Saturday, December 15, 2012

On Newtown, Connecticut


Dear Mackenzie,

A few months ago I wrote you a letter about the senseless killings in Aurora, Colorado called “On the Existence of Evil”.  Sadly, it encompasses many of the themes and emotions I felt again yesterday as I read about the shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.  By all means re-read it if you are moved to do so.

But today, as I hug you for dear life and tell you how much I love you, I’m feeling a bit differently about our individual and collective responsibility to put a stop these heinous acts. So buckle up, my sweet daughter.  Your dad is about to go on a rant.

For the past twenty-four hours I've been reading the many comments on Facebook and Twitter about yesterday’s horrific violence which resulted in the deaths of twenty-eight people, twenty of them kids your age and even younger. No doubt the comments are all genuine and well intentioned. I too feel grief, loss, fear, nausea, regret, sympathy, vertigo, sadness, and many other emotions.

But far worse than any of those, I feel a sense of resignation that this is the new reality in America. I also feel a sense of unbridled anger that we as a people are unwilling to do anything about it even though we can.

Yes, us.  And yes, unwilling.

No doubt we need better mental health care in this country. We need better parenting. Better guidance on movies and video games. Better everything, really. Check every box, as my friend Stu likes to say. I hope by the time you’re an adult, we’re doing all of that a lot better than we are today.

But the immediate problem is guns.

Guns. Guns. Guns. Access to guns. Fucking guns.

How is it that deranged, stupid, evil, insane people are able to legally access entire arsenals with which to kill our children? The answer is unfortunate and simple. It’s because we are unwilling to do what it takes to stop them.

A fascinating statistic is making the rounds in social media outlets today. Here it is: if you added together the number of handgun deaths this year in Japan, Great Britain, Switzerland, Canada, Israel, Sweden and West Germany, and then multiplied that combined total by seventy (!!), that outrageously high total would still be smaller than the number of handgun deaths this year in the United States alone. Are you kidding me?

Here’s why, and we have to look in the mirror to see it.

First of all, forty percent of people who are eligible to vote in the United States simply don’t.  What is that, fifty million people? Sixty million? More? Imagine if fifty million people went to the polls tomorrow and threw out every politician who refused to vote for real gun control reform. Real gun control reform would happen overnight. Literally. Why don’t people vote? They can’t be bothered? They think their vote doesn’t matter? They’re too cool? I don’t know.

I have little doubt that even the most ardent opponents of gun control are horrified by this latest slaughter of innocents. We’re all horrified. What sane person isn’t? But being horrified is not enough. Your very life is at stake, Mackenzie. I hate to say it, but people who don’t vote are part of this problem and I can’t forgive them for it.

Secondly, the gun lobby in this country is enormously well funded and effective.  Politicians on both sides of the aisle take their money and become beholden to them. I find it hard to blame them. They know they will not be voted out of office on that basis. Why? Because even those of us who vote rarely take the time to know or care who is funding our politicians or why.  Because we put other selfish interests first. Because we have different priorities that make us look the other way. And because we don’t really believe it can happen to us or to our kids.

You more interested in how your congressman feels about lowering your personal tax rate than about the safety of our children? RAT-AT-AT-AT-AT! RAT-AT-AT-AT-AT!

You more concerned with stopping gay marriage than about the safety of our children? POW! POW! POW! POW! POW!

You more excited about showing the length of your sexual organ about the “fiscal cliff” economic debate than about ensuring the safety of our children? BOOM! PING! PING! BOOM!

You don’t think it can happen to your own son or daughter? BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! RAT-AT-AT-AT-AT! POW! POW! POW! RAT-AT-AT-AT!

I know you can’t vote for another few years, my little one.  But I hope the adults around you will speak with the powerful weapon of their votes, and I hope they’ll do it now. I pray the grief and horror we feel across this nation today will stir us to real action. If it doesn’t, more heartbreak and tragedy await us.

And then no amount of prayers and condolences on Facebook and Twitter, or tearful recitations of beautiful scripture, should make us feel one bit less guilty about our role in these terrible deaths.

All my everlasting love,

Dad












Saturday, December 1, 2012

On Building a Furry Family


Dear Mackenzie,

Last week I had to go out of town. Since you and your mom have been living in NYC while you shoot “Nurse Jackie”, we had to board our dogs while I was away. As I went to pick them up this morning, I realized that though I sometimes complain about our overgrown pack of mutts, I was excited to see them.

