Friday, March 30, 2012

On the Institution of Marriage


Dear Mackenzie,

“If love is blind and marriage is an institution, then marriage is an institution for the blind.”

“Every time I find Mr. Right my husband scares him off.”

Henny Youngman’s famous “Take my wife...please”.


Why are there so many dumb jokes about marriage?  What’s the institution of marriage really like?

Shortly before your mom and I got married, I asked your aunt Viv for a straight answer to that very question. She had been married a number of years by that time. She also knew that like many males in Los Angeles, I had a tendency to run away from commitment. "Marriage is not always fun” she said, “and it's not always easy. But it’s always worthwhile."

My grandpa Goldberg (your great-grandfather) was born in Austria--or maybe Poland, I’m not sure, in 1894, and my granny Goldberg was born in Poland in 1900. At that time in many parts of Europe, marriages were still arranged. No one in our immediate family remembers with certainty, but I believe their marriage was indeed an arranged one. I do know they married very young.

My grandfather had grandiose dreams, and sometime around 1920 he tried to immigrate to America. The quota system at the time kept him out of the United States so he decided to move to South America instead. As was the custom in those days my grandfather went ahead alone, promising my grandmother that once he settled and found a job she would join him.

The story I’ve heard over the years is that when my grandfather got to Uruguay, he met another woman and fell in love. Torn between duty and love, my grandfather chose duty.  He brought my grandmother to Montevideo, where they had a long and apparently unhappy marriage. 

Not long after my grandfather died, my paternal grandparents told me a heartbreaking story. After the funeral, a number of people were sharing memories of your great-grandfather.  Everyone was recounting how he had loved his daughter (your grandma), how he had loved your aunt Viv and me, and so on.  And finally Granny Goldberg started to weep and said, “Yes, he loved everyone in the world except me”. 

What a terrible, terrible weight with which to be burdened after a lifetime of marriage. I can’t begin to imagine how my grandmother must have felt; a young woman filled with life and hope, leaving her friends and family behind to follow her husband to a distant new world, only to find or suspect once she got there that her husband loved someone else.

Remember that this was almost a hundred years ago.  Today both would have had more choices available to them and quite probably it would all have gone down very differently.  Yet marriage remains as challenging as ever.  In an age where divorce is not the social stain it once was, it’s even more unusual for two people to be willing to grow together while giving each other the room to find individual fulfillment.

Marriage isn’t perfect. Sometimes I jump up and down begging for attention from your mom but she’s too exhausted by the challenges of her day. It drives me nuts.  Sometimes your mom needs me to be there for her and simply listen, and I don’t answer the bell. It drives her nuts. Sometimes we get angry at each other. Sometimes we pout (well, I pout).

These days temptation threatens to derail marriages more than ever, and there are more opportunities than ever to act on those temptations. When times are tough, pulling the ripcord can feel a lot easier than staying to fight for the relationship.

Studies have shown that half of all first marriages end in divorce, that two-thirds of second marriages end in divorce, and that three-quarters of third marriages end in divorce.  Fourth marriages? Fuggedaboutit. So why stay?

Well, my sweet daughter, everyone who stays married does so for different reasons. You’ll no doubt have your own. For me, I stay because your mom is my best friend.  I stay because your mom is the one person in the world I trust with my very life.  I stay because I miss her when we’re apart.  I stay because I feel whole when we’re together. I stay because whether we’re swinging from the chandeliers or changing a light bulb in a chandelier, there’s no one with whom I’d rather do either.

Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher hold the Guinness world record for the longest marriage in history.  Before Mr. Fisher died recently, he and his wife were married for 86 years. Asked the secret to the longevity of their marriage, Mrs. Fisher replied modestly that sometimes “God ties great knots”.

Not too long ago your aunt Viv was very, very sick.  She spent almost two months in the hospital, which in this day and age is unusual and dangerous. Things got lots worse before they got better.  When she was finally out of the woods I spoke to her about her experience. Among other things, Viv told me she didn’t think she would have made it through without your uncle Ron. 

