Saturday, August 25, 2012

On the Color of Money


Dear Mackenzie,

If you invest your tuppence wisely in the bank, safe and sound; soon that tuppence safely invested in the bank…will compound.

No, my sweet daughter, these are not my pearls of wisdom. They’re from one of my favorite songs in the 1964 film based on a series of children’s books that featured a magical nanny named Mary Poppins.

In the film, Mary’s employer Mr. Banks sings to his son Michael about the value of money, and of investing his tuppence at the Fidelity Fiduciary bank. For some reason I love that song. But how important is it for a ten year old to save money, or to understand money management?

A couple of years ago we started giving you a weekly allowance.  The truth is that as a practical matter you didn’t need one.  Like most parents who are able, we provide you with all the necessities of life and then some.

Even if we hadn’t, you’ve been blessed at a very young age with a successful acting career that’s allowed us to put away quite a bit of money in your college fund. That said, your mom and I thought that giving you an allowance was a great way for you to start learning how to manage money in a safe environment.  It’s hard to make a catastrophic mistake at $10 a week.

We also debated whether or not to tie your allowance to your doing some chores around the house. We liked the idea of your starting to learn the value of money earned for services rendered. On the other hand, you’ve been working eight-hour days or longer on stage and on screen alongside adult professionals since the age of seven. In that light, it seems rather foolish to offer you a few dollars to clean your room.

Not that you’re aware of your net worth.  A year or so ago you wanted to buy an ipad. One night at dinner you asked how much an ipad cost and we told you it was approximately $500. You immediately started calculating how long you would have to save in order to buy one. When you realized that given your allowance it would take a year or more to buy one even if you saved every penny, you started negotiating with me about matching funds.

I was enjoying the exchange tremendously, but after a while your sister Jamie got fed up with the discussion and suggested that you simply use the money you have in the bank and buy one now.  You looked at her like she was crazy. “What are you talking about?” you answered. “I don’t have any money”.  It took all our will power to maintain a straight face, but the moment was so pure and genuine that I agreed to match your savings dollar for dollar until you reached your goal.

A former colleague of mine used what I thought was a wonderful tool to teach her (then) young children the value of money.  Whenever the family went out to a restaurant, she would have the kids check the math when the bill came.  If the kids found that the restaurant had overcharged them, or had done the math wrong in any way, she would give the difference to the kids.

Her children loved the game, and every so often they got a bit of found money. In the meantime, looking at the bill gave them a sense of the reality of how much things cost (“wow, four dollars for a Coke? That’s half my allowance”) so the concept of what they were spending became less ethereal. It’s genius. I’ve suggested that game to you several times and so far you’ve not been interested.

The problem with the allowance we were giving you was that we didn’t stick to the plan. You rarely did the chores you were supposed to do each week, yet we gave you your allowance anyway.  Half the time we didn’t even remember what chores we had asked you to do.

Then we’d forget to give you your allowance for weeks at a time. You in turn would forget to ask for it because whenever you needed something we’d just buy it for you, so you were never short on cash. In the end, both you and we showed all the fiscal discipline of an Enron executive and the allowance experiment was a bust. Finally all of us forgot about it. I blame myself.

And then two weeks ago you approached us again about getting an allowance.  You suggested you would be willing to do chores around the house in exchange for a weekly allowance. I realize you’re presenting us with an opportunity to do it right this time. And yet I’m conflicted.

Should we just give you an allowance and let you be a kid? And why did you offer up the chores?  Is it because your friends are doing it?  Is it because you are craving responsibility? With you having offered it up, would it scar you if we said you didn’t have to do the chores? My initial idea was to tell you that one of your chores would be to hug your daddy every week. But wait, what would THAT be teaching you?

I’m neither a child psychologist nor an economist, but I’ve come to believe chores for money at age ten is silly.  You’ll have plenty of time for the anxiety of financial pressures your entire adult life. Why start that anxiety now?  I had an allowance as a kid. I think it served to make me less carefree, and I’m still not very good with money management.

Arghh, who the hell knows. I leave the tough decisions to your mother.

