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,


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,

Monday, November 5, 2012

On Your Letter to the President of the United States

Dear President Obama,

My name is Mackenzie Aladjem. I am eleven years old.  I live in Los Angeles California and I’m in the sixth grade. I’ve been studying the White House in my civics class, and I know tomorrow our country will be electing a President to lead us for the next four years.

My daddy told me that it’s very important that everyone vote tomorrow.  He says it’s our privilege and our duty as American citizens. He says that democracy only works if we all make sure our voices heard.  My daddy is pretty smart, but it’s obviously been a very long time since he took civics in school. I’m only eleven! Doesn’t he realize they won’t let me vote until I’m eighteen?  He means well. I don’t want to burst his bubble.

Anyway, Mr. President, if I could vote I think I would vote for you.  I’ll tell you why.

I know I’m only eleven, but I don’t want anyone to tell me what I can do with my body. Why does your opponent not support a woman’s right to choose? Next the government will tell me what color I can paint my fingernails. Or forbid me from dip dyeing my hair.  And what about when I’m a full-grown woman?  And all that stuff. Gross.

Do you watch the television show “Nurse Jackie”, Mr. President? I’m an actress on that series, although my parents don’t really let me watch it other than my own scenes (they say it’s not really for kids). 

“Jackie” is a fictional nurse, but I know you were behind the law designed to provide affordable health care for people no matter how rich or poor they are.  Why would your opponent be against that? My daddy told me that your opponent is very rich. But not everyone is rich, right?  Doesn’t he have poor friends? How does he plan to help them?

And oh yeah, I love acting. I love dancing and singing too. Your opponent says he would cut funding for the arts. That makes me sad. Not everything has to be to make money. Art is part of what makes people immortal. Why wouldn’t we support that? And I heard on television that your opponent wanted to kill Big Bird. That makes me sad.  And also very angry.  Big Bird must live!!!

Mr. President, I love my friend Hannah.  She and I hang out together and she tutors me in math. She always tells me I’m very smart, but I know without her help I would fall behind in school. But not everyone can afford tutors and private schools. My daddy went to public schools, for example.  But that was like a hundred years ago. We have to make sure public schools can help my friends whose families don’t have a lot of money.  They deserve a hand up too. Right?

And speaking of love, if two people love each other why can’t they get married to each other just because they have the same private parts?  Can’t their hearts beat as one too?  And if they do, why wouldn’t they have the same rights as two people with different private parts whose hearts beat as one?  Who could be against that?

Now here’s the thing, Mr. President.  Your opponent wants to cut taxes on people who make a certain amount of money.  I like that! Believe it or not that would help me and my college fund. And I could buy a laptop. Or an iPhone 5. Or those cool new boots I want. But I also know that, like Mom says, we have to share our blessings with those less fortunate.  And Dad says that it’s in everyone’s selfish best interest to work towards the collective good.  I have no idea what that means. I think he just likes to hear himself talk sometimes.

So I hope you win tomorrow, Mr. President. You have the eleven-year-old vote, at least at our house.  If you do win, though, don’t forget you still have a lot of work to do that you didn’t get done the first time around.  Don’t’ forget where you came from.

And don’t forget the little people. By which I mean 12 and under.

Good luck, and God bless.

Mackenzie Aladjem