Friday, April 27, 2012

On Murder in the Family


Dear Mackenzie,

For the past several years you and I have had an ongoing daily patter that goes something like this:

Me: Do you know how much I love you?

You:  Yes.

Or if you’re feeling feisty:

You: To infinity and beyond (a la Buzz Lightyear)!

Me: Do you know what I love best about you? 

You: Everything.

Me: Will you remember forever?

You: Yes.

Me:  You’re such a winner.

The exchange always brings a smile to my face.  To my great delight our banter brings a smile to your face too.  The back and forth has become a wonderful intimacy between us which I hope will continue forever. Not long ago someone overheard our little routine, and asked me how we came to start it.

One day a couple of years ago I read an interview with a woman who had just been released from prison after serving eighteen years for killing her father.  Needless to say I was curious as to what had happened and why. The interview unsettled me, and I found myself googling similar stories. 

I learned that without exception, every woman who had killed her father under similar circumstances had been the victim of repeated sexual, physical or mental abuse—or all of the above, at the hands of the one man in the world who was charged by the forces of nature to protect her as she grew up.  I was horrified. As the father of three daughters I found it shocking that a man could treat any girl or woman that way, let alone his own daughter.

I innately feel an overwhelming protective instinct towards you and your sisters and I wondered what kind of man would drive his daughter to the point where she felt her only remaining choice was to defend herself by becoming a killer. More importantly, I worried about how to ensure that you grew up feeling loved and respected in the way that you should as you make your way in the world.

I’m not a psychologist, and I leave the scientific analysis to those who are far more qualified than me. But as a matter of common sense it has always struck me that the best way to impart to you a sense of your self worth, a sense of your “lump of clay” value, and a sense of your lovability was to manifest our love for you in tangible ways no matter what.  And as importantly, to tell you early and often (with apologies to Chicago politics) that whether we’re angry with you or happy with you at any given moment, your mom and I love you unconditionally and forever.

I’m not saying I don’t get angry with you or your sisters.  Of course I do.  Recently a friend of mine posted on Facebook that when she was a kid, sometimes her mom and dad would threaten to “knock her into the middle of next week” if she didn’t start behaving.  I had to laugh when I read that because every once in a while you do or say something that will cause me to have those very same thoughts. Yet I still want you to know that I love you even when you’re driving me crazy.

When I was a teenager your grandma would sometimes say to me, “if you love me you’ll clean your room”.  That always irritated me. How was one tied to the other? She could certainly ask me to clean my room, and she did.  She could be upset with me if I then didn’t clean my room, and she often was.  But what did cleaning my room have to do with loving my mother? 

And did that mean that if I didn’t clean my room I didn’t love her?  I certainly don’t doubt that your grandma loved me, of course. Yet in adulthood I’ve come to understand that words are powerful tools. As a parent it’s often easy to forget the devastating impact words can have. The difference between innocuous venting and something much more nefarious isn’t always distinguishable by a child’s psyche.

Your mom and I know that for better or worse, we will be the most influential role models of your childhood.  You’ll be inclined to take our words and actions as gospel whether or not they are well intentioned.

As an athlete during my high school and college days, I had a few bad coaches and a few excellent coaches. The excellent ones taught me the importance of positive self-talk. They taught me that positive reinforcement and encouragement led to the self-talk of a winner.  The bad ones?  Well, enough said.

In the end, my sweet daughter, how you perceive yourself will become how other people perceive you too.

I’ve spent many years on the battlefield of life and I know full well that the more one feels loved and loveable, the better one functions top to bottom.  Experience has taught me the importance of love, and of respect, and of compassion. And most importantly, experience has taught me the importance of telling the people I love how much I actually love them. Which brings me back to how and why I started our little routine, and how I hope you’ll go through life.

I wanted you to know you are profoundly loved, so that you may love others profoundly.

I wanted you to know you are unconditionally loved, so that you may love others unconditionally.

I wanted you to remember our love long after your mom and I are gone, so that you may pass that love on to your own children.

And I wanted you to know that you are a winner. Simply because you are.

Don’t kill me for saying that.

All my everlasting love,

Dad


Saturday, April 21, 2012

On Friendship


Dear Mackenzie,

Nothing beats having a best friend.