All my everlasting love,

Dad
















Saturday, August 18, 2012

On the Great Beyond


Dear Mackenzie,

A good friend of mine just lost her significant other. He was only fifty years old when he died, and he left behind a five-year old son.  As you might imagine it’s a very sad situation.

The other day my friend posted a few pictures of their family on Facebook as a memorial, and two of the pictures in particular really touched my heart. The first was of the little boy wearing some kind of worker vest or fishing vest; something like that. His dad was kneeling next to him as the two read what looked to be directions for something. Maybe they were assembling a piece of furniture together, or maybe they were getting ready to go fishing. I’m not sure, and the specifics don’t matter. Whatever they were doing, the picture gave me a glimpse of a father bonding with and teaching his son.

The second picture was even more gripping. According to the caption, it was apparently taken just a few day’s before the boy’s father passed away. In it, the little boy is lying on top of his dad and the two are hugging each other for dear life as they both look up at the camera. In a different context, the image would have been wonderfully heartwarming.

The boy’s father had been very ill and may have known he was nearing the end.  As I looked upon these very moving images, I started thinking about you and me. I wondered what might have gone through my own mind as a parent if I had lay dying when you were only five and I had the chance to hug you as a little girl one final time. Would this last moment of intimacy have to carry the two of us through all eternity?

Like most people, sometimes I wish I knew what happens to us after our time on this earth is done.  When we go to that great beyond, where exactly are we going? What is the next kingdom we hear so much about?  Is there life after death? Is there reincarnation?  Is the soul truly immortal? Will we be able to keep a watchful and loving eye on our loved ones from up above? We have more questions than answers to say the least.

The last question troubles me the most. Jamie and Heather are now fully formed adults. Of course your mom and I want to savor them, help them, hang out with them, and share experiences with them for many years to come. But at least I take some comfort that irrespective of me or your mom, Heather and Jamie are positioned going forward to make their way in the world just fine.

It’s a little different with you, my sweet daughter. Although we often joke that you’re ten going on twenty-five, in the end you’re not yet fully developed or able to fend for yourself.  You still have a lot to learn cognitively and emotionally. Your mom and I want to be here to protect you and teach you, and naturally we plan to.

But what if we couldn’t be here for you? My fervent prayer is that Heather, Jamie and other friends and family would step in and you’d end up just fine. But would your mom and I be able to help you, or guide you, or experience you in any way from the other side?

Virtually every religion addresses the notion of an afterlife that encompasses either reincarnation, the immortality of the soul, or both.  Historians, theologians, philosophers, and other people much smarter than me have been debating the afterlife, or the possible lack of it, for thousands of years. There are more explanations and theories about what happens after we die than you can imagine. They’re all equally likely or unlikely depending on your faith, your hopes, and your spiritual needs.

The one theory that no one seems to think is particularly likely, however, concerns the conscious mind as we know it.  In other words, can our soul (or spirit, or whatever you choose to call it) maintain a consciousness of its everlasting presence? When my time on earth is done, I would like to be able to look upon you, your sisters, and the rest of our family and recognize our connection.

I guess that’s an earthly yearning and not a spiritual one. Maybe in the end our spirit is infinitely more evolved than that. Sometimes I feel your grandma’s presence with me and she’s been gone almost a decade.  I’ll remember something she said to me that makes me smile.  Or I’ll be feeling down and the memory of her will pop into my head and cheer me up. But is that really your grandma reaching out from some other place or is it simply memory association here on earth? 

Many years ago, the night my Granny Goldberg died (your great-grandmother), I had an overwhelming feeling as I drifted into a fitful sleep. It was as if her spirit was urging me to come with her and I was trying to get out of my body to follow.  It scared the bejesus out of me, and that night I barely slept a wink for fear I might die too. The sensation was all too real.  But was the spirit world really beckoning me, or was my heart and brain simply grappling with the notion of losing my grandma, with whom I had been very close? I have no idea.

Here’s what I do know. 

Life is fragile.

Our time is short.

Any given hug could be our last. 

If there is a great beyond, I hope I can recognize you in it. Until then, I will love you in the here and now and count my blessings each and every day.