She said Ron stood like a rock for her throughout the entire ordeal.  He took care of the kids and the house. He worked a full time job. He navigated the doctors, managed the family dynamics, and still found the time and energy to spend hours at the hospital looking after her. 

Viv said that during the past few months she has come to understand in a very profound way what marriage is really about. She said that if for the rest of their lives together Ron never again held her hand, or bought her flowers, or even told her that he loved her, Ron's love for her and for the sanctity of their marriage would nonetheless be forever engrained in her memory.

For your aunt Viv that's the good news. The even better news for Viv is that a spouse who stands anchored like that during a terribly low point in your life is also likely to keep holding your hand, and to keep buying you flowers, and to keep telling you he loves you. 

In the end that's the kind of marriage we all want and deserve, and the kind of marriage your mom and I wish for you.

All my everlasting love,

Dad


Friday, March 23, 2012

On the Pressure to Fit In


Dear Mackenzie,

You’re way too young to have studied Shakespeare, but by the time you read this letter Polonius’ famous admonition to his son in Hamlet that “to thine own self be true” may be familiar to you.  As I recall, Polonius was actually telling his son to look after his own interests, but fortunately the phrase has evolved over time into something more profound.

These days, being true to yourself means following your own path rather than the path others would have you follow. More importantly for you as you head into your teens, it means holding on to your core values even in the face of pressure to do otherwise.

Our core principles are important.  They guide how we live our lives, how we comport ourselves, and how we interact with those around us.  Honesty. Kindness. Loyalty. It’s all pretty straight forward.  

Fitting in is important too. The need to belong is universal and hard-wired. We all want and deserve to be part of the in-crowd, at least once in a while. And whether we like it or not, we all feel like outsiders once in a while too.

So what is it about group dynamics that so often pits belonging against our principles? I don’t know the science behind it, but I bet that deep down it has something to do with how our Cro-magnon ancestors stayed alive.  The Cro-magnons were warring peoples and the various tribes were constantly fighting with each other, at least when they weren’t busy fighting the Neanderthals.  In short, being different got you killed.

Today being different doesn’t necessarily get you killed, but it often gets you ostracized, especially as a young adult.  In my high school days, one was susceptible to being made fun of if you wore glasses (four-eyes), or if you wore braces (metal-mouth), or if you were strait-laced (dork), or if you did well in school (nerd).  And those were the more innocent ones!

I wish I could tell you, my sweet daughter, that you’ll never be tempted to compromise your values simply to fit in. But in truth you certainly will.  What’s worse, life and the human condition being what they are, you’ll probably be tested when you’re at your most vulnerable and when your need to feel accepted will be the strongest.

I wish I could tell you that if you hold firm to your principles in those moments, the group will embrace your fortitude, realize the error of their ways, and hold you in high esteem. Unfortunately the opposite is far more likely. You may find their guns re-trained on you as the target of their ridicule.

And I wish I could tell you that if that happens, the courage you’ll have exhibited will at least make you feel great about yourself. That you’ll realize those who would ask you to compromise your values are not real friends, and that you’ll also realize those who would have you participate in making someone feel bad are not worthy of you.

Well, that actually will be the case, although it won’t happen right away.  First you’ll feel alienated and betrayed. You’ll wonder why you stood your ground and you’ll wonder if it was worth it. You’ll feel certain that no one would have done the same for you. Though those dark thoughts will seem very real to you at the time, they are not. They are fleeting impostors.

In those difficult moments you must have faith in and hold tight to your core beliefs.  For if you do, after a while your spirit will once again take flight and you’ll understand that not fitting in can sometimes be a blessing.  But you’ve known that from a very young age, Mackenzie.

A few years ago when you were in second grade, you came home from school one day and told us you had learned about cigarettes and the health dangers they pose.  You were both articulate and passionate on the subject, and your mom and I were duly impressed. 

