Saturday, January 28, 2012

On Getting Advice In Life


Dear Mackenzie,

Periodically I get the opportunity to speak at colleges and universities around the country. As you may know, I love public speaking. I’m a big hambone for starters, so I love the attention and the applause. I also get great personal fulfillment from teaching and inspiring young minds.

Given what I do for a living, whenever I lecture I'm asked lots of questions about show business.  Students ask me how to get an agent. They ask me how to get their films produced. They ask me how to become successful actors, writers and directors. Those are all important questions and I answer them as best I can. But as I look at life from my vantage point today, what I wish someone had told me when I was in school is something altogether different.

My family immigrated to the United States when I was eight years old. I started the third grade in a new country, not knowing a single word of English and without a single friend. I was an outsider. I was disoriented. I wanted desperately to assimilate.

Throughout my youth, the people positioned to guide my thinking told me all the things I couldn’t do.  Things I couldn’t do because I was an immigrant, or because of my height (or lack of it), or because our family was not rich.  No doubt they were trying to help and protect me, but the advice I got from these so-called mentors was wrong. What I want to pass on to you is what I wish they had told me instead.

Don’t let fear paralyze you.  There is nothing innately wrong with fear.  It may save your life one day, figuratively or even literally.  Fear is a survival mechanism hard-wired into our reptilian brain. Let fear work for you when necessary, but don’t let it overtake you. Too many people don’t follow their dreams and live unfulfilled lives because they are afraid to fail. They are afraid to be rejected. They are afraid to look foolish.

You be the opposite. Be afraid not to try.  Be afraid not to risk. Be afraid not to live your life as fully as you deserve. Take at least one chance every day on behalf of your heart. Take at least one chance every day in your career. Take at least one chance every day in everything that gives your life meaning. You’ll win a few and lose a few. You’ll laugh more than you can imagine and cry more than you think you can bear.  But you’ll never regret reaching for the stars. Les Brown, the well-known motivational speaker, likes to say that when most people die, their epitaph could easily read “dead, but not used up”.  Don’t just exist, my sweet daughter. Live!

Have a love of learning. I don’t necessarily mean academics, although they often go hand in hand.  But I hope as you continue to develop you’ll love to read. I hope you’ll have a native curiosity about biology, or literature, or comparative religions, or lacrosse and its lore, or fashion, or astronomy, or any of the things that make life and humanity so miraculous.  I was never a particularly great student, but somewhere along the way I fell in love with reading. I found that books helped me escape to faraway places. I found that they gave shape to my innermost feelings and gave voice to my opinions and beliefs. Books have given me an appreciation of the beauty of language that has enriched my life immensely.  May you have that same glorious experience.

And finally, believe in yourself.  Others will perceive you as you perceive yourself and to quote Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. My father’s father (your great-grandfather) was a fascinating person. You would have loved him, and he would have adored you. He was intelligent, passionate, caring, and courageous.  When I was in college he and I spent many hours at his dining room table discussing everything under the sun. While my grandmother fed us until we were ready to burst we’d talk politics, love (he and his wife were married for more than sixty years), religion and anything else that crossed either of our minds. 

By then he was already in his mid-seventies. In the mid 1940’s, when my grandfather was about fifty, he moved his entire family from Europe to South America to start a new life.  He did not speak one word of Spanish at the time. Imagine that! Imagine having to start all over at fifty in a distant land where you don’t even speak the language. Yet your great-grandfather did just that. He learned Spanish, and then he rose to a high level at the company where he worked in Montevideo.  I suspect running from the Nazis was a pretty good motivator too.

At age seventy, he and my grandma Lilly decided they wanted to be closer to us, so they picked up and moved continents again. My grandfather spoke no English, but he got a job as a bookkeeper in Cleveland because he didn’t want my grandmother and he to be dependent on my parents.  At seventy!  I once asked him how he managed to do all that in his life. “I believed in myself”, he told me, “and I knew if I believed in myself then others would too”.

Mackenzie, you have been blessed with God-given gifts. As I write this letter you seem to have a passion and a talent for the arts.  Maybe those will remain life-long pursuits. But who knows? You’re ten. Maybe as you get older you’ll discover that you have a privileged mind for science. Maybe as you get older you’ll love carpentry instead, or archeology, or planting flowers.  Maybe you’ll understand the value of baseball cards and make a life out of that. Maybe in the future when you look under the hood of a car you’ll see art.

Use these gifts however they unfurl. Savor them without apology. Go forth and fulfill your destiny. And may all your impossible dreams come true.