All my everlasting love,

Dad










Saturday, August 11, 2012

On the Power of Bigotry


Dear Mackenzie,

The famous 18th century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke once said that all that’s necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good people to do nothing. Well, Burke actually used the word “men” instead of “people”. But in fairness to him, in the 18th century he would probably have been hung on a rope if he had included women in his philosophizing. 

But the fundamental issue behind Burke’s statement hasn’t changed in the last three centuries.  What should we do when we witness injustice that doesn’t directly impact on us?

These days only a handful of states recognize marriage between two people of the same sex. I hope that by the time you read this letter as an adult, gay marriage will be commonplace.  By then I suspect many people won’t even remember what all the fuss was about, or why anyone was against it in the first place.

From the prism of hindsight, our society will likely record this episode in our country’s history in much the same way that we now look back at the days when interracial marriage was illegal or when women didn’t have the right to vote. Most people today would be hard pressed to even articulate why there was a debate about interracial marriage, let alone that there was an actual prohibition against it.

Such are the lessons of history.  Years from now the notion that in 2012 two people who loved each other couldn’t get married in most of the states of our great country because they both had the same private parts will seem as crazy as denying women the right to vote seems to us today.  For now though, the fight rages on. And the hatred and vitriol on both sides proceeds unabated.

The debate about gay marriage usually hits the headlines only around election time, when some state or other is either trying to legalize same-sex marriage or to abolish it. But there has been much press recently because it came to light that Dan Cathy, the CEO of a $4 billion dollar a year fast food company called Chick-fil-a, was donating millions of corporate dollars to political groups who actively lobby against the legalization of gay marriage.

When the brouhaha first started, Mr. Cathy issued a statement saying that Chick-fil-a’s corporate purpose is “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-a.” It’s a lovely sentiment.

I’m not sure how glorifying God and having a positive influence give rise to embracing homophobia, but who’s counting.  More to the point, I think if I had been on the board of Chick-fil-a when they were discussing corporate purpose, I might have suggested to Mr. Cathy that the corporation would be better served by leaving God out of the equation and instead committing to sell more chicken. Then again, nobody asked me.

You and your sisters, and actually our whole family, have been eating Chick-fil-a for a long time. For better or worse, we think their food is delicious.  So when the story broke there was quite a debate in our household.  Should we or shouldn’t we boycott the chain?

We all acknowledge that Mr. Cathy is entitled to his beliefs and opinions, bigoted or otherwise. And though I certainly disagree with his views I support his right to them and even to air them publicly. Nor does anyone begrudge him the right to donate money to the groups of his choosing, however ideologically backwards. At the same time, do we want to help fund those donations by giving Chick-fil-a our money?

That has been the question around our dinner table.  The other night you asked if we could go eat at Chick-fil-a. Your mom told you what Mr. Cathy was doing and how that could impact on some of our friends, many of whom you know.  I explained that we didn’t want to support a business that was donating no small measure of their profits to groups we felt were promoting injustice.

I could see on your face that you were clearly conflicted, and so I asked you how you felt about it all.  With the purity of a ten- year-old child, you said that when you thought about how their donations could harm our friends you didn’t want to eat there. But that on the other hand “their food was sooooo good. “

And there’s the rub, my sweet daughter. Mr. Cathy’s financial contributions don’t directly affect us in any way.  And yes, their chicken is indeed quite tasty.  But should we ignore the injustice?  Should we look the other way?

I can tell you that I’ve eaten my last Chick-fil-a meal. But should I be imposing my personal beliefs on you? And would I feel differently if he was contributing to the Ku Klux Klan instead?  Or to a neo-Nazi group? Would those things change our reaction? Should they?  I don’t know.

The good news is that ultimately history will not remember Mr. Cathy kindly, if at all. His fate will be much like that of former Alabama governor George Wallace, who is best remembered as the man who stood in front of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in 1963 to physically block Vivian Malone and James Hood from enrolling in the university for the simple reason that they were black. Fifty years later, he sounds like a buffoon.

In the meantime, you have a decision to make.  Chicken or standing by your principles? The choice is yours.  Don’t squander it.

