Tuesday, December 27, 2011

On One night in North Carolina

Dear Mackenzie,

At about 8:12PM EST on Tuesday, November 18th, 2008 in Raleigh, North Carolina, you said “Momma, Momma, Mommy”, and I started to cry.  You said the words in a strong and booming voice. You were not at all in distress.  And yet I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing.
I don’t know if I ever told you my sweet little daughter, but when he was a young man your grandfather was a musical prodigy.  He was an orchestra conductor and composer of classical music.  In his early teens, your grandfather studied under the distinguished orchestra conductor Herbert Von Karajan.
Karajan was known for two things.  The first and most important is that he was a masterful conductor. He was the best and most prominent conductor of his era, and maybe of the 20th century.  He had what in the conducting world is known as “two right hands”.  That means he could skillfully conduct different parts of the orchestra simultaneously by using both of his hands independently of each other. This is apparently very difficult.  If you ever study classical music maybe you’ll try it yourself.

The second thing for which Karajan was known is that he was apparently in the Nazi party in the 1930’s and early 1940’s and was a Nazi sympathizer.  This was not so great for your grandfather since he was Jewish.  Nonetheless, I guess your grandpa was indeed gifted because Jewish or not, Karajan took him on as a student in the early 1940’s, which was a great honor.  At thirteen, your grandpa had gone to Salzburg, Austria along with several other young men from different parts of Europe to audition for the great Karajan.

Each of the candidates was asked to conduct a movement of a symphony with Karajan’s orchestra while Karajan observed. One by one your grandpa and the other young men (no women were allowed in those days) took their turn.  Finally, as one of the candidates led Karajan’s orchestra through a movement of one of Mozart’s symphonies (listen to Mozart’s music sometime, it’s magnificent) he worked up quite a sweat.  According to your grandpa when the young man finished, Karajan took the baton out of his hand and said “This is Mozart.  We don’t sweat with Mozart”.  I love that story.

You might have inherited some of your creative genes from him.  You certainly got creative genes from your sister Jamie.  As you know, when Jamie was twelve she toured with the national Broadway tour of Annie, first playing the role of July, and then Pepper.  From the time you were about three years old whenever you saw anything related to Annie you wanted to be in it, “just like Jamie”.
When you were five, you auditioned for the role of Molly in a local children’s production of Annie organized by a group called the Broadway Bound Players.  Broadway Bound Players is a great acting program for young children.  The quality of acting is not always great, but everyone who auditions gets a role no matter what.  At age four you had played a mouse in one of their productions of Cinderella, and the producer thought you were ready to “move up” to a speaking part.  But at the audition you fell apart.  It was very unlike you, as you’ve been incredibly self-possessed and confident from the time you were born.  Yet on that day, in that moment, when your turn came you froze.  Even with the gentle coaxing of the producer and director, after a few tries you started to cry, said you didn’t want to be in the play, and that was it.

On the ride home I imagined all sorts of horrible scenarios. I silently wondered if this would mark the beginning of an irreversible downward spiral in your life; your confidence ruined, your dreams shattered forever, drug and alcohol addiction just around the corner. Fortunately your mom, being the uber parent she is, understood you were five years old, had simply had a difficult moment, and consoled you as only a mother can. You asked if you could audition again next time, and with the resilience that only a five year old can summon, went on to other things.  Or so it seemed.

In January 2008, Mom found out there was indeed another audition for Annie.  But this time it wasn’t for a pay-to-play kids’ production. It was for a replacement cast for the national Broadway tour.  At that audition Martin Charnin, the director and one of the creators of Annie, told your mom that they were not replacing the Molly character, which was the only character you could play given your age, but that you had a lot of potential.  He explained that if you took dance and voice lessons religiously for the next eight months, he would “be inclined to make you his next Molly” when the new tour went out in November.  Both your mom and I were floored, and when Mom told you what Martin had said, you decided you wanted to pursue singing and dancing classes.  And you did.

In June, the tour came to Southern California and we took you to see the show. As chance would have it, at intermission we saw Martin in the lobby and went to say hello.  He was very nice but it was clear that Martin had no recollection of you at all and had no idea who you were.  I remember it dawning on me at the time that, like any good director who works with young people, he probably offered great encouragement to all the kids who exhibited the least bit of potential. Following the audition in January, Laura and I had started to wonder aloud how we would deal with six or more months of life on the road if in fact you got the next tour. After that encounter in the lobby, it felt obvious no discussion was necessary and we stopped talking about it altogether.

Then came September, and the auditions in New York for the new national tour.  You were excited to go and we wanted you to have a wonderful experience, but we were careful to manage your expectations. The audition dates coincided with the weekend of your seventh birthday, and we made a point of telling you this weekend in New York was a birthday present, with the audition just one part of the adventure.  We also made plans for your friend Riley to come see you from Philadelphia, for you guys to visit the fabulous American Girl store in the city, and who knows what else.  Then off you guys went to the Big Apple.

