Wednesday, July 25, 2012

On the Existence of Evil

Dear Mackenzie,

Good and decent people find it very difficult to process the notion that evil exists in the world.

A few days ago, a gunman walked into a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado where a packed house had come to watch the newest installment in the “Batman” series.  According to news reports the gunman walked in, surveyed the theater and the people in it, and walked back out. Moments later he returned wearing full body armor and holding a semi-automatic assault rifle and various other weapons. He tossed some tear gas canisters into the crowd, and then opened fire.

By the time he exited the theater and waited by his car for police to arrest him, more than a dozen innocent people were dead and fifty more were injured. From what has been revealed so far, when the police went to the gunman’s apartment they found that it was booby trapped with explosives and the like, designed to kill whoever walked through his door.

Once they arrested him, ABC News called the man’s mother in San Diego to get some information and confirm identity. She didn’t hesitate.  “You have the right person,” she told them.

You have the right person? I can imagine your mom might say several things in response to a call like that, Mackenzie, but “you have the right person” isn’t in the universe of them.  Did she know of her son’s proclivity to evil?  Should or could she have done something about it if she did? I don’t know. The mother later recanted the statement and said she had been quoted out of context.

The stories of the victims of the Aurora tragedy are beyond sad.  Veronica Moser, who had gone to the movie with her pregnant mom, was only six years old when she died. Her mother is now paralyzed. Twenty-five year old Jon Blunk died when he heroically covered his girlfriend with his own body and the bullets hit him instead. He was one of three young men who died in this courageous fashion, saving someone they loved.

Jessica Ghawi had moved from Toronto to Aurora less than a year ago.  Last June, she had survived a killing spree in a mall in Toronto. She had written a blog shortly thereafter commenting about “how fragile life is” and how lucky she was to be alive and able to pursue her dreams. She was twenty-four yeas old. The stories, and the tears, go on and on. What does it all mean?

The tragedy has ignited yet another nationwide debate about gun control. Initial reports indicate that the gunman had bought the assault rifle, various other guns, explosives, and more than six thousand (!) rounds of ammunition, completely legally. Six thousand rounds, and no one raised an eyebrow.

Advocates of more stringent gun control laws believe that the perpetrator’s ability to get such firepower so easily made this tragedy and other similar ones more common.  They also argue that the second amendment is no longer relevant or necessary in today’s world because these days our militias are very well armed and prepared.

Opponents of gun control argue that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”.  They also argue that the bill of rights is sacrosanct and that as part of the bill of rights, curtailing the right to bear arms must withstand the strictest of scrutiny.

Both sides are right.  It’s unlikely that if the founding fathers were writing the constitution today the right to bear arms would find its way into the bill of rights. And what are the odds that the bill of rights would protect the ability of an ordinary citizen to buy and carry around an AK-47?

At the same time, it’s too easy to simply lay blame for this horrible event at the feet of the NRA. This gunman was smart, deliberate, malignant and well prepared.  Guns. Bombs. Tear gas. Dynamite.  He had them all. One way or another he would have found a way to act out and kill his prey. Lunacy and evil are not the purview of the NRA.

The tragedy has also re-ignited the debate about violence in movies and in the media generally.  No doubt both sides of the debate will make worthwhile arguments. Similarly, experts on human psychology are turning over everything from this guy’s baby food to the information on his dating websites to try and make heads or tails of what went down.

What caused this highly intelligent young man with no known history of violence or of trouble with the law to randomly go berserk on a group of innocent people? So far no one can tell.

What all of these debates miss is a simple and scary truth. Some people are simply evil and there is no rational explanation for their bad deeds. There are some 310 million people in the United States, all of whom had pretty much the same access as this killer to assault rifles, to tear gas and to violent movies. Yet 99.999999999% of them haven’t shot up a movie theater, or a school, or a mall, or even a mouse. 

As a society, we feel a need to analyze what happened from a thousand different angles specifically because we can’t fathom that a similar being could possibly do something so horrible. But the fact that most of us can’t comprehend this sort of pure evil is good news.  It simply means most of us are not.

There is evil in the world, my sweet daughter.  Ultimately neither gun control nor G rated movies can defend against it. The most you can do is acknowledge it, stay out of its path, and hope it doesn’t find you when you least expect it.

