Sunday, October 28, 2012

On Checking Out of the Hotel Transylvania


Dear Mackenzie,

A couple of months ago your mom and our friend Cheramie, whose daughter Madison played “Annie” in the 2008-2009 National Broadway tour of Annie, decided to organize a reunion of that touring company in New York City.  They coordinated it to coincide with a performance of the latest Annie revival on Broadway.  Everyone would get together for dinner and then go see the Broadway show. The event would take place on Saturday, October 27, 2012.

The night before the reunion, you asked me if I would take you to see the animated movie “Hotel Transylvania”, which was playing on 42d Street not too far from our apartment.  I had no idea what the film was about and didn’t care. I was excited about having some father/daughter bonding time.

To my delight, you held my hand as we walked down 8th Avenue all the way to the movie theater. Not wanting to press my luck I didn’t comment on it, but I remember thinking how great it would be if I could bottle you in this moment, and hold on to both you and it forever. Watching your child grow up in front of your eyes, as any parent will tell you, is fraught with conflicting feelings to say the least.

Ironically enough, “Hotel Transylvania” is about that very thing.  The film tells the story of Count Dracula, the owner of a hotel where the world’s monsters can take refuge from human civilization and the perils of “the outside world”. In the film, we learn that the love of Dracula’s life was murdered by a mob of angry humans. As a result, Dracula is desperate to make sure that his daughter Mavis never leaves the safety of the hotel.

He provides Mavis with all the love, creature comforts and great birthday parties that any monster could ever need. But of course, all Mavis wants to do for her 118th birthday is to leave the nest and experience the world for herself.  Hijinks ensue and Daddy Dracula learns a valuable lesson about parental love.

Which brings me back to the reunion. About twenty members of the Annie touring company, including assorted “orphan” moms, dads and grandmas had dinner in midtown before the show.  As food and drink flowed, I watched as Analisa (Grace Farrell), Lynn (Miss Hannigan), Jillian (Star-to-be), Zander (Rooster), Cy (ensemble) and Sari (swing) shared their stories of the road.  At the next table Madison, Jordan, Siara, Sydney and you (the orphans) laughed and shrieked like long lost siblings.

At one point someone yelled out the word “Miami” and everyone hooted and hollered at the memories. Anchorage came up, and the stories flowed about the volcano that erupted while the company was in Alaska. On it went like that throughout the meal.

After dinner we went to the show, where Liz, Kelly, Kenny, Patrick, Dustin, and maybe other tour company members (who with apology I am forgetting) joined us. The performance was just fine, and hopefully Broadway will have another big hit.

But watching the show was a mixed experience for me, and probably for much of our group. I suspect most of the company either saw the production through the filter of their own interpretation of the same roles or, like me, through the prism of memories of their young child on stage. I choked up at all the places I used to choke up during the tour.  Whoever the young girl playing “Molly” was, I never saw her. I saw only you.

When the show was over and the audience was gone, we all went up on stage and took a few group pictures for posterity with Sandy the dog. No one was ready for the night to end, so we went for a late bite and another drink or two, and had a few more laughs remembering the good old days on tour.

The evening wore on, and eventually people started peeling off to return to the real world and their present day lives. The group dwindled, and amidst hugs and maybe a tear or two everyone promised to get together again soon. Who knows, we might even do it. Walking back to the apartment, I couldn’t help but be amazed at this special group of friends.

Hotel Transylvania was still fresh in my mind too, and I was learning about letting go. I had to fly out early the next morning and knew you’d still be sleeping when I left, so I started to say goodbye to you in a manner befitting the young woman you’re fast becoming.

You responded by grabbing me into a deep hug, and we held each other like that for about a minute with neither of us saying a word.  Now a minute is an awfully long time to be in a hug, my sweet daughter. But in the emotional universe of a daddy holding on to his little girl, I can tell you it goes by in a millisecond.

I don’t know what was going through your mind during that minute, but in that wonderful hug I got clarity. Soon enough you’ll be checking out of your own Hotel Transylvania. That’s the natural order of things.  We couldn’t stop you even if we wanted to, and ultimately we want to encourage you to spread your wings.

Yet the notion of you eventually leaving doesn’t mean that we can’t savor every moment of the stay. And we should record wonderful memories in our mind’s eye that, like with the Annie experience, we can share with each other over and over as the years go by.

I may even ask for a late checkout.

All my everlasting love,

Dad








Saturday, October 20, 2012

On Hubris


Dear Mackenzie,

Everybody makes mistakes.

It’s part of the human condition and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. My own worldview, in fact, is that the more mistakes you make in life, the fuller and more vibrant your life can be.  What you should not do, Mackenzie, is make the same mistakes repeatedly. More importantly, as you go through life don’t make mistakes for the wrong reason.

The dictionary defines hubris as overconfident pride and arrogance, mixed with a lack of humility. Sad to say, we’re all susceptible to it at one point or another. By the time you read this letter, you may have studied the Greek myth about Icarus. Icarus was the son of an Athenian craftsman named Daedalus.

When Daedalus and Icarus were imprisoned by King Minos, Daedalus made two pairs of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun nor too close to the sea, but rather to follow his (Daedalus’) path of flight.

Once they took off, Icarus was overcome by the godlike power he felt that flying gave him and he started soaring higher and higher across the sky. But he got too close to the sun, the sun’s rays melted the wax, and Icarus fell into the sea and drowned.

Nowhere in world history do we have better examples of hubris at work than in Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign to conquer Russia in 1812 or Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941. (Note to people with hubris…stay out of Russia).

