Wednesday, September 26, 2012

On this Day of Atonement

Dear Mackenzie,

If you’ve read my letter to you on faith, you know that in many ways I’m conflicted about the various organized religions.  Who’s right? Who’s wrong?  Who knows?

For better or worse your mom and I both grew up in Jewish households, and that’s the religion we were taught.  Though truth be told we’re not the most observant family, and I can’t even say I know all that much about Judaism.

If you ask me about Purim, I’m far more likely to tell you about the delicious Hamantaschen cookies your great-grandmother used to make than I am to tell you about Haman the Agagite who tried to exterminate the Jewish people. Simchat Torah? Not a clue. Yet even the least observant in our faith are conversant with our two highest holy days, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

According to Jewish tradition (or at least Wikipedia), God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to seal the verdict. During the intervening days culminating in Yom Kippur, a Jewish person tries to amend his or her behavior and seeks forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings.  On Yom Kippur we fast from sundown to sundown, we pray, we atone for our sins, and we hope that we are forgiven by God.

One of the few things I do remember from going to Sunday school as a kid is the apocryphal story that on Yom Kippur, a Rabbi stands before God and has the following conversation:

“Have you studied all you should?” God asks the Rabbi.
“No” the Rabbi replies.

“Have you prayed all you should?” God asks the Rabbi.
“No” the Rabbi replies again.

Then God asks the Rabbi a third question, “Have you done all the good you should towards your fellow congregants?” Yet again the Rabbi admits he has not.

And God proclaims “but you have told the truth, and for the sake of truth you are forgiven.  Go forth in my name and make amends.”

I’ve often wondered why this particular parable has stuck with me when so many others have not. I think it’s because at bottom it quintessentially speaks to our humanity.  Most of us mean well.  Most of us make promises and vows to ourselves and to each other.  Yet in daily life we fall short again and again. Our best traits as people are manifested when we can acknowledge our shortcomings, yet at the same time we can reach for a higher plane.

A friend of mine once told me that when she was growing up in the Catholic Church, she was taught by her priest that to repent actually meant to rethink.  How very Jewish. Imagine, Mackenzie, a day set aside to rethink your values, to rethink how you might have treated people better in the past year, and to rethink how you can treat them better going forward. Imagine a day set aside simply to rethink how to live each day with increasing grace.

So here I sit on Yom Kippur atoning for my sins of the past year.

I ask myself how I can be a better husband and a better father and a better friend. I pray for God’s guidance, although I wonder how God can possibly hear my prayers over the loud growling of my stomach.

I resolve to treat others better. I promise to be more patient. I commit to take the time to savor the magical moments in my life and to ignore the little annoyances. And mostly I thank God for you and for Jamie and for Heather, and of course for your wonderful mom. I reflect on how truly blessed I am in my life.

And finally, I wonder what Yom Kippur could possibly mean to you as an eleven-year-old. The answer comes around lunchtime, when you ask me if I can buy you a sandwich from Subway. I explain to you everything I know about Yom Kippur, and about atonement, and about why in the Jewish tradition we fast on this day. You listen to me patiently and politely until you’re sure that I am done.  And then you look at me and say “but Daddy, I’m really hungry. Aren’t you?”

I’m probably not the best father on the planet.  Lord knows I’m not the best Jew walking around. And while I’ll be the first to acknowledge I don’t know much, I do know this.  At least in this life, and for as long as I am able, when my little daughter is hungry I’m going to make sure she gets fed. I hope God can forgive me.

And yes I’m hungry too, my sweet daughter. I plan to eat right after sundown.

All my everlasting love,


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On Sharing the Secrets of History

Dear Mackenzie,

A week or two ago I watched former president Bill Clinton give an amazing speech at the Democratic National Convention.  These days my sweet daughter, President Clinton is the distinguished grey eminence of the Democratic Party and his command of the world stage is legendary. His speech took me back to his salad days when he was first running for president, and to the very private exchange he and I once had in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It happened like this.

I’d always had an interest in politics, so in early 1992 I called a friend who worked for our local city councilman and asked him how I could get meaningfully involved in a political campaign. Without hesitation he told me to go to the nearest headquarters of any candidate I was passionate about and start licking envelopes.