All my everlasting love,

Dad


Friday, January 20, 2012

On How I Met Your Mother


Dear Mackenzie,

This is a story about the hand of God. What in the Jewish tradition we call B’sheret.  This is the story of your mother and me.

Your mom was the “it” girl at Cleveland Heights High School, and I was in love with her from afar. Unfortunately I was not the “it” anything, and Laura didn’t know me.  One night at the local skating rink I saw my big chance to ask her out.  Your mom was there with some friends, probably watching her hockey playing boyfriend, and I went up to her and said “Hi Laura”.  “Hi” she answered sweetly.  After an awkward silence during which I couldn’t summon the courage to say anything further, she drifted away. 

High school ended and your mom and I both went on with our respective lives.  She went to Ohio State, and then got married, became a mom, and moved to Pennsylvania. I went to law school in California, stayed, and went to work in the entertainment industry.  That was it for your mom and me for many years.

Now, my sweet daughter, you may be wondering how this is a story about the hand of God.  Aside from a fleeting moment at a skating rink, our lives could not have been more disconnected if we had tried.  But listen to this.

One day about fifteen years ago I had lunch with a producer (in Hollywood a lot of business is done over meals) and it turned out he is also from Cleveland.  He told me about a talent manager who had gone to the same high school as your mom and me.  Then she and I went to lunch (see what I mean about meals in Hollywood?), became friends, and I told her about my secret high school crush on Laura Givner.
 
She knew your mom and told me Laura was married, had two children, and lived in Pennsylvania.  That news gave me a twinge of regret but to be fair, didn’t rock me the way a story about ill-fated lovers could or should have.  After all, our love affair had played out many years earlier, and solely in my own head.  I attributed the regret I did feel to things left unsaid or undone generally in my younger days, and didn’t give it much more thought than that.

Then in early 1999 my friend called.  “Guess what”, she teased.  “Laura Givner is in town. Want to join us for dinner?” At the time, of course, I never imagined a future with your mom.  I simply assumed my strong desire to see her was of the “what happened to the ‘it’ girl” variety, not of the “she’s my soul mate” variety. For weeks afterward, I repeatedly asked my friend about the dinner but it never materialized. Finally I let it go.

Several months later your mom, who by now was back in Pennsylvania, sent me an email. She said that she she’d gotten my email address from our mutual friend, that she had been married but now was divorced, wrote a bit about Heather and Jamie, and asked me how I’d been for the past twenty years. What she didn’t say was that she had no idea who I was.

I was by then in my early forties, successful, and confident about my place in the world. Yet if your mom had said she didn’t remember me I might have reverted back to my high school insecurities and that would have been the end of us.  But she didn’t, and so I didn’t, and the story can continue.

Naturally every story about fate and love has to include the part where the gods toy with the lovers, and this one is no exception.  Since your mom didn’t remember me, she looked up my picture in our high school yearbook. Because the gods have a great sense of humor, that year my picture had been transposed with that of another student. And although I don’t look like Brad Pitt, I sure am Brad Pitt compared to the guy whose picture she saw when she looked me up.  He was a goofy looking kid; funny ears, big frizzy hair, not at all grown into himself.  Who knows, maybe he grew up to look like Brad Pitt.  I hope so.

Now in those days I travelled to New York with some frequency, and after that email I would always suggest to your mom that she drive to the city and meet me for dinner.  She would always decline (re-read the preceding paragraph to see why). One day I finally said, “I think I’ll take the train to Philadelphia and come see you.  What’s your home address?” That got your mother to New York.

On December 18th, 1999 Laura, along with her two friends Sally Comisarow and Sue Furfari, drove to Manhattan from Bucks County.  I had no idea she was bringing bodyguards, and I had made us a reservation at Joe Allen’s.  Joe Allen’s is a favorite eatery for the Broadway crowd, so for my purposes had a huge advantage. Because the clientele to whom it caters sometimes have to get to a show quickly and sometimes unwind leisurely after a show, you can hang out there for hours and no one will bother you, or you can be in and out in thirty minutes.  Since Laura and I had never met…well, you know what I mean… Joe Allen’s would work however things went.  And they serve a mean banana cream pie to boot.

Waiting for Laura in the lobby of my hotel I wasn’t particularly nervous.  That is, until I saw her. Wow! My heart skipped a beat, and then skipped another one.  Your mom didn’t recognize me at all, even when I said hello.  I wasn’t the guy in the picture, but I wasn’t anyone else she knew either.

