Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On Love Gone Wrong


Dear Mackenzie,

Each week for the past six months, I’ve essentially written you a love letter. I pick a theme that I hope will interest you when you reach adulthood, and then I weave a narrative around it using your life experiences and mine.  The letters are fun to write, hopefully inspiring, and fulfilling beyond measure.

On another side of town, several afternoons each month I write narratives of a different kind. These also weave a theme around life experiences, but they are not at all fun to write. They are not inspiring either, although in a different way I find fulfillment in writing them too.

Room 245 of the Los Angeles County Superior Court is a courtroom in the Family Law area of the downtown courthouse. A sign hangs ominously over the door that reads “Temporary Restraining Orders”.  It’s a daunting place. Every morning at precisely 8AM and every afternoon at precisely 1:30PM, a sheriff unlocks the doors and a long line of people enters, hoping to get urgent relief from a spouse or significant other who is beating them, or threatening to inflict great bodily injury on them, or otherwise abusing them.

In the back of the courtroom sits a little bullpen area with run down furniture and outdated computers. Three staffers from the LA County Domestic Violence Project and a rotating handful of volunteers listen to people’s stories and help victims of domestic violence prepare forms and declarations to submit to a judge. The judge then decides on the spot whether or not to grant a TRO based on the application.

On the second and fourth Tuesday of each month, I donate a little of my time and what’s left of my legal brain in one of the volunteer cubicles.  The stories we hear shouldn’t shock me but they consistently do. Law and Order SVU has nothing on these real life victims. 

Recently a very attractive and conservatively dressed young woman entered our bullpen looking like a deer in the headlights.  She couldn’t have been more that twenty-five years old, and she looked like she had gone ten rounds with Manny Pacquiao.  Her blonde hair hid two black eyes, and she had a deep bruise that went all the way around her neck from where she had obviously been choked. Abrasions adorned her left shoulder.

As we helped her prepare a declaration for the judge, I thought to myself that there but for the grace of God went Heather or Jamie. My heart ached for the young woman and I wondered how I would react if that was one of you guys. If someone violated one of you like that, I suspect it would take every fiber of my being to not track down the person who did it and beat him to a pulp myself. I reminded myself that for all its inefficiency, at least a legal venue exists where one can get help without taking the law into their own hands.

The stories of the people who come to the domestic violence project are all different, but the narratives are the same. A guy comes home drunk repeatedly and beats his wife.  A woman tells her boyfriend she is breaking up with him, so he threatens to kill her and their young son or daughter.  A man thinks his fiancĂ©e is cheating on him so he takes a baseball bat to her car and tells her she’s next. A man abuses and humiliates his undocumented girlfriend and tells her that if she speaks up he will have her deported and make sure she loses her child.

The large majority of domestic abuse victims are female, but they’re not exclusively so. I wrote a declaration for a guy whose girlfriend put sugar in his gas tank and then tried to set him on fire.  I wrote one for a guy whose ex would come to his work place and threaten to kill him and everyone at the company.

It goes on and on until your head starts to spin and your stomach is in knots.  By the way, my sweet daughter, the victims are not always sympathetic.  The fiancĂ©e whose significant other thought she was cheating on him in fact was, and openly. She said she wanted to “humiliate him for having a menial job”. The guy whose girlfriend threatened him and his co-workers had shown the co-workers pictures of her in compromising positions and then bragged to her about it. 

The judicial system doesn’t allow for personality, though. Unsympathetic people have the same rights as sympathetic ones. If you don’t like that I’m cheating on you, you get to leave me or sue me for divorce.  Yet the law is pretty clear that you don’t get to kick my ass. If you think I’m not good enough for you, you get to try to improve your lot. You don’t get to set me on fire, or threaten our children, or stalk me at work, or take a two-by- four to my head.

Why do people resort to domestic violence? Lots of reasons, it seems. They get angry.  They get frustrated.  They feel impotent. They don’t feel heard.  They feel humiliated. They perceive that they have no options. The crazy part is that their feelings are often valid. It’s an unavoidable fact of life that people are sometimes unkind to each other.  It’s a difficult pill to swallow. Yet justified or not, these feelings don’t give us the right to beat each other up.

Unfortunately, leaving is also easier said than done, and doubly so if you’re indigent, or undocumented, or don’t speak the language, or don’t even have a car in which to leave.  

And so people go at each other instead, and I continue to go to the courthouse every couple of weeks and write declarations of pain to give to a judge.

I pray you and your sisters are never in need of these particular declarations. I’ll be there for you if you do of course, but I much prefer writing you my declarations of love.