Throughout the course of your life you’ll meet lots of people and call many of them friends.  Some friendships will be short-lived and some will be long lasting.  You’ll have some fair weather friends and some who will stay beside you in rough waters.  That’s just how it goes. What I wish for you, my sweet daughter, is that at some point you’ll experience a friendship like the one I had with Jeff Greer.

I met Jeff my first week of college. I walked into his dorm room late one night with my usual swagger, told him I was planning to run for Freshman Class President, and asked for his vote.  Jeff told me in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t have his vote.  When I asked him why, he said he too was running for Freshman Class President and intended to vote for himself.

A few hours, a few beers, and a few cigars later, we decided that maybe we could be better together than separate, and that we should run as a ticket for class president and vice-president. That night, a small political dynasty was born at our school. More wonderfully, that night gave birth to a profound friendship between Jeff and me that lasted more than thirty- five years.

Jeff had a beautiful mind.  He was intelligent.  He had a great sense of humor. He had an uncanny ability to explore an issue from all sides.  He loved people.  And he had a deep personal moral code and sense of justice.  

During our college years Jeff and I were virtually inseparable. We ran student government together.  We trolled the student union together.  We partied together.  We traveled together.  We came close to being arrested together (don’t ask). Everything seemed possible during those heady, exuberant days.

After college we didn’t see each other as much any more. I went to California and Jeff went to New England, and then to Florida, and then back to New England.  But our friendship remained strong.  We’d go through periods when we talked all the time, and then sometimes we literally wouldn’t talk for two or three years at a time.

The miracle of our friendship, other than Jeff’s great sense of humor, was that we could go several years without talking and then one of us would call the other and it was like we’d just seen each other yesterday. We’d talk about politics and about sports and about our lives. Our respective paths could not have taken us to more different corners, and yet we savored each other’s experiences as if they were our own.

Jeff called me once, shortly after he and his wife Nancy got married. Or maybe just after they had started dating seriously, I don’t remember the exact time line. In any event Jeff was living in Providence and working for the governor of Rhode Island while Nancy was living in Washington D.C. , or travelling a lot to D.C. for work, or something like that. 

All I remember is that they were apart a lot and it was troubling Jeff.  He was concerned that the distance and time apart was hurting their relationship.  “Jeff, you guys love each other very much”, I told him. “I’m sure you’ll be able to withstand some periods of separation”.

“Look at us”, I added. “Sometimes we don’t even talk for years at a time and our bond is as strong as ever”.  Without missing a beat Jeff replied, “but unlike us, Nancy is beautiful, intelligent, and charming. She has many more options than you and I do”.

About two years ago Mackenzie, you were in New England with the Broadway tour of Annie, and Jeff and his wife came to see you in the show. They were so tickled watching you on stage, and we got to spend a wonderful weekend with them.

Nancy and your mom were good sports, and pretended to be interested while Jeff and I reminisced about the good old days for the umpteenth time. We even had dinner with Jeff’s folks, who had been a second set of parents to me when Jeff and I were in college. I remember telling your mom that weekend how amazing it was to me that after all those years and all those miles, spending time with Jeff simply made me happy.

Shortly after that weekend Jeff and I talked about taking a trip together to talk politics, sports and life. The trip was just an excuse to enjoy each other’s company for a few days as we had done periodically over the years. But my job got too hectic; or I was too distracted; or something.  The idea dissipated and we didn’t go. I couldn’t know then that I would never see Jeff again. But God, I wish I had made the time to take that trip.

On the morning of my birthday, August 11, 2011, I got the terrible news that Jeff had died the day before. Eight months later, I am still numb to that fact and can’t believe Jeff is gone. I still get the urge to call him when my Indians beat his beloved Orioles, or when something crazy happens in politics, or when I really need a friend.

After Albert Einstein published the theory of relativity, someone supposedly asked him to explain relativity in layman’s terms. Einstein apparently said something like “the theory of relativity boils down to this: when someone is hitting you with a stick, a minute feels like a lifetime.  But when you’re with someone you love, a lifetime feels like a minute.”

For those of us who knew and loved Jeff Greer, it felt like too short a minute at that.

All my everlasting love,

Dad





Friday, April 13, 2012

On the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave


Dear Mackenzie,

What is it about presidential politics that brings out the worst in America and Americans?

On the evening of May 8, 1964, that question was about the furthest thing from my seven-year-old mind.  After bidding farewell to family and friends at the airport in Montevideo, Uruguay, your grandma and grandpa and your aunt Viv and I walked out onto a small, windy tarmac and boarded a Pan Am propeller plane to Sao Paulo, Brazil where we’d connect to the much larger jet that would take us to our new life in the United States of America.  I can’t wait to show you pictures from that night. They look a bit like stills from the movie Casablanca.