Being the willful young person you were, you set about on a mission of pointing out every smoker you saw, whether you knew them or not, and urging your mom and me to discuss their unsafe habit with them.  Even your sister Jamie, who hopefully will not be a smoker by the time you read this (hint, hint, Jamie) started sneaking around to steal her puffs lest she incur your wrath.

You went to such an extreme that your mom and I started to worry you might take matters into your own hands.  We didn’t think an adult would take kindly to being chastised by a seven year old, irrespective of your good intentions.

One night around that time period I had a business dinner at the Havana Club, a well-known restaurant and cigar club in Beverly Hills. Over the course of dinner and drinks everyone indulged, and when I arrived home I apparently reeked of cigars.

You were outraged, and asked me if I had smoked as well.  The easy answer was “no”, but I didn’t want to lie to you so I admitted that I had.  You were very disappointed in me, which I have to say broke my heart, and you asked me why I had done it.  The truth is that I enjoy a good cigar now and again, but that answer clearly wasn’t going to cut it with you just then.  So I said that since everyone at the table was smoking I had a cigar as well. 

“That’s no excuse”, you countered, as indignant as any seven year old I’ve ever seen. “And if you were getting peer pressure from your friends you should have gotten up and left the restaurant”. 

Shakespeare himself couldn’t have said that any better.

All my everlasting love,

Dad


Friday, March 16, 2012

On "Daddy-sitting"


Dear Mackenzie,

Parenting is hard.

A few days ago in Houston, Texas, a mother of ten children threw a birthday party at the local Chuck E. Cheese for her five-year-old daughter and then left her at the restaurant.  

The good news is that she didn’t do it on purpose. The bad news is that she didn’t realize her mistake until 8AM the following morning, when she was getting her other nine kids ready for school. Fortunately the child is fine, and the police said they “plan to analyze the surveillance video” to decide whether or not criminal charges are warranted.

No doubt the event was traumatic for the little girl, though hopefully she won’t remember much of it as time goes by. And certainly the police should take these matters seriously. Yet I have little doubt that if I had ten children to look after I would periodically forget one or another of them all over the city. At the very least.

When you were six, my sweet daughter, your mom went to Cleveland to cheer Heather on as she tried out for the Cavs dance squad. It was the first time I had been called upon to take care of you alone for any length of time.  I was excited to have a whole weekend of bonding time with you, but I was a little anxious too. What if something came up that I couldn’t handle?

Your mom assured me that she was just a phone call away.  She also reminded me that I could always call Jamie, who was living nearby on the USC campus.  I chided your mom for implying that our college-age daughter might be better equipped to handle a child care issue than me, but secretly I took comfort that Jamie was indeed here if I got in over my head.

In those days you took a dance class every Friday night at Millennium Dance Studios in North Hollywood.  That Friday I took great care to dress you in the outfit Mom had set out for you before she left. I made sure you had your water, your dance bag and your dance shoes. I triple checked the time of the class so you wouldn’t be late, and I made us leave for class way too early in case we hit traffic. When we got there, the parking gods smiled on us and we got a spot right inside the Millennium lot.  So far so good.

After class, we decided to make a night of it and go to the pizza place down the street. I was delighted at how smoothly things were going and suggested we walk to the restaurant. What I didn’t realize is that Millennium locks their parking lot at night, and when we returned from dinner we couldn’t get to our car.  

You got scared and started to cry, which is when my respect for your mother’s parenting skills increased exponentially. Suddenly I was scared too, but for a different reason. I knew we could simply take a cab home and get the car in the morning. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I had no idea how to comfort you.

I put on my happiest face and told you this would be a fun adventure for the two us to share. I said that Mom and Heather would be very jealous when they heard we got to take a taxi ride together. That seemed to pacify you a little, so I decided not to mention that I had left the house keys inside the car and thus had no clue how we’d get in the house once we got there.  