With the benefit of hindsight, I realize my friend gave me great advice. In many ways political campaigns are the truest of meritocracies. Because campaigns have little time and even less money, for the most part all anyone cares about is whether you can get the job done.  You can be licking envelopes today and be the deputy campaign manager tomorrow.

Of course I didn’t know that then, and in my arrogance I thought licking envelopes was beneath me. I thanked my friend for the advice, told him I would take it under advisement, and asked him to keep me in mind if anything interesting came across his desk.

Sure enough, a few weeks later my friend called.  “Governor Clinton is coming to Southern California on a campaign trip” he said, “and they need volunteers to drive staff vans in the motorcade.”  In those days I barely knew who Clinton was, but I thought it could be a fun way to spend a day. I felt very important when someone in Arkansas called me to get information for my FBI background check “since I was going to be in proximity to the candidate”.

The night before Clinton was to arrive, someone on his advance team called me to say they couldn’t use me as a driver.  Before I could voice my disappointment he said “but we have the perfect job for someone with your skill set. We want you to oversee press movement at the event.” I didn’t think to ask how he could possibly know what my skill set was, and I excitedly agreed. 

What I didn’t know was that the press movement volunteer is simply the person who holds up a big sign that says “press follow me”.  He was certainly right that I had the necessary skill set. I have two arms and two legs.

As instructed, I arrived the next morning at 7AM at the appointed location, wearing a suit and tie. A sign on the wall welcomed Governor Clinton “at 4PM today”.  It was already about eighty degrees and I saw only one person at the site. He was in shorts and a T-shirt and was setting up chairs. 

I approached him very officiously and told him I was looking for Josh, the lead site person for the event.  He looked me up and down and said “I’m Josh.” I told him I was there to do press movement. “You’ll be perfect for that” he said without missing a beat.  “In the meantime, why don’t you take off your coat and tie and help me set up.”

Over the years Josh has become a good friend and he and I advanced a number of trips together.  On that day Josh made sure I had a lot of fun and then set me up to go to Little Rock for training as a presidential advance person.  After two or three trips, the campaign sent me to be part of the advance team for a trip Clinton was taking to Los Alamos. It was my first time being in charge of one of the sites the candidate was to visit, and I was very nervous.

Over the four days before Clinton arrived I probably slept a total of ten hours, which is about par for a presidential advance team.  I learned my site inside and out.  I memorized the names and titles of all the executives and all the politicos Clinton would meet while he was there. I coordinated with the Secret Service ad nauseam.

As the motorcade sped towards my site on the big day, the lead advance person hit me on the walkie-talkie. “We’re about seven minutes out”.  I was ready.  “We’re about four minutes out”, the walkie-talkie crackled a couple of minutes later. “And Norm, Eagle (or whatever his code name was at that time) wants to talk to you privately the moment we arrive”. 

What? What could I have done wrong already?  I had met Clinton a few times on previous trips, but I was reasonably certain Clinton had no idea who I was.  “He wants to talk to me?” I gasped.  “Yes, he wants a word with you privately.  We’re one minute out.”  

For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do or say when I saw him. I braced myself for the worst, took my position where Eagle’s car would stop, and resolved to enjoy what for reasons unknown seemed likely to be my last advance trip. The motorcade came around the bend and rolled towards me.  Had I not been so scared it would have been an exhilarating moment.  The motorcade came to a stop, the door opened, and Clinton climbed out of the car.

“Norm?” he drawled.  “Yes, Governor” I answered. “How may I be of service?”  And then Eagle, who towered over me by a good nine inches or so, put his arm around me like we’d known each other our whole lives and started guiding me away from the car so no one could overhear us. “Where’s the men’s room?” he whispered.

Such are the secrets of history.

All my everlasting love,

Saturday, September 8, 2012

On the Day I Almost Died in Morocco

Dear Mackenzie,

A few years ago I accompanied a client to Morocco, where he was being honored at the Marrakesh Film Festival.  As it happened, my client happened to have a friendship with the Royal Family, so we were quite literally treated like kings.

Among other things, we were assigned a palace car and driver, and were accompanied at all times by an armed guard who I’ll call Fayiz (not his real name).  Fayiz didn’t even try to hide the huge gun he carried. He was friendly and respectful, and he was also very badass in the best sense of the word. Fayiz spoke decent English and he and I became fast friends.