It’s hard to remember exactly how I felt at that moment.  From the expression on my face in some of the pictures, it appears that I was pretty scared, and that even at age seven I probably understood that we were embarking towards an uncertain future. I do know that like many immigrants before us, we held the belief that our destination was great and that opportunity would abound once we got there.

Over the years I’ve never stopped believing in the greatness of our country or in the American Dream. As a nation we have consistently shown the depth of our national character. We have repeatedly risen to the challenge and have sacrificed, in sweat and in blood, so that future generations could have a better life. Except during the presidential election cycle. Then all hell breaks loose.

During the past few months, I have watched with amusement and horror as one presidential hopeful after another has said and done things on the national stage that have made me fearful for the future of this country.

By way of background for example, it has been well documented that while then-congressman Newt Gingrich was ranting about family values and leading the charge to impeach President Clinton for the Paula Jones affair, he himself was cheating on his first wife, ultimately asking her for a divorce while she lay in a hospital fighting cancer.

The scoundrel mistress of his first marriage became the victim spouse of his second marriage when Gingrich in turn cheated on her with a staffer twenty-five years his junior. I’m not suggesting that Mr. Gingrich has cheated on his current wife. I’m just saying that if I were her I might keep a private investigator on retainer and a packed travel bag nearby.

When all this was raised by the press as he began his current run for the presidency, Mr. Gingrich responded that his infidelities had been partially caused by “how passionately I felt about this country” (you can’t make this stuff up).  He also scolded the press, saying that to bring up these issues in a presidential campaign was “close to despicable”. 

During Michelle Bachmann’s presidential run, the Minnesota congresswoman claimed that while slavery was not “perfect”, African-Americans may well have been better off as slaves because “at least their children got to grow up in two parent households”.  I imagine it wasn’t always clear who the two parents were because history records that among other things, the masters were apparently raping the slaves with some regularity.

Rick Santorum, the ex-senator from Pennsylvania, gained momentum in his presidential bid by asserting that “having homosexual sex was one step above having sex with a dog or other animal”.  For good measure, he added that “the emotions of female soldiers would compromise the fulfilling of their combat duty”.

These and other similar statements by the current crop of presidential candidates are so patently absurd that it’s hard to fathom intelligent people like Bachmann and Santorum actually believe what they are saying.  It seems far more likely that these insidious statements are epithets designed to incite racist, homophobic and misogynistic feelings in their core constituency. Yet even so. Really?

It isn’t an issue of left versus right. I have plenty of friends on both sides of the political aisle who speak eloquently on why they are correct on the issues. If they can articulate a vision without resorting to cynicism and hate-mongering, why can’t the candidates who aspire to the highest office in the land? Are they actually being stumped by TMZ and the 24 hour news cycle?

It all makes me wonder, my sweet daughter. We have never been at a more critical juncture in our history. Can it be that at the very moment when we most need a real national leader, we can’t find one?  Can it be that with our educational and health care system in shambles, with the middle class in danger of extinction and with our economy teetering on collapse, this crop of candidates is the very the best our country can muster? I shudder to think it.

We live in a world of sound bites, especially in politics. Yet when Ronald Reagan told us it was “morning in America” we got ready to face a new day.  When Bill Clinton told us “there is nothing wrong with this country that cannot be fixed by what is right with this country” we rolled up our sleeves and set about the hard work of repair. When Barack Obama (certainly a better candidate than a president, at least so far) told us that “yes we can”, we believed that yes we could. 

No doubt those sound bites were written by speechwriters and marketing gurus too. But at least those sound bites, and the people who used them, fed our positive national ethos. For me at least, those statements resonate with my long-standing and unshakeable belief that in these United States of America, a young immigrant boy from Montevideo, Uruguay can still realize the American Dream, and achieve just about anything he sets his mind to if he’s willing to work hard to do it.

The future lies in your hands, Mackenzie, and in those of the rest of your generation. Having been born in the USA you won’t feel the immigrant experience first hand, but I hope you never take the principles of our great nation for granted. 

Even as I write you this letter, some family is boarding a plane in a faraway land on their way to a new life in the land of the free and the home of the brave. A journey not dissimilar from the one our family took some 48 years ago.