Midday Saturday, your mom called me to say they were about to make the first round of cuts, and that you would be among them.  I asked her how she could possibly know that and she said you had come out during one of the breaks and told her they had not asked you to do some specific dance that the Molly character does.

My heart sank.  Of course I wanted you to get the role if that is something you wanted.  As importantly, like any parent I was desperate for you not to feel the pain of rejection.  I had secretly asked whatever higher power is out there that you’d at least make it through the first cut. You had worked very hard for this audition by any standard, let alone that of a six year old.  I hoped you would be able to experience a little of that wonderful feeling of achievement and fulfillment that ideally should always accompany hard work and commitment, but doesn’t nearly enough. I hung up, tried to imagine what might be going though your tender mind, and thought about what I could say to you when we spoke that might provide you both comfort in the present and inspiration for the future.

I also tried not to look at the clock.  About an hour later when the phone rang I desperately didn’t want to answer it. But when I did your mom told me you had made the first cut.  When I could breathe again I congratulated you on your great work and then relaxed. Prayer answered.  The phone rang again a couple of hours later, then once or twice more after that, and each time your mom was calling to say you had survived another cut.  By day’s end you were one of the finalists going back Sunday morning.
I had a sleepless night.  I was certainly no longer relaxed and I felt helpless to do anything except worry. Early Sunday morning Mom called and said it looked like you were one of two for the role of Molly.  The final phone call came around noon.  I will always remember your mom’s words when I picked up the phone. “Hi honey”, she said lightly. “Mackenzie wants to tell you something”.
Six weeks later, you and Mom got on a plane to Jacksonville to start rehearsals and three weeks after that I sat in a darkened theater in Raleigh, North Carolina, my heart pounding, your mother’s hand in mine. At about 8:12PM EST, the curtain went up on the 2008-2009 national Broadway tour of Annie.  “Momma, Momma, Mommy” said Molly, the youngest orphan, and I began to cry.

All my everlasting love,


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On The Birds and The Bees

Dear Mackenzie,

Everything you need to know about the birds and the bees can be found in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film THE BIRDS and the 2007 animated comedy BEE MOVIE which stars the voice of Jerry Seinfeld. Strike that.
Dear Mackenzie,

Everything you need to know about the birds and the bees can be found in the 1972 film LAST TANGO IN PARIS starring Marlon Brando and the 1971 film CARNAL KNOWLEDGE starring Jack Nicholson. REALLY strike that.
Dear Mackenzie,

Not I but your mother, since she is very eloquent on these types of issues, will teach you everything you need to know about the birds and the bees.  Well, probably true but a bit of a copout.  Try again.

Dear Mackenzie,

Hmmn.   This is really awkward. 

Dear Mackenzie,

As you’ll probably already know by the time you read this, the birds and the bees is the idiomatic expression which refers to courtship and sex.  It’s a difficult topic for parents to discuss with their children and for children to discuss with their parents.  It’s an especially difficult topic for fathers to discuss with their daughters.  To make things even more complicated, birds and bees don’t have sex in any way similar to humans from a biological perspective, though I’ve detected certain sociological similarities.

Most bird species are monogamous in one form or other, and some birds mate for life.  This trait alone sets them apart from all but a minority of humans, who say they are monogamous but rarely are , and certainly not while they are young which is when human parents most want them to be.  Some birds mate on the ground while others mate in trees.  Well, there’s that similarity.  In addition to the ground and trees, humans have also been known to mate on top of pool tables, in the back seats of cars, on moving roller coasters, and generally anywhere that the body parts can be positioned in the right way.  By the way, bees almost always mate in the air. A sort of bee “mile high club” which many humans try to emulate.  More on bees in a minute.

Both birds and humans engage in so called courtship displays.  In the human species, the female uses makeup and other items (let’s call it plumage) to show the male how attractive and desirable she is.  Birds are the opposite.  In the bird kingdom, it’s the male who will usually preen or make sounds (let’s call it plumage) to show the female how attractive and desirable he is to her.  A perfect example is the peacock, and I don’t think the name is an accident. 

The bird courtship ritual I like the best is that of the hummingbird.  To show its desirability, the male hummingbird flies up and then dive bombs toward the female at full speed, diverting his course only inches from her head.  A college classmate of mine once tried something similar with a pretty co-ed to express his desirability.  Unfortunately, he had gone through a full bottle of jagermeister and was several sheets into the wind by the time he did it. For obvious reasons his hand-eye coordination was a little off and they both wound up in a hospital emergency room; he with a concussion and she with numerous stitches above her left eye. Unlike the hummingbird, my friend’s particular courtship ritual ended up not in a successful mating encounter but in a court of law.