Jamie had a key, and I called her on the cab ride home. You were being quite brave, but you were still sniffling when I got Jamie’s voicemail so I made a point of being very jovial as I left her a message. Unfortunately, when you heard the part about my not having the house keys you started bawling again.

Like most people of her generation Jamie rarely listens to her voicemails, so I covered my bases and sent her a text as well. Yet by the time the taxi arrived at home Jamie had returned neither my call nor my text.

Plan B was for me to jump over the gate, but you were now crying for a third time and begged me not to leave you alone outside the gate. I didn’t know what to do. I told you that nothing bad could ever happen to you as long as we were together, and that I’d have the gate open and be back in no time. When that didn’t calm you, I told you to count while I went over the gate. I promised that I’d give you a dollar for every number you got to before I was back.

Yes, that’s pathetic. I admit it. But six dollars and a bruised knee later we were at least inside the property, and we caught a break when a glass door to the family room had been left unlocked.  We were home at last.

Mackenzie, you could not have been more adorable or courageous that night. I suggested you write Mom a note about your bravery for her to read upon her return, and after some chocolate pudding and 20 minutes of cuddling you fell asleep in my arms. I was still a little in shock about how the evening had unfolded when Jamie finally called in.  “What’s up?” she asked innocently.

The next morning you told Heather and Mom about my first solo flight as a parent, adding that “daddy-sitting” wasn’t as easy as you had expected. For my part, I told your mom to please hurry home.

By the way, a couple of weeks ago you told me that for a dad, I wasn’t being very smart about something.  You had a big smile on your face. I thought that was an interesting comment and I asked you what I wasn’t being smart about.  You explained that I had told you I didn’t want you to read the “letters to Mackenzie” until you were eighteen, but that since I was posting the letters online you could read them at any time.

Well, that was certainly a point well taken. I asked if you had indeed read the letters. “No, daddy”, you scolded me, “you told me not to.”

You then asked me why you couldn’t read the letters for eight more years and if there was something bad in the letters. I replied that on the contrary the letters grew out of my profound love for you, but that given some of the themes in the letters you might savor them more as an adult.

I could see the wheels turn in your head, and then another big smile crossed your face.  “Daddy,” you said, “will you write me a letter I can read now?” 

Yep.  And here it is.

All my everlasting love,

Dad


Friday, March 9, 2012

On the Fragility of Life


Dear Mackenzie,

Sometimes you roll your eyes at me when I suggest that you spend more time with your sisters, or that you skype with your aunt and uncle, or that you call your grandpa.  At your age collecting family memories to cherish later in life doesn’t feel as important as say, playing with your friend Bellah or downloading a new app.  But it will.

On the afternoon of October 1, 2003, I left work early and headed to the City of Hope in Duarte, California to donate platelets.  All I knew about platelets is that they are cell fragments that circulate in the blood, that they have something to do with the blood’s ability to clot, and that you need them to live.

I was queasy about the process, and since your Aunt Viv is a nurse I had asked her how donating platelets worked. She said the whole thing took about an hour and a half and (at least in those days) you could see the blood get pumped out of your arm, go through a machine, and then return to your body. I really didn’t want to go through with it, but a friend’s father was battling bone marrow cancer and donating platelets felt like a tangible way that I could help.

My cell phone rang as I pulled into the parking lot. Viv’s number came up on the caller ID, but I was apprehensive enough without hearing another medical explanation so I let the call go to voice mail. I figured I would call her back on the drive home, once the worst part of my day was over.

When I got back in the car a couple of hours later, I saw that Viv had called five or six more times. When I called her back, she was very distraught and told me that your grandma Sonia had been in a terrible car accident and that no one could locate her. My mind reeled. What did that even mean? For starters, if she had been in a car accident, wouldn’t she be at the site of the crash?