Charlie was the last dog I ever bought. I use the past tense not because she’s no longer with us.  On the contrary, Charlie is alive and well and running amok in our house. I use the past tense because I will never buy another animal.

One day about seven years ago we had lunch at a deli that was located near a pet store.  Afterwards, you asked if we could look at the “beautiful puppies”.  Against my better judgment we did, and predictably you fell in love with a cute little Pomeranian/Maltese mix.  Then you did what most children tend to do when they want something. You pleaded with us to buy you this ball of fur.

I could tell that your mom loved the puppy too but she stayed neutral, which emboldened me to put my foot down and say no. To my relief we left the store puppy-less.

That night at dinner, Jamie opined that Dixie could use a play mate (for more on Dixie, re-read my letter to you called “On Playing God”) but I held firm. Then the next day I had the brilliant idea to surprise you with the puppy. Several hours and several thousand dollars later, Dixie had a play mate and Charlie had a home.

I told the story to a client of mine who is active in the world of pet rescue. She in turn told me about puppy mills, and about the millions of shelter dogs who are euthanized every year. Once I educated myself on the issue, I vowed that if we ever wanted another pet we would rescue one instead.

Not long after, your mom was out running errands and stopped to buy dog food.  They were having a pet adoption day at the store, and she fell in love with a big, black mutt named Jackson. “That’s the ugliest dog I’ve ever seen”, I said when she showed us the picture. “And besides, the last thing we need is a third dog”.

That Saturday morning the doorbell rang.  “That must be Jackson”, your mom said sheepishly. “I organized a play date for him with Dixie and Charlie. We don’t have to keep him.”

Now that’s dirty pool, Mackenzie, but welcome to married life. You yelled “let’s keep him” before we even laid eyes on him. The woman from the adoption organization suggested we come meet him outside because “he’s a little skittish”. That turned out to be quite the understatement.

Jackson was huge. The moment he saw me he started to growl ferociously, and the woman told me to “walk beside him and don’t make eye contact.” Great.

The first few weeks were tough.  Jackson clearly had issues from his past and wasn’t comfortable around people, especially men. And by men I mean me. Every time I walked into a room Jackson would jump up, growl, and run away.

You loved him instantly, my sweet daughter, except the time early on when you played a little too rough with him and he snapped at you.  You ran into the living room crying hysterically.  When we asked you what was wrong, you told us between tears that “I don’t like Jackson any more. Let’s return him”. 

This was my chance to be rid of him. But I think rescue dogs, even ones who have known only abuse, have an instinct for real love.  As you were crying Jackson came up to you, rolled over, and started to squeal in apology. It was as if he’d had a chance to think it through and made the distinction between the roughhousing of an eight year old girl and someone trying to hurt him.

So Jackson became part of our family. And wouldn’t you know it, in no time I couldn’t get enough of him either. In a home where he experienced love instead of abuse, Jackson transformed into the sweetest, happiest animal you’ve ever seen.  His deep, menacing bark the only reminder of what his life before us might have been like.

When Dixie died the pack went back down to two.  Then one day I stumbled upon a place called Bark ‘n Bitches, a pet store that rescues dogs from animal shelters and finds them homes. The owner told me she had “re-homed” over a thousand animals who would otherwise have been euthanized.

So we went there “just to look”. You fell in love with a little Lhasa Apso mutt you immediately named “Lucy”.  Lucy was beyond grungy; with hair so long and so matted you couldn’t even see her eyes. Lucy had just been rescued from the Baldwin Park shelter and hadn’t yet been bathed, taken to the vet, or otherwise checked out.  But you were adamant this was the dog you wanted.

The owner told us we could come back in a few days to take Lucy home. When we came back Lucy was bathed, had a haircut, and had something else we hadn’t noticed before: a penis! It turns out Lucy was a he.

And of course while we were there your mom fell in love with some kind of Poodle/Terrier mix, and suggested we take that one too. Since I have no real clout in our family when it comes to these types of things, Lucy became Lucky, the terrier mix became Lucy, and now we have a pack of four.

And today, as Charlie, Lucky and Lucy danced on my lap while we drove home and Jackson licked my ear, I said a little prayer of thanks for our motley furry family.

Don’t tell your mom I admitted that.