The traffic in Marrakesh is very congested (picture Los Angeles traffic at…well, at any time) and I started to notice that our driver didn’t even pretend to obey the rules of the road. He would run red lights, go the wrong way down one-way streets, and blatantly ignore the local police. Finally I asked Fayiz about it, and he told me that the car’s palace insignia basically gave them carte blanche on the road.  It was a little scary, but it was heady stuff too.

After a few days in Marrakesh we embarked on a driving tour of Morocco. With Fayiz and the royal car as part of our entourage, we continued to be treated like royalty even as we got further and further away from the city. Finally we arrived at a beautiful desert area called Ouarzazate.

I had to fly out to attend a meeting in New York but my client wasn’t ready to head back.  So our guides arranged a local flight for me out of Ouarzazate. I would take the 6AM commuter flight to Casablanca, where I could catch a connecting flight to NYC. We left the hotel late, but Fayiz told me he would accompany me to the airport and that I shouldn’t worry.

Our driver was going about 100 miles per hour. Fayiz mistook my ashen look for concern about the time, so he told me that he had called ahead to let the airport know we were on our way. Whatever that meant.

We arrived at the airport ten minutes after my flight was scheduled to depart.  Fayiz calmly walked me to the ticket counter, and following a few words with the sales person she handed me a boarding pass without asking me for an ID.

At security, Fayiz flashed his gun and his credential and proceeded to set off the metal detector.  As the local police stood and watched, Fayiz waved me through, and though I wasn’t carrying a gun I set it off too.  The local authorities looked at me strangely but did nothing.  This was fun.

At the gate stood a lone airline employee next to the closed boarding door. Fayiz spoke to the guy, who unlocked the boarding door and waved me through. Fayiz smiled like a proud papa and I gave him a big hug.  He stepped back, but then laughed and hugged me back. I told him I hoped to see him again one day and boarded the plane.

I was the only Caucasian among the thirty or so passengers in various traditional Arab garments, plus a few people in conventional business attire. Everyone looked at me curiously. Who was this foreigner who’d had the juice to hold a plane in Morocco?

Once we were airborne I sat back to reflect on the morning’s events.  At one point an announcement in Arabic seemed to make several of the passengers anxious.  I didn’t understand a word of it.

A flustered flight attendant rushed through the cabin shortly after, and people started shouting at him in Arabic.  He didn’t break stride, but he shouted back as he went. I knew that many people in Morocco speak French, so in halting French I asked the person across from me what was going on.  Mind you my sweet daughter, I speak very little French.  But I was sure that what he answered was “we are going down”.  As if on cue, the oxygen masks popped down in the cabin. 

In the collective panic that was overtaking the flight, I could tell the plane was descending quickly and roughly. As I put the mask over my face, I was gripped by the notion that I would never see you or the rest of our family again.  I could not believe that my life was going to end somewhere in the middle of North Africa. I prayed that God would look after you and your sisters, and look after your mom too.  I remember asking myself what I could have done better in my life.

Another announcement came over the intercom that I didn’t understand, but everyone went into the emergency landing position so I did the same. Then I closed my eyes and waited.

After what seemed like an eternity but was probably no more than twenty or thirty seconds, the plane landed, bounced around for a bit, and then started to taxi normally. People started looking around as the realization dawned that we had survived. The guy across from me smiled and in very bad English said what I understood to be either “See, we’re on the ground”, or “May Allah abound”.  Either way was good with me.

A few minutes later we deplaned, and they guided us all to a people mover to transport us to the terminal. While we were in the vehicle a cell phone started to ring.  An Arabic man reached into his thawb, pulled out a cell phone and had a hushed conversation.

I swear by everything that’s holy this is what happened next.

The man looked up, walked over to me and said “Norman”? I nodded, and he handed me his cell phone. When I spoke into the phone I heard the unmistakable voice of Fayiz. “You okay?” he asked. “We heard what happened and were worried about you”.

To this day I have no idea what was wrong with that plane, but I know two things.  I know that I’m happy to be alive to tell you this story.  And I know that Fayiz is one badass dude.

All my everlasting love,


Sunday, September 2, 2012

On Finding True Love

Dear Mackenzie,

We all grow up reading fairy tales about true love and about happily ever after.  What little girl hasn’t fantasized that she’s Snow White or Cinderella, saved by the magical kiss of her one true love? A young girl’s imagining of her wedding day is the ultimate manifestation of the fairy tale. 