All my everlasting love,

Dad











Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On the Wisdom of Mike Tyson


Dear Mackenzie,

No one ever accused Mike Tyson of being quotable.  Yet one of my all time favorite quotes about life comes straight from the lips of the great pugilist. “Everyone has a plan,” he once said, “til he gets punched in the mouth.” Tyson was talking literally, of course.  But his quote has universal applicability.

Not long ago I was involved in a difficult movie negotiation on behalf of a client.  The producer took my side against the studio, and I was surprised not only by the fact that he jumped into the fight in the first place, but also by the skill and ferocity with which he fought.  At lunch one day not long afterwards, I thanked him for his help and told him I had been impressed by how he had handled himself. He told me he had gotten involved because he had been offended by the studio’s position. “I don’t like to fight,” he smiled, “but I know how to do it.”

But shouldn’t we avoid fighting?

Not always. I have learned in life that sometimes fighting, or at least being willing to fight, serves a very useful purpose.  I took an anthropology class in college. I learned that throughout history, when a warring tribe has encountered a peaceful tribe and each tribe interacted with the other in a manner consistent with its nature, without exception the warring tribe annihilated the peaceful tribe out of existence.

I learned this lesson myself the hard way, my sweet daughter. When we moved to the United States my parents enrolled your aunt Viv and me in the local elementary school and I entered the third grade.  At the time I didn’t speak English, and more to the point I was small for my age.  In the time honored “Lord of the Flies” tradition, other boys started picking on me.  

I pretended not to notice, or pretended that it didn’t bother me. I could outrun just about everyone in my class if need be anyway. What I couldn’t outrun was the alienation and low self-esteem I felt. I was afraid to tell your grandma and grandpa what was going on because I thought they (like any normal parent) would want to step in and talk to the teachers or the principal.  I feared that would only make things worse.

In sixth grade our family moved from Cleveland, Ohio to Augusta, Georgia and I enrolled in a new school.  By then I was obviously fluent in the language, but I was still the new kid, and still pint-sized. To make things worse, at that age boys’ testosterone starts to kick in, causing them to start noticing girls and to look for ways to impress them. The bigger boys started picking on me again.

Brenda Nance changed my life forever. Brenda was this beautiful, auburn haired girl in my class with sparkling eyes and the cutest freckles you ever saw.  She didn’t know it then (and she likely has no recollection of who I am) but in the sixth grade I had a huge crush on her.  I wasn’t the only boy in the class who did.

One morning in the school hallway, a large kid tried to pick a fight with me and started calling me names.  I almost certainly would have ignored him had Brenda not been standing right there.  I was petrified, but no way was I going to let her think I was a wimp.  So I told the bully that he should “meet me after school”. 

“Meet me after school” was a popular and ongoing event in sixth grade.  Since you couldn’t fight during school without getting in trouble, disputes were settled in the playground after school was out.  All the kids would come and cheer for whichever “fighter” was their friend.  No one got badly hurt, and the fights didn’t last long because no one wanted to miss the school bus and have to explain it to their parents. 

I spent the rest of that day in mortal fear. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t study. I couldn’t think of anything other than I was going to get an ass whooping. Yet at 3:10PM that afternoon, I arrived at the appointed place to meet my destiny. A dozen or more classmates were there to watch the new kid get beat up.  I resisted the strong impulse to run.

The bully started to taunt and shove me, and then pushed me to the ground. To this day I remember vividly that out of the corner of my eye I saw the assistant principal heading towards us to break up the fight. All I had to do was stay down another twenty seconds and it would be over. But then I saw Brenda.

So instead I got up and lunged at the other kid with everything I had, somehow landing a couple of punches.  In the movie version of my life story Brenda will look at me with something resembling young love as I knock the other kid unconscious. In real life, the moment I landed my first punch the other kid unleashed on me with a fury, and by the time the assistant principal broke it up I had both a fat lip and the beginnings of a terrible shiner.

But I had something else too.  I had the respect of my schoolmates, who saw my black eye as a badge of courage.  As importantly I had my self- respect, which from that day forward I’ve never lost.  These days, most people who know me would probably describe me as an easy-going, peaceful sort. Yet people who have confused my affable nature with weakness have regretted it.

So when should you fight, Mackenzie?  Believe it or not, you’ll know instinctively.  Don’t go looking for fights, physical or otherwise. Walk away when you can.  Give peace a chance.

If that doesn’t work, listen to Mike Tyson.