Viv explained that your grandma belonged to a cultural group called the International Women Associates.  Your grandma and twenty or so other women from that group had taken a day trip to a Japanese floral exhibit in Rockford, Illinois. On the way back to Chicago, a tractor-trailer had barreled into their tour bus on interstate 90. A number of the women had died on impact, and more than a dozen others had been taken to various area hospitals.  Viv said that from the little she had been able to garner it appeared that your grandma was one of those.

She promised to keep calling around and said she would get back to me the moment she knew something.  Your mom had already spoken to Viv by the time I reached her, and Laura was calling Chicago area hospitals as well.

The drive back from the City of Hope took forever, and the radio silence from Viv made it even worse. Your grandma and grandpa had been divorced for many years by that time, but your grandpa had been a well-known physician in Chicago when he had lived there and he too was working the phones. No one seemed to know anything.

I didn’t know what I could do but I didn’t feel comfortable doing nothing, so I decided to take a red-eye to Chicago. You and Laura took me to the airport and with my heart in my throat I got on the plane. I hoped that by the time I landed I would be greeted with some good news.

Mackenzie, your grandma came from very humble beginnings. Your great-grandfather was an unsuccessful traveling salesman in Montevideo, Uruguay. They were dirt poor, and as I understand it your grandma had to drop out of high school to help support the family.  She married your grandpa when she was twenty-three, and after Viv and I were born our family immigrated to the United States in 1964.

Although your grandma had dropped out of high school she never lost her thirst for knowledge. She spoke five languages fluently, and once your aunt Viv and I went off to college your grandma went back to school too.  She somehow finagled a high school diploma, and in her forties went to college and got both a B.A. and a master’s degree. In her late fifties, your grandma earned her P.H.D.  That was one of the proudest achievements of her life.

We had seen your grandma just a few weeks before.  She had flown to Los Angeles to help celebrate your second birthday, and you spent much of the trip in her arms.  She had stayed at the Sofitel on Beverly Boulevard, which was her favorite hotel in Los Angeles. Your grandma loved the elegant rooms and the impeccable service, and most of all she savored the opportunity to speak French with the hotel staff.  

The morning she was scheduled to fly home, I drove to the Sofitel to take her to the airport.  I was waiting in the lobby when the elevator door opened and out stepped your grandma. She was wearing a bright red jacket and was pulling a small rolling suitcase behind her. She didn’t immediately notice me and she walked to the front desk to check out.

As I watched her from the doorway I remember being taken with how regally she carried herself.  She was so poised and confident, so comfortable in her own skin.  That was no accident. Over the previous two decades she had traveled all over the world as the Executive Director of the Alliance Francaise in Chicago.  She had dined with kings and prime ministers. Her friends included diplomats, Nobel laureates, and many of the distinguished literati of Chicago. The palatial lobby of the Sofitel suited her, and I beamed with pride at how far her journey in life had taken her from ultra-humble beginnings to that moment.

As I flew to Chicago, I did the things I suspect most people do in these situations.  I had imaginary conversations with your grandma. I made deals with God.  I wondered how something so bad could happen literally as I was helping someone else in need. 

Unfortunately, my sweet daughter, when I landed the next morning your Aunt Viv delivered the news that your grandma Sonia had not survived. Her journey, at least in this life, was over.

You don’t remember her since you were so young when she died, but over time we hope to tell you lots of great stories about her.  What you should know is that your grandma loved you with all her heart. She was so happy to have you in the world and in her life.  And as she looks down from heaven, she must be bursting with joy and pride at the wonderful young person you’ve become.  

Now go call someone you care about and tell them you love them.

All my everlasting love,
Dad
















Friday, March 2, 2012

On The Importance of Failure


Dear Mackenzie,

Every so often someone will think it’s a good idea to give your mom or me unsolicited advice on how we should be raising you. Interestingly, it’s often someone who doesn’t have kids of their own, and even more often the advice comes on the heels of your being overly active (read obnoxious) in a public place.

On some level I can appreciate that. We’ve all been there.  Yet unless someone observes us engaging in behavior that would warrant calling family services, my visceral instinct is that how we raise you is personal to us (read it’s none of their business), good intentions notwithstanding. 