All my everlasting love,


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On the Law of Attraction

Dear Mackenzie,

There’s a scene in an old Chuck Norris movie from 1986 where Chuck Norris’ character and his foil (played by Louis Gossett, Jr.) are stranded in a Mexican jungle.  It’s an action-adventure film, but at its core the movie is about two guys, one of whom is an eternal optimist (Chuck Norris’ character) and one of whom is an eternal pessimist (Lou Gossett’s character). 

At one point Lou turns to Chuck and complains that they are lost. “We’re not lost”, says Norris. “We’re just off-course.” “What’s the difference?” asks Lou. “Attitude”, answers Chuck.

The other night I was sharing a taxi in NYC with our friends Lindsay and Devyn.  We were discussing the letters I’ve been writing to you, and Devyn and Lindsay were giving me their thoughts about the impact these letters might have on you when you read them as an adult. They also commented on the impact the letters are having on them now as young women making their way in the world.

I was flattered by their kind words, and I decided to ask them if there was a particular topic they thought might be interesting or beneficial for a young person to ponder. Without hesitation, Lindsay suggested that I write about the law of attraction.

I asked her what she meant by that. I assumed she was saying I should write you a letter about pheromones and what attracts people to each other, or about the things people do and say when they’re in love, or about the notion that beauty is subjective and “in the eye of the beholder”, or maybe even about how a young girl’s (or woman’s) self esteem is impacted by society and by Madison Avenue’s definition of physical beauty.

Those are all interesting issues, actually, and maybe I’ll write to you about them sometime. As it turns out, though, Lindsay was referring to the belief that “like attracts like” and the notion that by focusing on positive thoughts or negative thoughts, one can actually bring about positive or negative results.

A well-documented example of the law of attraction is most commonly experienced in medical trials and is called the placebo effect. The placebo effect refers to the phenomenon that patients in clinical trials who believed they would be positively affected by a certain medication fared better than those who did not, even when they were given a placebo (for example a sugar pill) instead of actual medication.

Similarly, the medical literature talks about the nocebo effect. That’s where a patient in a clinical trial experiences negative side effects or other negative consequences due to a negative image of a certain medication. It has been documented that these negative results are very real even in instances where the subject was not given the medication at all but rather was given an inert pill.

But can that really be? Is it possible that ultimately you can if you think you can, but you can’t if you think you can’t? Obviously it isn’t that simple. There’s a lot to be said for positive thinking, of course. Yet jumping off a tall building because you believe you can fly can get you dead, no matter how genuine your belief is.  And it doesn’t matter how legitimately I think I’m better than Lebron James. He can take me to the hoop a hundred times out of a hundred.

And what about the converse? Can you find love if you don’t think you’re worthy of love? Can you solve a math problem if you don’t think you’re good at math? These are all challenging questions.

I have a friend who keeps an aquarium filled with exotic fish. He prides himself on being able to keep predator fish in the same tank as other fish that would normally be their lunch. Here’s what he does.

First he puts all the fish in the same tank and separates them with a clear hard plastic plate. When the predator fish tries to get to the other side to eat its quarry, it runs into the invisible wall and can’t get past.  After a week or so of doing this, the fish gives up because it no longer believes it can get to the other side. By the time my friend removes the clear plastic plate, the predator fish stays on its side of the tank on its own.

I have no idea if that consistently works  (please, don’t try this with fish you don’t want to lose) but either way it makes the point. Your mind and your psyche are incredibly powerful instruments, Mackenzie. We will usually not achieve that which we believe we can’t achieve because consciously or otherwise we will not try. If we don’t believe we are worthy of love we will sabotage efforts by others to love us. In very large measure, losers lose simply because they expect to.

On the other hand, winners expect to win. Positive thinking by itself is not enough, but it’s the foundation of success. As the noted motivational speaker Zig Ziglar likes to say, positive thinking will let you do everything better than negative thinking will. 

As you go through life, my sweet daughter, I hope you’ll always land on the positive side of the law of attraction. I hope you’ll always see the glass half full and not half empty. I hope you’ll never be lost, but only “off-course”.

Incidentally, that 1986 film is called “Firewalker” if you ever want to see it. And, oh yeah, I produced it.  Your uncle Ron once told me it was one of the best movies he had ever seen.  Then again, he was courting your aunt Viv at the time so it’s possible he was mildly exaggerating. I guess that’s a different law of attraction altogether.