All my everlasting love,

Dad







Friday, November 23, 2012

On the Moment Before the Moment


Dear Mackenzie,

At 5:56 P.M. on Friday, November 16th, 2012, I got a call at work from your sister Jamie. I’d given my assistant strict instructions that afternoon to put Jamie through no matter what I was doing when she called, but the timing was off. I was expecting the call at 6:01PM and not a minute before.  “I’m shaking and I can’t stop crying”, she said when I picked up. “Can you stay on the phone with me for a few minutes?”

We chatted about this and that, but the topics didn’t really matter. Jamie just needed for time to pass.  At exactly 6:00P.M. Jamie took a deep breath, said she’d call me back, and jumped off.

I’d been there before. We all have. Jamie was experiencing that excruciating phenomenon known as the moment before the moment. I knew I’d be hearing from her again shortly so I didn’t want to get on another call. Instead, my mind wandered to an excruciating “moment before” that I myself experienced in June of 1999.

Your mom and I had been dating for about seven months and we had planned a vacation together. At the time your mom was living in Philadelphia and I was in Los Angeles, so we decided to meet up in New York and fly to Europe from there.  Unbeknownst to your mom, I also planned to ask her to marry me.

Of course that presented certain questions. Should I propose to her in New York? Should I wait until we got to Europe and propose to her among the ancient ruins of Rome, one of the most romantic cities on earth?

There was much debate among my friends. My female friends favored the romantic city of Rome. My more practical friends worried about my losing the ring, or about your mom finding it prematurely. My most cynical friend asked the searing question: “What if she says no?”

I didn’t think your mom would say no, my sweet daughter. But then again you don’t really know for sure until you actually ask the question. I decided to propose to her in New York, but I wanted to make the moment as romantic and memorable as possible.

I knew Central Park pretty well because I had organized a big event there for the World Cup, and I remembered a beautiful secluded area near Sheep Meadow that I thought would provide the perfect setting. I intended to propose to her there, and then take her on a carriage ride around the park.

My friend John Moeller had worked with me on the World Cup and was very connected in the city. So he arranged for a beautiful carriage, stocked with champagne and chocolate covered strawberries, to meet us at a pre-determined location at the park entrance.  The driver would be holding a bouquet of yellow flowers so I could identify him. As it turned out I didn’t need the identifying flowers, but I did have to convince the driver that we were in fact the couple he was there to escort.

Anyway, that was in the days before texting and smartphones, so very late the night before I made up some excuse to leave the hotel room for a minute so I could confirm that the carriage was in place. Apparently I wasn’t a very polished liar, and months later your mom confessed that when I left the room that night she feared I was calling another woman!

The next morning I suggested we go to the Starbucks near the park. I had the engagement ring in my pocket and a knot in my stomach. When we walked outside it was drizzling but I was determined to carry out my plan. To my relief, your mom followed my lead.

We strolled into the park and of all things, the area I had in mind was roped off.  Your mom must have thought I was nuts as I kept walking her around the park trying to improvise the perfect spot.  Finally we came upon a clearing with a little bench on it, and it was deserted except for a homeless guy nearby.

The rain was picking up, and I walked your mom over to the bench.  My heart was pounding and my mouth was dry. I took a deep breath, held her hand in mine, got down on bended knee, told your mom I loved her and wanted to spend the rest of my life with her, and asked her to marry me.

The moment before the moment. I held my breath and waited for her answer. We stayed frozen like that for an eternity, which in real time was no more than a second or two. The homeless guy gave me a very sympathetic look. Finally your mom said “get up, honey, your pants are getting dirty”.

I was lifted from my reverie by my assistant, who poked his head in to tell me Jamie was again on the phone.  It was 6:01PM.  The moment before had given way to the actual moment. My heart jumped to my throat but I said “hi, sweetheart” as casually as I could muster.  

I heard the lightness in her voice and in that instant I knew Jamie had passed the California Bar Exam. I congratulated her and told her how proud I was of her. We spoke for a few seconds, and then I told her to make her other calls and we would speak later. I also didn’t want her to hear me cry.

In the end, Mackenzie, it’s about the moment, not the moment before.  I would certainly have been just as proud of Jamie if she hadn’t passed. It’s just a test. But now she can bask in that achievement forever, whether or not she ever practices law a day in her life.

And I will forever remember Jamie’s moment before. I wonder if the homeless guy in Central Park still remembers mine.