All my everlasting love,

Dad









Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On Alex's Lemonade Stand


Dear Mackenzie,
Woody Allen once wrote: “Most people want to achieve immortality through their work. I want to achieve it by not dying”.  Unfortunately, not dying is not an option. So in that case, what does immortality really mean?
A few weeks ago I thought you told me you were going to organize a lemonade stand with Alex. I acknowledge that I was not listening as actively as I should have been (the Dodgers were on television). I remember thinking at the time that I wasn’t sure who Alex was, but that putting a lemonade stand together sounded like a fun, entrepreneurial play date for you guys.
Subsequently your mom posted about it on Facebook, and I realized that what you were actually planning was to raise money for a charity called “Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF)” which benefits childhood cancer research.  I saw in Mom’s post that you were doing this in memory of your late uncle Reed, who had himself died of childhood Leukemia. I was proud and impressed.
Then about a week ago you and Mom started preparing the lemonade stand, and my curiosity was piqued. What exactly was this foundation and more importantly, who was Alex?
According to the ALSF website, Alexandra "Alex" Scott was born to Liz and Jay Scott in Manchester, Connecticut on January 18, 1996, the second of four children.
The website goes on to say that shortly before her first birthday, Alex was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer. On her first birthday the doctors informed Alex's parents that if even if she were able to beat her cancer it was doubtful that Alex would ever walk again. The website further says that just two weeks later, Alex slightly moved her leg at her parents' request to kick, and that this was the first indication of who she would turn out to be - a determined, courageous, confident and inspiring child with big dreams and big accomplishments.
Alex appeared to be beating the odds, until the shattering discovery within the next year that her tumors had started growing again. In the year 2000, the day after her fourth birthday, Alex received a stem cell transplant and informed her mother, "when I get out of the hospital I want to have a lemonade stand." She said she wanted to give the money to doctors to allow them to "help other kids, like they helped me." True to her word, she held her first lemonade stand later that year with the help of her older brother and raised an amazing $2,000 for "her hospital."
I also learned from the website that while bravely battling her own cancer, Alex and her family continued to hold yearly lemonade stands in her front yard to benefit childhood cancer research. That news spread of the remarkable sick child dedicated to helping other sick children. People from all over the world, moved by her story, held their own lemonade stands and donated the proceeds to Alex and her cause. 
Alex passed away in August of 2004 at the age of 8. By the time she died, Alex had helped raise more than $1 million from around the world to help find a cure for childhood cancer. Since her death, Alex's family has been committed to continue Alex’ inspiring legacy through the ALSF.
As I write you this letter, my sweet daughter, the ALSF has become a national fundraising movement, and ALSF has raised more than $50 million dollars in Alex’s memory to combat different childhood cancers.  And counting. I hope you’ll continue to read the ALSF website as time goes by to see what amazing things they accomplish.
On Sunday, June 10, 2012, a warm and beautiful summer day, you and your friend Camden set up the lemonade stand on the front lawn of our house. Your mom, Camden’s mom, Jamie, Heather and I savored your efforts and the magnificent morning as you and Camden hawked lemonade to fight cancer.
Friends and neighbors stopped by to help, and chatted while sipping lemonade and eating cookies. Our neighbor Steve gave a generous donation, and also donated some gourmet cookies to add to your sales inventory.  Our friend Melissa stopped by with a generous donation, and also brought delicious homemade cupcakes (I cannot tell a lie, I ate one) for you to sell. By 2PM, between online donations and your and Camden’s efforts on the front lines, you had raised more than $1200 for the charity.
Of course it’s wonderful that you raised a lot of money for cancer research. But what was really wonderful, and what filled me with love and admiration for you and what you did, was how you and Camden brought Alex and her memory to life.
You told everyone who came by our house that day about Alex’s life story, and about her courage, and about how she had started this amazing movement that lives on beyond her time on this earth.
So in a way, you really did have a play date with Alex on Sunday.
From what I have read about Alex’s life and her courage, I’m sorry I never had the opportunity to meet her. I’m not sure that I would have the resolve to accomplish what she did in her situation, let alone before the age of eight. And I wonder whether I would have the spiritual enlightenment to try and help others even as I was dying. Alex must have been a truly special kid.
I can tell you as a parent, Mackenzie, that Alex’s family would have traded all her accomplishments, and all the good that has come from her terrible situation, and all the tea in China, to have Alex still here with them. And given a choice I suspect Alex might too. That wasn’t in the cards for Alex, though, who instead got something else entirely.
Immortality.
All my everlasting love,

Dad





Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On Playing God


Dear Mackenzie,

Everybody likes to play God now and again. It feels like it would be great fun to make decisions about life and death. But in the real world those decisions have consequences, so be careful what you ask for.