All my everlasting love,


Thursday, July 12, 2012

On the Price of Helping People

Dear Mackenzie,

Sometimes the most innocent beings teach us the most enduring lessons.

One night a week or so ago I was feeling quite sorry for myself. A particular person who I have helped a lot in his career over the years had an opportunity to help me with a certain piece of business and didn’t. In the end it wasn’t a big deal really, but I found out quite by accident and given my history with this person I felt slighted.

I started complaining to your mom about the injustice of the universe. I wondered out loud why I had ever helped him in the first place. What was the point? What was I thinking? Why help anyone?

You must know by now, Mackenzie, that your mom is much wiser and more centered than I am. Even worse, she usually sees right through my nonsense. As I continued to pout, she asked me why I had helped the person in the first place. Was it so that one day he could help me with something?  If so, she said, then business is what business is. I had made a calculated decision about a person or his willingness to help me and had simply been wrong. It happens. She gently suggested that I should quit complaining and move on.

I argued that wasn’t the case at all.  I said I had helped him because I had seen something in him that made me believe he had been worthy of my help. Your mom countered that if in fact that had been the case my satisfaction should come purely from the act of helping him, irrespective of whether he subsequently returned the favor. She gently suggested that I should quit complaining and move on.

I didn't like her analysis one bit, by which I mean it didn't serve my pouting mood. I explained that in our society, helping people was a complex mix of inter-dynamics that couldn't and shouldn't be so easily categorized. I suggested that the issue wasn't nearly that black and white. Or some such psychobabble.

But I was losing steam, and the argument, and I knew it.  So I retreated to my Google news to regroup. And there I read a humbling article about a nine-year old girl named Anaiah Rucker.

On the morning of February 4, 2011, Anaiah and her five-year old sister Camry left their house in Madison, Georgia to go to school. According to news reports, their mother watched from the porch of the family home as the girls started to cross the street to the school bus stop.

It was raining heavily and both girls had on their hoodies to try and stay a little bit dry. Probably because of that, neither girl noticed the truck that barreled towards them as they ran out onto the road. By the time Anaiah saw the truck it was too late. She realized that she and her little sister were about to be hit and that she had only an instant to jump backwards out of harm’s way.
Jumping out of harm’s way is exactly what most of us would have done. Certainly no one would have questioned a nine-year-old girl acting on the instinct of self-preservation. But Anaiah didn’t do that. Instead, she did just the opposite. As her mother watched in horror from the house, Anaiah jumped in front of her little sister and pulled Camry backwards to safety, absorbing the brunt of the impact herself.
Anaiah collapsed on the ground all but dead. She stopped breathing and her heart stopped. The school bus driver, who was approaching the stop as the terrible event unfolded, ran to her side and performed CPR until paramedics arrived on the scene and rushed her to the hospital. 
Anaiah fractured both legs, broke her neck, damaged her spleen and her kidney, and who knows what else. For ten desperate hours doctors worked to save Anaiah’s life. They amputated her leg, removed her kidney, reset her fractured neck and otherwise fought to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Five surgeries and six weeks later, Anaiah came home from the hospital.
As you might imagine, my sweet daughter, the story made national news. Once she could talk again (apparently she could only communicate by blinking her eyes for the first month or so after the accident) the media barraged Anaiah with questions about her heroics.  What had gone through her mind in that moment? Why did she do what she did? On the Today Show, the courageous nine-year old answered simply that she had wanted to help her little sister. Her agenda was simple and pure.
Compared to Anaiah’s actions, I felt like a bit of an idiot for worrying about what someone “has done for me lately”. And as usual, your mom was probably right (don’t tell her I said that). Yet truth be told the question continues to gnaw at me.  What do we owe to those who help us along the way? I’m not sure.
In a perfect world the friend I helped would have directed the piece of business my way and there would have been balance in the universe. Okay, so he didn’t. But that doesn’t make him a villain either.
Maybe he simply didn’t think of me in that moment. Maybe he felt that directing that particular business elsewhere was more beneficial to him than directing it towards me.  Doesn’t he get to do that? I hate to admit it but I think he does.
I guess in the end you help people when you can and if at some point it comes back to you that’s gravy. And as the trucks of life come barreling towards you at warp speed, may the Anaiah’s of the world be at your side.
All my everlasting love,

Thursday, July 5, 2012

On the Downside of Passion

Dear Mackenzie,

In a perfect world we’d all get everything we want, especially if we’re willing to work for it. But that’s not always how life deals the cards.