Let’s not disappoint them.

All my everlasting love,

Norm






Friday, April 6, 2012

On Seeing The world Through Other People's Eyes


Dear Mackenzie,

There’s a saying that you never really know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. In other words, until you’ve examined things from someone else’s perspective. I like that. The related saying I like even better is that we should always be open to seeing the world through other people’s eyes.

Having worked in the entertainment industry for many years, I periodically find myself numb to the miracle of creativity and forget why I wanted to get into show business in the first place. That’s exactly how I was feeling this past Monday night as I made my way down to the storied nightclub in the Village called “The Bitter End”.

For the past twenty-two years, on the first Monday of each month The Bitter End transforms into a musical showcase for singers and songwriters called the New York Songwriters Circle.  Famous songwriters and up-and-comers alike celebrate great original songs, and each other, in an intimate setting.

The Songwriters Circle is run by a supremely gifted singer/songwriter in her own right named Tina Shafer. Tina also happens to be one of my dearest friends dating back to our college days, although admittedly she looks much younger than me.

I was fully prepared to be unimpressed as I walked into the club.  My goal was to simply endure the performances and then go have a nice dinner with Tina. Instead, I was treated to a humbling reminder of the importance of pouring yourself into what you do, and of the pure joy I still feel when I watch truly talented people create.

As I listened to the musicians that night I was exhilarated by the passion they brought to their work. I loved how they expressed their personal stories through music. Their real world burdens, and mine, evaporated as they shared their music on stage. For two hours I got to experience the world through their eyes with a kind of purity I had not felt in quite a while.

One of the performers that night was Tina’s fifteen-year old son, who is a prodigious musical talent. I observed Tina regard him on stage with a mixture of detached professional respect and the kind of beaming pride unique to a parent, and I started thinking of you and the wonder with which you approach the world.

I consider it part of my parenting responsibility to teach you a few things here and there about life and about the human condition. I hope that I can continue to enrich your life as you grow into adulthood. No doubt that can be of benefit to you, and it’s certainly fulfilling for me.

What I rarely mention to you and often forget myself, is how much I actually learn from you every day and how much I appreciate that. One of the blessings of being your dad is getting to see the world through your passionate eyes. The way you view things underlines the miracle of life for me in ways that might otherwise escape me in the day-to-day grind.

I watch you go to auditions with unbridled excitement no matter what may have happened in the last one, and it reminds me not to get bogged down by my own past defeats.

I watch you push tirelessly for more dessert, or for a Kindle Fire, or for a sleepover, and it reminds me that it’s okay if I ask for the things I want and need.

I watch you skype for hours on end, and it reminds me to reach out to my own friends whom I may inadvertently be ignoring.

I watch you get excited if I bring you a gift when I return from a business trip, and it reminds me how good I myself feel when someone keeps me in their thoughts.

I watch you play with your sisters, or go to Disneyland for the umpteenth time, or simply bounce around the house and the joy you manifest in simply living becomes contagious. I thank you for that gift, my sweet daughter, and I want to remember to thank you, Heather and Jamie more often.

At the end of the show Monday night, Tina came back on stage one last time. She sang a song she co-wrote with the late Phoebe Snow called “Above The Band”. The song is an anthem to having a voice in life, and the lyrics moved me. I asked Tina if I could re-print the lyrics for you and she graciously agreed. I hope you savor them as I did, and that they help you see the world through Tina’s soulful eyes.

ABOVE THE BAND by Tina Shafer and Phoebe Snow

Stay clear
Stay focused
Create a little
Stay sober
Steady
And a little bit sane
Stay alive to survive
Past your fifteen minutes
Maybe someone will remember your name


Be a force for some good 
Be a flame eternal
Be brave
Take risks
Have a thick skin
And even when all they see is external
Let your soul shine from within

Create an illusion
A small sleight of hand
Amidst the confusion
Rise up
Take command
And they'll hear you above the band

This old world keeps on turning
This life hangs on for the weak and strong
Even in the face of darkest evil
I believe that hope holds on

Dream big
Seek truth
Grab your moment
Find peace in the craziness of each day
I won't always be there to guide you
But I believe you’re going to find your way

Create an illusion
A small sleight of hand 
Amidst the confusion
Rise up
Make a stand

And they'll hear you above the band 
Yes they will hear you above the band

All my everlasting love,

Dad