All my everlasting love,

Dad















Wednesday, August 1, 2012

On Happily Learning Absolutely Nothing


Dear Mackenzie,

When you get to be an adult, my sweet daughter, you’ll find that the basic responsibilities of life never really go away. They don’t even take much of a holiday. You’ll have a job. A family. A mortgage. When you reach a certain age these will become your constant companions.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you.  I love my family with all my heart. And though having a family carries with it a certain cost in terms of time, money and the like, I wouldn’t trade it, or you guys, for anything in the world. I know your mom feels exactly the same as I do and hopefully you, Heather and Jamie will all feel that way too once you have families of your own. 

My job is often grueling. It’s often very stressful. And especially in my chosen line of work, it’s hard to truly leave the job or its various pressures behind even while on vacation.  That said, on most days I find my job interesting, challenging, and exciting as well. As for the monthly mortgage….well, I guess everyone needs a place to live.  It all goes with the territory of adulthood, and there’s no way to get around it.

The problem with all these adult responsibilities is that after a while they can skew your approach to the world around you. If you’re not careful, you start to view everything through the filter of all that rational, responsible thinking. Before you know it your reptilian brain has pushed memories of the pure joy of not having a care in the world back to some distant corner of your mind.

The other night you were playing a game on your computer and I randomly asked you whether you wanted to learn about some particular topic or other. “Dad,” you said impatiently, “I’m on summer vacation. I don’t want to learn anything”. I was a bit taken aback by your response. So I explained that I understood you were on vacation from school, but that learning was a yearlong process and that the classroom that is life wasn’t limited to certain months of the year.

It seemed to take all your faculties to even retain civility in the face of my statement, and you looked at me like I was from Mars.  “I refuse to learn anything about anything until the new school year begins,” you told to me in that fiercely strong-willed way that is uniquely yours. “Don’t even think about trying to teach me anything new until then.” Satisfied that you had stymied my inappropriate attempt to teach you something off-cycle, you turned your attention back to your computer and resumed whatever game you had been playing.  

The adult part of my brain had a viscerally adverse reaction to your statement. I wanted to challenge you on it and to suggest that your approach was irresponsible and shortsighted.  I wanted to remind you that learning inspires confidence. I wanted to tell you that an education inspires a positive self-image.  I wanted to instill in you the notion that the more you learn, the higher the chance of success and happiness you will have in life.

Yet you had dismissed me in such an adorable way, and with such conviction, that all I could do was laugh. I decided to let it drop for the time being, but thought to myself that our exchange had given me an organic opportunity for a future teaching moment. I decided to come back to the conversation when you were done playing and give you the guidance you needed and deserved. In fact I started writing one of my letters to you, about the importance of education.

But the more I thought about what you had said, the more I started to remember my own summers when I had been your age, and what they had meant to me. As a young boy I couldn’t wait for summer vacation and all that it held.  I would count down the final days, hours and minutes until the school year was out. The final bell on the last day of school proclaimed my freedom for the next several months.

Summer meant that I would have no responsibilities, no homework, absolutely no cares in the world. I could (and did) play baseball in the park near our house from early in the morning until late at night. I could go swimming in the local community pool with my friends. I could hang out, sleep in, sleep over, watch television, play marbles, wait for “Uncle Marty’s Ice Cream Truck” to come by our street, and do (or not do) anything else my heart desired. 

I was a kid and it was summer and the world was my oyster. No one made me learn anything in particular, or do anything in particular, or read anything in particular, or be responsible to anyone in particular. In hindsight I now realize that those carefree days were crucial to my cognitive and emotional development.  Those carefree days allowed me to re-charge my batteries for the school year to come.  Those carefree days helped me to reconnect with the joyous innocence that most of us experience far too infrequently once we reach adulthood.

So as it turns out, Mackenzie, you were absolutely right.  I want you to experience that exhilarating lightness of being as profoundly as possible for as long as possible. And I hope you will be able to tap into your carefree inner child throughout your adult life.

To that end, I promise not to teach you a single thing for the entire summer.  I promise to let you play, and sing, and generally wreak havoc all summer long to your heart’s delight.

And if you absolutely must learn something, don’t let me catch you doing it.

All my everlasting love,

Dad