About two weeks ago you flew to NYC with Mom to audition for the lead in a musical currently running on London’s West End called "Matilda". The show is based on the 1996 film of the same name directed by Danny DeVito. It’s about a wonderful little girl (Matilda), who along with her teacher teams up against the worst parents imaginable and the worst principal imaginable.

The show is scheduled to move to Broadway sometime in 2013 and they are currently holding auditions for that production. You couldn’t have been more excited when your agent called Mom to say the creative team wanted to see you for the role of Matilda.

I watched in silent amazement as you prepared for the audition. For weeks before you went to NYC, you took voice lessons specifically geared to Matilda, took dance classes geared to Matilda, worked on your sides, ran lines and listened to the soundtrack religiously. 

I wasn’t really surprised. Despite your happy-go-lucky nature, for a person your age you seem unusually committed to your craft. That said, both your mom and I noticed that for this particular project you ratcheted things up a notch or two. Your passion was palpable. I didn’t say anything to you or even to your mom, but as I dropped you guys off at the airport I had a sense you were going to get this role.

At the audition it seemed that of all things, you might be too tall for the role by the time the show opened. But the next day Mom heard from your agent that they wanted to see you again.  Apparently you were so happy and so relieved by that news that you sat down and cried for ten minutes.

Your mom told me I sounded very nonchalant when I spoke to you, and truth be told I felt it. I don’t know why, but I was convinced you were going to be Matilda. You went for a second call back, and then a third. And then your agent called Mom again. You weren’t going any further. Everyone involved had said they loved your work and your passion for the role, but that you were definitely going to be too tall and too mature for the role by the time the show opened next year. They were going to look for someone younger.

You were inconsolable. Mom told me that in the years you’ve been acting and auditioning, she had never seen you this upset about not getting a role.  When you and I got on the phone I tried to give you a pep talk and told you how proud I was of you, but you shut me down and refused to even talk about it.  You were devastated.

As you might imagine, my sweet daughter, your upset has eaten away at me.  Throughout your career (can a ten year old have a career?) I have been careful to always ask you a version of only one question: whether you are having fun with this audition, or that part, or those lessons. I’ve assiduously stayed away from asking you how something went, or whether you did well, or whether the casting people liked you.

My hope has always been that framing the questions in that manner would diminish the competitive aspect of what you’ve chosen to do and thus maximize your enjoyment.  But at almost eleven years old, your psyche is no longer oblivious to the pressure, or to the fact that you’re competing for these roles at the highest level. Add to that the capricious nature of decisions about acting roles (you’re too tall, you’re too short, you’re too blonde, you’re not blonde enough, and so on) and the pressure cooker can no longer be ignored.

Like all parents, your mom and I suffer when we see you in distress. We want to protect you and your young psyche in every way possible, and it pains us when we can’t. The downside of being passionate about something you love is that you commit to it fully but you don’t always succeed at it. If you give your blood, sweat and tears to that thing and you still fall short, the pain and disappointment are that much more profound. 

On the flight home, you were discouraged and distraught. You had come very close on three or four projects in the past month or so and hadn’t booked any of them. You asked Mom why that was happening, but unfortunately there’s no good answer to that question. Mom asked you if you were still enjoying the process and whether you wanted to continue or to take a little time off to do other things.  You were adamant that you wanted to continue.

You’ll always have ups and downs in your career and in your life. Maybe you’ll make it big as an artist and maybe you won’t. I hope you do if it’s what you want, but there are no guarantees.

So what’s a parent to do? I’m not sure. In the end, I guess your mom and I will do what we’ve always done. We’ll encourage you to do what you love. We’ll make sure that if you’re competing it’s because that’s what you want to do, and not because it’s what someone else thinks you should do. We’ll celebrate with you in success and we’ll try to comfort you in failure. And mostly, we’ll just root for you and love you and believe in you, however it all plays out.

That said I admit that although I haven’t seen the show, I think the Broadway production would benefit from Matilda being a little bit taller. I’m just sayin’.

All my everlasting love,