatives of the Dimetrodon? Check. A 1400 year old sequoia tree lived in California and stood more than 300 feet tall? Check.

Seeing your wide-eyed wonder as the universe unfolded in front of you warmed my heart and it was all I could do to not hug you every five seconds. Well, actually I did try to hug you every five seconds and after the second or third time you looked at me sternly and said “Dad, stop!”

Then we went to see “Journey To The Stars” in the museum’s planetarium. A presentation hosted by the voice of Whoopi Goldberg took us on a visual tour through our galaxy and beyond. Apparently there are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, plus trillions more in neighboring galaxies. Each star potentially fuels planets like our own that can sustain life.

Whoopi’s voice explained in scientific terms how we came to have intelligent life on our planet. She also explained that our communications technology is now so advanced that if another life form anywhere in the galaxy has similarly advanced technology, we can easily talk to them. Apparently we’re constantly dialing.

Yet the galaxy remains eerily silent. Can it be that with hundreds of billions of suns per galaxy, multiplied by the ten thousand galaxies visible through our powerful telescopes, that we alone got the magical elixir for intelligent life? The odds of that being the case make winning the lottery seem like a walk in the park.

Of all things, in the midst of so much science I started to wonder about the meaning of life. Why are we here? Why do we die? Where are we going? I’ve always been more spiritual than existential and I’ve always believed in a higher power. Yet my inner conflict between these two philosophical viewpoints rages on. Neither truly satisfies me.

On the spiritual side, what science doesn’t explain is what we’re all doing here and why no one else seems to be within earshot. There must be some grand design to our time on earth. Right?

Are we just passing through on our way to who knows where? And if so, why should death even make us sad? What the caterpillar calls the end of the world the master calls a butterfly, as Richard Bach once wrote.

The existential side isn’t completely on point either. Even without a grand design the question still remains: what are we all doing here and why does no one else seem to be within earshot? And if we have no higher purpose then why bother to move the human race forward while we’re here? The opposite seems infinitely easier.

It’s enough to make your head spin, and I don’t have any good answers. The noted author Peggy Noonan may have summed it up best when she wrote, “our generation, faced as it grew with a choice between religious belief and existential despair, chose marijuana. Now we’re in our Cabernet stage”.  

Science. Religion. Life. Death. Existentialism. Minds much smarter than mine spend lifetimes debating these issues. It’s easy to overthink it.

Then the other day I was going through some family photos and I came across a picture of you on a horse named Charlie. You may not remember by the time you read this letter, but Charlie lived on your grandpa’s farm.  He was a beautiful Tennessee Walking Horse and you rode him a few times when you were three or four years old.  Your grandpa also had a horse at the time named Sterling who you didn’t ride, but who you would feed carrots to when we visited. 

A few years ago we were heading to Michigan for your grandpa’s birthday and you started getting excited about riding Charlie again. And then shortly before our trip Charlie up and died. You were only six at the time and your mom and I worried about how best to tell you.  In the end we simply said that Charlie had died and hoped for the best. 

You got upset and started to cry, and I told you that while it was sad Charlie had died he had lived a long and happy life on grandpa’s farm. You asked me how old Charlie was when he died and I said he was almost 40, which I explained was quite old for a horse. 

You thought about that for a second, and then asked me if Sterling was still alive and how old he was.  I told you Sterling was indeed alive and that he was about 15 years old.  You paused for a moment as your mind processed that information. Then you smiled through your tears and said “oh good”.

Looking back I realize that in that exchange, you intuitively answered some of the questions I was grappling with at the planetarium. You understood at the tender age of six that we live life in the here and now and that while death is sad, we move beyond it by savoring life and by celebrating the living.

Maybe the meaning of life is as simple as that. Anything else you’d like to teach me?

All my everlasting love,
Dad