Unbeknownst to me, Sally and Sue were standing about twenty yards away checking me out, but they didn’t reveal themselves.  We did meet up with them later and all of us walked to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza like two high school kids and their chaperones. I owe Sue and Sally a lot, and I won’t forget what they did for your mom and me. I found out much later they had pushed Laura to come to New York to meet me, finally sealing the deal by agreeing to go with her, and they subsequently cheered us on in the early days when your mom was skeptical about getting into a long distance relationship.

As I said it was December, and cold, and I was wearing the long gray overcoat I used to wear when I went back east during winter.  We had walked into the Olive Garden in midtown to find Sally and Sue, and your mom started to walk upstairs.  I’d never been to that restaurant and didn’t know there was an upstairs.  As I started to walk past your mom took hold of my overcoat.  There was nothing particular in it.  A casual observer could have described the movement as simply one person guiding another by their coat.  But to me, it came across as intensely intimate, sensual, and loving.  I don’t know why.  Yet the moment remains a vivid memory of the instant I knew I wanted to be with your mom forever, and this time for real.

A couple of days later your mom drove back into the city, alone this time, and we went to a Broadway show.  Afterwards we stood in the freezing cold waiting for her car, which was parked in one of those outdoor vertical parking lots on Eighth Avenue that are unique to New York.  Finally I turned to kiss her and suddenly I was back in high school, the “it” girl in my arms at long last. I remember thinking as we kissed that if I had to die right then, at least I had experienced this moment.

Your mom and I wish you many such moments, Mackenzie.  They’re not all romantic ones, of course. I had that magical feeling when you were born.  I had that feeling one night a few years ago when Heather called from San Diego, elated that she had made the cheer squad for a local sports team. I had that feeling watching your aunt Viv walk down the aisle with her husband. I had that feeling teaching Jamie how to drive, even as she was banging up my very expensive car.  Most importantly, I still have that feeling every time I look at your mom and know that finally, really, we are together.

All my everlasting love,

Dad

Saturday, January 14, 2012

On Why I'm Writing to You


Dear Mackenzie,

Shortly after I wrote my first “Letter to Mackenzie”, you overheard your mom and me talking about them.  In your innocent way you asked me why I was writing you letters.  Which of course gave me an idea.  That question called for a letter of its very own.

You were born exactly one month after my forty-fifth birthday.  By then I was already blessed with two wonderful stepdaughters. I hope I’ve had some hand in shaping Heather and Jamie into the amazing young women they’ve both become, but since they entered my life in their teens I had neither the opportunity nor the responsibility to guide them through their early years.  

Being an older dad has its pros and cons.  On the one hand, I have come to believe that I can savor your childhood in a way that a younger dad cannot. It’s not that a younger dad couldn’t appreciate his young child.  He most certainly could and would.  But being older, with my own career well established and with many life experiences under my belt, I feel better equipped to appreciate the miracle that is a young life. I don’t take one bit of it for granted.

On the other hand, I can’t afford to take anything for granted because it’s not certain I’ll be around to watch you grow up.  A young father who has a child at twenty-five or even thirty will still be in his forties when that child graduates from high school.  Barring an accident of fate or of nature, he’ll be there to guide his child into adulthood, to give him or her advice, and to provide comfort when his child skins a heart or skins a knee. 

That’s not necessarily so for an older dad.  Since you were born, I find that I sometimes count my life expectancy in what I call “Mackenzie” years. In other words if I live to be say, sixty five, I’ll see you through your high school years and into college.  If I live to eighty, I’ll see you to thirty-five. And if I’m fortunate enough to live to ninety, I’ll see you to the age I was when you were born. Wow. But even with today’s medical and biological advances, ninety, or eighty, or even sixty-five is not promised in the way that forty-five or fifty is.

During the first few years of your life, I found myself telling your mom on many occasions how I hoped to savor the experience of you growing up. That there are so many things I want to say to you when you turn eighteen.  And then when you get married.  And then again when you have a child of your own.  And so on.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not obsessed with death or anything like that.  On the contrary, my parents and grandparents have lived well into their seventies, eighties and nineties and I have every intention of doing the same.

And as I’ve said to your mom, if I were to die pre-maturely who would teach you how to swing a bat or field a ground ball? Who would bore you with our favorite books and movies, or for that matter who would remind you what your own favorites were when you were little? Or tell you who the fourteenth president of the United States was (It was Franklin Pierce by the way).