I’ve similarly learned to keep my opinions to myself when I observe other parents doing or saying things differently (read wrong) than I would. Not long ago I overheard a friend of mine tell his young son that he was “absolutely perfect” and that “everything he did was perfect”. He’s a great young kid for sure.  But if he’s indeed perfect, that trait alone would separate him from the rest of humanity. 

I should have kept my mouth shut and I knew it, but I couldn’t help myself.  I asked my friend (diffidently) if indeed he felt his son was perfect. My friend looked at me like I was crazy and replied that the boy was anything but perfect, but that he wanted to create in him an expectation of success.  I then asked if he didn’t worry that planting the notion of perfection would inhibit his son from trying things he feared he might not do perfectly. The look my friend gave me was my cue to change the subject, but I got to thinking about the best way to create an expectation of success in you.

The problem with telling someone that he or she is perfect to program them for success is that success has little if anything to do with perfection.  On the contrary, success usually follows imperfection and failure.  That doesn’t mean I want you to be comfortable with failure. I don't. I hope you’ll have the same visceral antipathy towards it that I have. At the same time I hope you won’t fear failure, and that you’ll understand and embrace its role in getting to success.  

I’m not suggesting that my friend should be drilling imperfection or failure into his son. What I am suggesting is that you give yourself permission to search for your Holy Grail by embracing your imperfections and by being willing to consistently risk failure.  That’s the true price of success.

You don’t know who Michael Jordan is but maybe by the time you read this letter you will.  He was probably the greatest basketball player to ever put on a uniform. Here’s what Michael Jordan said about success and failure: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s why I succeed”.

Some of my own spectacular failures led to (or flowed from) my greatest adventures, which in hindsight I realize have enriched my life. I spent a number of years in a self-imposed career purgatory.  I left the entertainment industry in the middle of my ascent to “experience life”. I traveled around the country as part of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. I worked for the World Cup when the men’s games were in the United States.  I sat second chair on a murder case. I even worked for a San Francisco based environmental group, lobbying local municipalities.  What did I know about that?  Absolutely nothing.  I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to speak in front of various city councils around the state. 

The most honest thing I can tell you, my sweet daughter, is that eventually my career plummeted.  I ultimately ran out of savings and amassed crazy amounts of consumer (read credit card) debt too. And I reached a crossroad in my life.  I feared if I didn’t get back on track then, I never would.

By the time I wanted to return to the entertainment industry, it no longer seemed to want me.  My friends in the business didn’t believe I really wanted to “settle down” into one career. Or they thought I was too old to start over.  Or whatever.  The point is no one would hire me.

In those days I often went running at Venice Beach.  One day as I ran, my spirits were dreadfully low. I had just gotten my umpteenth rejection from who knows where and I remember thinking to myself that I had ruined my life.

I remember thinking that I would never get another opportunity to make something of myself.  I had no idea how I would support myself, or a family. I chastised myself for chasing rainbows and for tilting at windmills. I ran and ran, until I finally cried myself out.  I must have been quite a sight as I railed to myself; though in the circus that is Venice beach it’s possible no one even gave me a second look.

By the grace of God (and a friend at the time named Marti Blumethal), a month or two and a hundred rejections later I got a job at a talent agency called Writers and Artists and started the long climb back. That limbo period of my career was flooded with false moves, failure, and insecurity.  Yet those days were some of my most interesting and memorable ones. Their lessons made me a better executive and a better man than I would otherwise have become.

In the end Mackenzie, failure is simply an event, not a state of being.  The best way for you to maximize the probability of success is to approach what you do with a commitment to excellence, with a strong work ethic, with integrity, and with passion for the task at hand.  The rest is just background noise.

And if you make that process your constant companion, once in a blue moon you may even get a taste of that soul-enriching, head swelling, fleeting event called--dare I say it--perfection.

All my everlasting love,

Dad