As I approached my own wedding to your wonderful mom, lots of people started to weigh in with opinions.  When it all got a little dicey, a friend of mine gave me good advice.  “Never forget, Norm”, he said, “your wedding day is for two people and two people only- the bride and her mother”.  Yes, it was a funny line. And it was probably true.

And what about guys? Well, boys don’t acknowledge it as readily but it turns out the fairy tale effect applies to us too.  We dream of being the handsome prince who slays the dragon and wins the kingdom, and whose valor and courage is rewarded with our very own fantasy princess and happily ever after.

For those of us who think we may not be handsome enough to be the right kind of leading man, or beautiful enough to be the right kind of leading lady, fear not. Meet Shrek and Princess Fiona, two green and ugly ogres who despite their physical shortcomings, found each other and true love, and lived happily ever after (well, at least until the sequel sent them on a new adventure). There’s a fairy tale for everybody.

On the other end of the spectrum, literature is full of tragic stories about star-crossed lovers who, unable to be with their one and only soul mate, decide life is not worth living without each other.

The most famous of these is probably the story of two young lovers named Romeo and Juliet. They have to marry in secret because of a long-standing feud between his family and hers. Towards the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo thinks that Juliet has killed herself.

Devastated, Romeo buys poison from a local apothecary (something between the local pharmacist and the local drug dealer) and takes his own life.  Juliet then awakens from her self-induced coma and, realizing that Romeo has killed himself for her, stabs herself to death so they can be together for all eternity.

Lancelot and Guinevere. Tristan and Isolde. Cleopatra and Marc Antony. By the way, Mackenzie, I hope one day you’ll read these wonderful classics.  They will undoubtedly make you cry, but they’ll also move you and inspire you and titillate you.

Whether it’s happily ever after or death by soul mate, these two sides of the same coin all seem to make the same point: that of the seven billion or so people on this earth, there is one and only one person destined for each of us. Can that be possible? And if it is, what are the odds that we will find each other? (I know, I know, one in seven billion). Those are some very long odds to say the least.

But is that how it all works in the real world?  Is there really only one person for each of us? I don’t know.

Most people have a very difficult time finding a soul mate specifically because they believe it’s all supposed to happen magically.  We’ve been raised to believe that when it’s our turn, Cupid shoots his arrow of love and our Cinderella or Prince Charming magically appears.  It’s not that simple.

As you’ll already know by the time you read this letter, I actually did find a soul mate. Yet if you re-read my letter to you called “How I Met Your Mother”, you’ll know that it took me some twenty plus years to marry her after I first laid eyes on her.  Had I been smart enough when your mom and I first met to understand the importance of giving Cupid a helping hand, your mom and I might have gotten together much earlier.

In the not too distant future, your heart will start to search for true love.  You’ll be tempted to make lists of the traits that make up your perfect mate. Try not to do that. “He has to be funny”, or “we should meet in a romantic way”, or “he has to have a job” have little to do with love or the perfect mate (well, having a job would be good).

You’ll be tempted to think that if he is “the one”, love will blossom on its own. That’s not true. Cupid can shoot his arrows till the cows come home. Unless you are bold and courageous and wiling to risk, Cupid’s arrows may miss their mark.  

You’ll be tempted to listen to your friends when they tell you someone is right for you or wrong for you.  There’s nothing wrong with getting advice on love, but the heart is a lonely hunter. Your friends may be well intentioned, but in the end, only your heart and his truly matter.

Be open to all that the universe may bring your way, my sweet daughter. Relationships aren’t always easy, but falling in love should be.  Chemistry. Pheromones. Swooning. Those elements are all crucially important. If your new love doesn’t take your breath away every so often, that person may not be the one for you.  But pheromones and chemistry are only part of the equation.

Your mom’s sparkly green eyes make me swoon, but so does her kindness. Her touch takes my breath away, but so does her love of you and your sisters. Listen to your heart.  Pay attention to the signals your body sends you.  Look inside your soul.

But don’t give short shrift to those things about a person that only being together over time can convey. For in the end, whether it's Snow White and Prince Charming, or Shrek and Fiona, or Romeo and Juliet, or Norm and Laura, that is the stuff true love is made of.

All my everlasting love,