Your mom has a wonderful sense of humor, by which I mean she laughs at my dumb jokes.  She also indulges my lunacies with a serene patience.  One day a few years ago, I was going on and on about what I wanted to tell you on your 18th birthday.  And your mom, in part because she thought it was a good idea and in part to get me out of her hair said to me, “Well, why don’t you write it down?”

So I did.  That kept me sane for a while.  And then Jamie turned 21 and I wrote her a letter for her 21st birthday (don’t worry, we gave her gifts as well). And one day we were telling some friends about the day that you were born and your mom thought that could make a great letter. And of course, I love telling the story of how your mom and I got together, so I thought I should write that one too.

And then Heather, who at the time was living in Cleveland and loves to dance, tried out for the Cavaliers NBA dance squad. The night before the finals, I wrote Heather a letter from 2500 miles away which I hoped would give her confidence and let her know that even though I wasn’t there physically, I loved her and was rooting for her.  I hope the letter helped Heather.  I know it soothed my own aching heart, and served to lessen my sense of helplessness that I was not with her in a time of need.

So I started to think, why not keep writing these letters? Over time I plan to give you, Heather, and Jamie lots of advice whether you want it or not. I plan to tell you lots of stories about your lives and ours.  I plan to inspire you, to protect you, and to guide you. I plan to make you laugh, to console you when you are down, and to celebrate with you when you are happy.  Yet maybe these letters can help if during some important moment, your mom or I are not around. Maybe many years from now you’ll read the letters to your own children to pass on some family lore or, allowing for some personal vanity, to share some memories of your mom and the old man.

One final thing, which I hope you’ll share with Heather and Jamie. These letters are yours, but the themes within them apply to you all. Once when you were about six, I was telling you how much I love you and your sisters. As befits a six year old, you asked me if I loved you best. In fact, I love the three of you in equal, boundless amounts; and everything in my heart, and all that I am is for the three of you and your wonderful mom.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading these letters, my sweet daughter, and that they will envelop you with all the love that I feel as I write them.

All my everlasting love,

Dad

Friday, January 6, 2012

On The Day That You Were Born


Dear Mackenzie,

September 11, 2001 was a dark day. The terrible events in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania shocked and saddened your mom and me, and most of the world.  It was an abject lesson on the horrible things people can do. Yet for your mom and me, 9/11 also was and remains one of the happiest days of our lives. 

Since you have two older sisters, you know that your mom was no novice when it came to being pregnant.  She’s also very considerate and never wants to inconvenience people. Both facts are relevant to this story.

Because the physical act of childbirth can be very painful for the mother, a birthing technique was developed in the 1940’s by a French obstetrician named Fernand Lamaze to help moms cope with the pain. The Lamaze method focuses on proper breathing, soothing massages (your mom’s personal favorite) and so on.

At our Lamaze class your mom told me she wanted to experience your birth without the help of pain medication, as she had done with your sisters Heather and Jamie. I didn’t want your mom to suffer any more pain than necessary, but I took comfort that she knew what she was doing.

Big city life being what it is, Mom’s obstetrician Stephen Rabin was called as an expert witness at a trial in Palm Springs.  He was scheduled to testify on September 12th, which was right around your mom’s due date.  Your mom and I wanted Dr. Rabin to deliver you, so we agreed that sometime on the afternoon of September 11th, Dr. Rabin would induce labor (don’t ask me how) and deliver you that evening before leaving town.  I would come home at lunch and off we’d go.  So much for best-laid plans.

I woke up about 2 AM on the morning of the 11th.  Mom was awake and having severe Braxton Hicks contractions.  Braxton Hicks is like false labor.  For lack of a better explanation, it’s the body rehearsing how it will get the baby out. I immediately went into full battle mode, asking your mom how far apart her contractions were, how long each was lasting, and whatever else I’d been taught to ask. I also insisted we call Dr. Rabin immediately.

Your mom would have none of it and didn’t want to bother Dr. Rabin in the middle of the night.  She chuckled at my naiveté and gently suggested I go back to sleep.  At 2:45 AM I woke up again to find Laura still wrestling with her Braxton Hicks contractions. Again I urged that we call the doctor and again she demurred.  “Honey,” she said, “there’s no reason to wake him. I’m fine”.  Then she had another contraction, which seemed to last forever, following which she said that with this pregnancy she might take drugs after all.

That was it for me.  If Laura of all people was talking about taking drugs, she was in full-blown labor whether she knew it or not. Over her objection I woke Dr. Rabin and filled him in.  He told me to get your mom to the hospital “as soon as humanly possible” and that he would meet us there.