Many years ago I had a wonderful golden retriever named Banana.  She was my loyal companion for more than 13 years, until her death in 2000. I still miss her a lot.

When Banana got sick, the vet told me that there was a small chance that surgery might extend her life. Of course I wanted that if at all possible.  But at the same time I didn’t want her last days to be spent in an animal hospital hooked up to machines.

After consulting with several veterinary surgeons and doing much soul searching, I decided we had to try. So Banana went under the knife. The surgeon called me after the surgery and told me the operation had been successful. She predicted Banana and I could look forward to some additional quality time together in the future. The surgeon said I could come see Banana the following day, and that with any luck she would be home within the week. I was beyond relieved.

Early the next morning, however, the surgeon called again to say there had been a major complication. She explained that unless she operated again immediately Banana would not survive the day.  A number of hours later I was told Banana was again out of surgery and that I should come visit her.  But before I got there, Banana died.

Hindsight is 20/20.  Yet every once in a while I’m still tortured about my decision. Had I been selfish to have her undergo surgery? Should I have let her wonderful life end on a much more graceful note? Had I played God for her sake or mine?

Life went on, and when you were about a year old we got another golden retriever, which Jaime named Dixie.

Time went by.

Then in late October 2010 Heather noticed that Dixie was getting increasingly lethargic. We monitored her for a few days, and when she didn’t seem to be getting any better Jamie and I decided to take her to the vet as a precaution. You and Mom were living in New York at the time since you were working on “Nurse Jackie”, but no one was overly concerned.

The vet examined Dixie thoroughly and told us she was very sick and had only days to live. He said there was nothing that could be done for her, and sympathetically suggested that though the choice was ours, it might be best for Dixie if we euthanized her that day.

Only days to live? Euthanize her that day? What was he talking about? We were numb.

I called my friend Nancy who is very involved with dog rescue and knows the best vets around Los Angeles. Nancy referred me to a specialist, who in turned referred us to another specialist, but everyone said the same thing. Dixie couldn’t be saved, and a natural death from what Dixie had would be a painful one. We were fighting both the clock and Mother Nature.

With very heavy hearts, on the evening of November 1, 2010 Heather, Jamie and I took Dixie on her last car ride. Late that night, I sat in bed and wrote your mom the following email:

Hi Honey,

I didn’t want to call you because it’s almost 3:00AM in New York and hopefully you and Mackie are asleep.

Dixie went to her play date with Banana about 10PM tonight.  She seemed calm and peaceful and not at all afraid.  They laid down a blanket for her in a room and Dixie lay on it wagging her tail and happy. Heather, Jamie and I petted her and held her and kissed her until the end.

Dixie had a wonderful last couple of days.  I sense that she was happy that Heather was there, and she was showered with love from all sides.  Five or six of Jamie’s friends threw Dixie a goodbye brunch yesterday and she was the center of attention, which she loved. I think the only thing Dixie would have loved more would have been if you and Mackenzie could have been there as well.  At least she got to skype with you both.  Wait till she tells her friends in doggie heaven that she was skyping! Today she ate McDonald’s, matzo ball soup, pepperoni, and countless dog biscuits.  She was a happy girl.

You should know that Heather and Jamie were beyond courageous. I know how hard it was for me to be in the room at the end, so I can only imagine what it was for them.  But they never faltered, not for an instant.  You would have been so proud of them.  I sure was. You have raised two wonderful, amazing women and it is such a gift that I get to be part of their lives.  Heather of course wears her love on her sleeve and Jamie, for all of her gruff exterior, is remarkably profound.

The one other thing that bears saying is how proud and amazed I am by how Mackenzie handled all of this.  I was just re-reading some of her Facebook posts and it’s incredible how resilient, profound, kind, loving and wise she is for a nine year old. 

As you said, Dixie left us too soon.  She was never the most easy going dog in the world. She was not the best-trained dog. Given her temperament, she may have been better served being an only dog. And I have sometimes wondered if given our crazy lives over the past few years we didn’t make a mistake not giving her to Jenny Lee at that time. 

But all in all, Dixie was a happy dog and she had a wonderful life.  She was more bonded to you than anyone (don’t tell Heather I said that) and you rewarded her love, as you do to all whom you touch, by loving her unconditionally, and caring for her, and making her feel the gift of you in a hundred ways every day you were together.

I love you more than I can say, and I wish you were here to comfort all of us as only you can.

xoxo
Norm



As it turns out, my sweet daughter, playing God is not all it’s cracked up to be.

All my everlasting love,

Dad