All my everlasting love,

Dad







Wednesday, November 14, 2012

On Your High School Years


Dear Mackenzie,

The other day your mom asked me if I thought we should attend our high school reunion next year in Cleveland.  The answer for me was a quick and easy yes. Was she crazy? Who wouldn’t want to go to his high school reunion with the “it” girl on his arm?

The conversation started me thinking about you though, and about your upcoming high school years. You’ve been home schooled or schooled on sets since you were in second grade. Initially when we started home schooling you I had grave reservations. I wasn’t too worried about the three R’s. I felt reasonably confortable that you could learn all of that in due course.

What did worry me was whether home schooling would affect your social development. I’d heard all the horror stories about how the social skills of home schooled children lag behind because they aren’t exposed to classrooms and schoolyards, and all the life lessons those settings portend.

As it turns out it appears I needn’t have worried. Four years into your home schooling experience you’re beyond socially adept.  You’re good with kids your own age and with older kids too. You can hold your own with adults, and though you’re only eleven I’ve rarely seen you in a situation where you weren’t comfortable in your own skin.

I don’t know whether your social skills will sustain as you get older. I hope they do. Conversely, I worry whether the one thing I didn’t fret over – substantive learning -- will come back to be the real problem as time goes by. Hopefully it will all turn out okay. So far so good.

But what about the high school experience itself? What will you be able to reminisce about years later which will bring a tear to your eye and a smile to your face?

I certainly don’t mean the classes. I’m hard pressed to point to a single high school class that sent me in an interesting academic direction, and I can’t even remember the name of any of my high school teachers. In fairness, that may be more a reflection of me than of the institution. Your Aunt Viv says I’ve blocked out much of my childhood. She may be right.

I do remember, though, that one day during my junior year at Cleveland Heights High School our chemistry teacher gave us a pop quiz about the Periodic Table. We all thought we had done poorly. The next day as the bell rang to end the class, the professor asked me to stay behind for a minute.

I thought I might be in trouble, but when the rest of the kids emptied out and we were alone, the teacher turned to me with that sympathetic yet dry tone that doctors use when they give patients very bad news. “Norm”, she said softly, “you seem like a nice young man and I want to help guide you”.

I didn’t really know where this was heading and I must have been staring at her blankly, because she ratcheted up her sympathetic tone. “College isn’t for everyone”, she continued.  “There are some fine vocational schools that can teach you a craft to get by in the world. Perhaps you could be a diesel mechanic… or maybe even a plumber”.

I grant you that I didn’t have the most distinguished high school academic career, my sweet daughter. But can you imagine the damage that kind of uninformed comment can inflict on a young mind? I shudder to think how many kids’ lives that teacher may have inadvertently sent in a wrong direction.

No doubt as I write you this letter, some knucklehead shop teacher somewhere is probably telling the next Mario Andretti he should quit wasting his time with race cars and go to dental school.

So no, I’m not at all concerned about you missing out on the classroom experience.  But as you get older I do want you to have all the same types of wonderful memories that your mom has about her high school years, and that I have about mine.  How do you amass memories like those if you’re home schooled? I’m not sure.

And great memories they are.

I remember driving around aimlessly on Saturday nights listening to the radio and looking for trouble with my two ne’er-do-well friends Howie Kohr, who now calls himself Howard and deals with Presidents and Prime ministers, and Vic Schmelzer, who now calls himself Victor and performs high risk cardiac surgeries.

I remember Coach Lieberman telling me I was too small to play high school baseball and running me ragged practice after practice trying to get me to quit the team, and then after the season telling me he thought I had become one of the best defensive center fielders in the state.

I remember Nina Fromer, who fueled my fascination with pretty Israelis.

I remember Randy Stoner (not his real name – here’s why) taking me to an abandoned building one day after school and offering to share his joint with me.  I coughed and hacked and then told him the weed had no effect on me, after which I stopped off at the local deli and ate two packs of Twinkies because I had the munchies.

I remember Harvey Kirshenbaum and Elizabeth Buck and Scott Comp and John Ernest, all of whom were taken too soon.

And of course I remember the beautiful “it” girl.

Those are the memories that fill my heart. Whether you ultimately go to a regular high school or are home schooled through your high school years, in the end the memories you create will be uniquely yours.

If your memories give you as much joy and delight through the prism of time as mine have given me, you’ll be one very lucky girl indeed.

All my everlasting love,
Dad