Yikes.  I woke Jamie (we had driven Heather to San Diego to start college a week or so earlier), rushed everyone into the car, and started driving to the hospital like a madman. By the way, your mom would probably say I always drive like a madman and her labor only gave me an excuse in case the police stopped us. She’s wrong, of course.  I’m an excellent driver.  Sometimes I’m just inattentive. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

In any event, we arrived at Cedars-Sinai emergency at 3:45 AM.  An OB nurse examined your mom, pronounced that she was fully effaced and ten millimeters dilated (wide open and ready to go for those of us who are not doctors) and sent us immediately to a delivery room. She said the baby – you – was about to come and it was too late for an epidural. Then Dr. Rabin arrived, and chastised me (!!) for waiting so long to call him.

Dr. Rabin got Mom settled and hooked her up to a machine designed to monitor the baby’s heartbeat.  He was a bit concerned that you weren’t “coming down the chute” quickly enough given the full dilation, so he decided to manually “break Mom’s water” (no, I don’t know what that means either).  Dr. Rabin also instructed me to watch the fetal monitor and let him know if it went under 100 heartbeats per minute. Then he left the room, probably to ingest some caffeine.

As you know Mackenzie, your grandpa is an obstetrician, and a really good one. During your mom’s pregnancy, I had asked him a million questions and he always took the time to calm my nerves.  Sometime after you were born, your grandpa told me with great amusement that an obstetrician will often ask the dad to keep an eye on the fetal heart monitor if the dad seems overly nervous.  The assignment gives nervous dad something specific to do while basically keeping him out harm’s way.  I also tried to do all the things I had learned in Lamaze class.  In hindsight I was probably a great nuisance, but your mom was kind enough not to call me on it.

Then suddenly it happened. Without warning, the fetal monitor fell from 120 to 110 to 100, and then to 60 in a matter of a few seconds.  I couldn’t believe my eyes. Trying not to sound as alarmed as I felt, I called the nurse and asked her to look at the monitor. The nurse’s reaction to the precipitous drop in your heart rate confirmed to me what I couldn’t bear to think.  Both you and Mom were in trouble.

The doctor exploded into the room, which suddenly resembled a M.A.S.H. unit.  Dr. Rabin was barking orders and nurses were running around. Out of nowhere two other doctors, who I subsequently learned were neo-natal crisis specialists, stood at the door like a SWAT team, game faces on and in full surgical gear.  Dr. Rabin didn’t acknowledge them, but I suspect he was the one who got them there.

Instead, Dr. Rabin locked eyes with your mom.  “Laura”, he said, calm yet in charge. “Look at me. The cord is wrapped around the baby’s neck. That’s why the heart rate keeps dropping.” “We have to get the baby out NOW! PUSH! PUSH! PUSH!”

My heart was stuck in my throat. “Dear Lord,” I silently prayed with fervor I didn’t know I possessed.  “Please don’t take my wife and daughter from me”.  Dr. Rabin continued to coach.  Your mom continued to push.  I continued to pray.

When I was in college, my sweet daughter, sometimes I would donate blood at the Red Cross to make a little cash. One day while giving blood I panicked and started to hyperventilate. The doctor had me breathe into a paper bag and within seconds my breathing stabilized. I was unhooked and given some orange juice. A few minutes later the doctor came over to see how I was doing and I told him I was fine. “That’s why I make the big bucks,” he chuckled. “For giving me a paper bag?” I smiled. “For knowing to have you breathe into it” he smiled back.

And so it was with Dr. Rabin.  Somehow, between his focus with Mom and some weird cone-like gizmo he used, at 4:36 AM PST on the morning of September 11, 2001, you hurtled into this world.  Dr. Rabin confirmed that everything was normal, and I took my first breath in forever.  Once Dr. Rabin did his so-called Apgar evaluation (you scored a nine if you want to know) he gave the two SWAT doctors the slightest of nods and they were gone. Just another day at the office.

The relief, the exultation, and the unbridled love we felt as we held you in our arms are difficult to put into words even now. I took dozens of pictures, only to find out later that in the craziness of the moment I had forgotten to put film in the camera! Yet nothing could dampen our bliss.

And then about an hour later the planes hit the towers and the world turned upside down. But even in the context of that tragedy you reminded us on that day, as you do every day, that no matter how dark things get there is always light. You also reminded us that sometimes you have to fight for that light, and pray for it, and push for it as if your very life depended on it.  You, along with Heather and Jamie, are our eternal light.

All my everlasting love,

Dad