Most birds become more sexually active in the spring when the amount of sunlight they receive sends signals to their brains that it is time to reproduce.  In the human species, this is more gender specific.  Most females indeed seem to send out courtship and mating signals in the spring, when the weather gets warm and the sun and heat suggest it may be an opportune time to mate.  Males are somewhat different.  In humans, the male of the species becomes more sexually active when….well, when he can.  The only thing a male needs is opportunity. It’s that simple.

Which brings us to bees. It has been written in scientific journals that the sole purpose of the life of the male bee is to have sex. Coincidentally, that is also the sole purpose in life for the young human male.  Now that’s nice if you’re a male, unless you’re a male human whose daughters are pursued by young males. As the father of three daughters myself, I admit that the fate of the male honey bee sometimes sounds appropriate to me. When the male honey bee inserts his sexual organ into the female it becomes lodged and remains in the female, and since the male cannot survive without his sexual organ, he dies shortly thereafter.  I fantasize about handing out this scientific literature to the young men who currently court Heather and Jamie and explaining to them that I envision a similar fate for them.  Mackenzie, I can’t even imagine what thoughts will cross my mind by the time boys come calling for you.

Though not a bird or a bee, the toughest cookie sexually by far is the female praying mantis, and as the father of three girls, the fate of the male praying mantis also intrigues me.  The female praying mantis has the peculiar cannibalistic habit of biting off the head of her partner while they are mating.  One shot and crunch, you’re history.  If you’re a male praying mantis, you’d better be committed because you’re not going to get a second encounter.  In my mind’s eye the same theory could apply to the young men who have the wrong thoughts about my daughters.

Truth be told my sweet daughter, biology is only the half of it.  That is what it is, and we’ll try to explain it all to you as best we can.  As your Dad, what I worry more about is the emotional toll that the life lessons of the birds and bees can take on a young person. In spite of your mother’s or my best efforts, your real teacher will be life itself and the wisdom that can only come from experience.  That said, I do have one or two pieces of advice to offer.

But first, time out for an important medical announcement:  always use a condom when you’re having sex. 

Once you’re in a long term committed relationship, or married, or trying to conceive children of your own, you may decide not to use condoms.  But while you’re single and experimenting this is an absolute must.  Not just as a form of contraception, which you should always use until you make the decision to have children, but for reasons of life and death.  AIDS is no joke, and can literally kill you.  AIDS is not a gay disease.  It’s not a poor person’s disease.  It’s not a disease borne of poor hygiene, or related to any particular religion, race, or gender. It doesn’t discriminate. It’s an equal opportunity killer plain and simple.  With any luck the medical community will find a cure one of these days, or may even figure out how to prevent HIV and AIDS. 

Until then, time out for an important medical announcement: always use a condom when you’re having sex.

Mackenzie, always be proud of your body and enjoy it to the fullest.  The human body is the most amazing instrument in so many ways and can bring great pleasure and joy to both you and your partner.  Don’t let anyone convince you that sex is bad. Don’t let anyone convince you that sex is not for the woman’s enjoyment or pleasure. Don’t let anyone convince you that sex is shameful, or should be hidden from light, or is in any way abnormal, no matter what crazy fantasies titillate you.

(I can’t believe I’m writing this to you…awkward). 

So yes, go crazy. Experiment to your heart’s content. Have fun. Think outside the box.  Be wild in a safe way. Never stop. And whatever you do Mackenzie, never, never, and I do mean never, share any of that with me!!!!!! Did I mention to never share that stuff with me? I don’t even know how much of that you should share with your mother but me?  Nada.  Niente. Nothing. Never.

You should also know that the life lessons learned from the birds and the bees have twin engines of hope and despair; of euphoria and desperation; of pleasure and pain (and I don’t mean S&M).  It’s not easy for any person, let alone a young person, to completely disconnect his or her hormones from their hearts and from their minds. When one partner is more emotionally attached than the other, and even if both partners are equally attached emotionally, the birds and the bees can cause heartache and tears.  There is no getting around it.  

For all the delicious excitement you will almost certainly experience, from time to time you will also almost certainly experience a broken heart accompanied by a seemingly tragic sense of despair. As much as your mom and I would give anything to shield you from the downside of the birds and the bees phenomenon, we simply can’t.  Everyone needs to go through it for themselves. We can only love and support you unconditionally when you are sad, lend you our shoulders and our ears when you need them, and carry you forward as and when we are able. In those difficult moments we will tell you, though it will be hard for you to believe at that time, that this too shall pass.

From what I know of you so far Mackenzie, I suspect you’ll attack this topic with the same passion and gusto that you’ve shown for everything else that has come your way in life.  That thrills me and scares the living daylights out of me all at once.  Your mom and I, and your older sisters, will be there for you when you need us. But please. Be gentle with us. I don’t know if your education on the birds and bees will be overly hard on you, but I can only imagine its toll on us.  

So buckle up.

Or better yet, get thee to a nunnery.

All my everlasting love and a shotgun at the ready,