Napoleon was a great military leader and considered himself a strategic genius. He had conquered most of Europe by the time he turned his attention to bringing Russia to its knees.  Napoleon had met Alexander I several years earlier and the young Russian emperor had been in awe of the great Napoleon. They became allies, but when Russia reopened trade with Great Britain against Napoleon’s wishes, Napoleon decided to teach Alexander a lesson and bring Russia to heel.

France was already at war against Spain, but Napoleon was so confident in his powers that he ignored the age-old military adage against fighting a war on two fronts.  He also ignored the Russian weather, believing that he would defeat his enemy in one big quick battle.

The Red Army had other ideas. They continued to retreat strategically, drawing Napoleon and his army deeper and deeper into Russia. By the time the Russian Campaign was over, close to 400,000 French troops lay dead and Napoleon’s aura of invincibility was over.

In the 1930’s, Adolf Hitler consolidated his power on the Icarian wings of his diabolical genius.  He easily defeated Poland and France and then made short work of the British army, but the British wouldn’t surrender or even agree to a favorable peace settlement.

Hitler mistakenly concluded that England was counting on Russia to enter the war on their side. Stalin (who had issues of his own) had been Hitler’s partner in dismembering Poland and the two countries had a non-aggression pact. Yet Hitler decided that if he knocked off Russia, England would lose hope and fold.

So against the advice of most of his military advisers, Hitler invaded. In what became one of the bloodiest and most ill fated military decisions in history, Hitler made every mistake Napoleon had made a hundred and thirty years earlier. Thankfully for the world, Hitler made blunder after over-confident blunder, costing him the war and ultimately his life.

Hubris isn’t limited to military leaders, of course.

Joe Paterno’s hubris led him to look the other way as one of his assistant coaches molested a number of his young players.

It made Bernie Madoff think he could openly bilk investors out of billions of dollars, and it caused the collapse of Enron, Bear Stearns and a host of other financial institutions.

In 1978, hubris caused a pitcher from Allegheny College to decide to pitch to me in the bottom of the ninth with first base open and the winning run on third base.

I hope hubris won’t get the best of you in life my sweet daughter, but unfortunately none of us is immune.

Many, many years ago my good friend Phillip invited me to lunch.  He wanted me to meet an acquaintance of his named Sheryl who was trying to break into the entertainment industry. The three of us had a nice meal while she talked about some jingles she had recorded and how she wanted to get a record deal.

I had just left the practice of law and was in the middle of producing a film. I was on top of the world and way too big for my britches. At some point during the lunch Phillip suggested that maybe I should manage her. Very full of myself, I dismissively responded that she should send me a demo tape and told her I would call her after I’d had a chance to review her material. I did give Sheryl some general advice about the business, mostly to make myself feel important.

I no longer remember if her demo was any good or if I even listened to it, but I do know that I never followed up with her. All these years later Phillip still likes to rib me about how I passed on representing Sheryl, whose last name just happened to be Crow and who somehow went on to have an extraordinary career without me.

Well, some lessons you just have to learn the hard way.

All my everlasting love,

Dad

Sunday, October 14, 2012

On Safeguarding the Rights of Idiots and Fools


Dear Mackenzie,

When I was in law school I learned that the constitutional rights of the innocent are often reaffirmed on the backs of bad or guilty people.  Anyone who has ever watched a cop show on television, for example, is familiar with the notion of reading a suspect his “Miranda” rights.

In 1963, Ernesto Miranda was arrested for kidnapping and rape. He was convicted and sentenced to many years in prison. His lawyers appealed. They argued that Mr. Miranda had not been told, among other things, that he had the right to an attorney, so his confession was improperly obtained.  The U.S. Supreme Court agreed and overturned his conviction.

But make no mistake, my sweet daughter. Miranda was guilty as sin of the crimes for which he had been convicted.  He was subsequently retried without the “tainted” confession, convicted, and served many years in prison. Yet Mr. Miranda’s actual guilt or innocence was irrelevant to the Supreme Court. Their job was to protect his constitutional rights, and ours.

One of the most entertaining cases I studied in law school was called Cohen v. California. By the mid 1960’s, people were protesting heavily against the draft and against the Vietnam War. In 1968, Paul Robert Cohen was arrested for wearing a jacket inside a Los Angeles Courthouse bearing the words “Fuck The Draft”. He was convicted of disturbing the peace.  The case wound its way through the court system where the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction, saying it violated Cohen’s First Amendment rights.

Cohen’s attorney at the Supreme Court was the late Melville Nimmer, a well-known constitutional scholar who just happened to be my First Amendment professor at UCLA. One of my favorite memories in school is Professor Nimmer lecturing our class about how he argued that case.

The prosecution’s case had rested on the theory that the words “fuck the draft” were incendiary and had a tendency to provoke others to commit violent acts or to disturb the peace. Professor Nimmer recounted to us that prior to oral argument, he had received strongly worded “advice” from clerks of the various Supreme Court Justices that he was not to use the word “fuck” during oral argument. The Court considered it “demeaning to the institution of the highest court in the land”.  

Professor Nimmer told us that he indeed feared if he said “fuck” during oral argument, some of the justices would hold it against him in deciding the case. As he prepared, however, he worried that although he might not win the case if he insulted the Justices, his position really rode on the notion that the words were constitutionally protected, even in front of the Supreme Court.  As Nimmer put it, though, he was “fucked” either way.

The big day came and Professor Nimmer stood in front of the nine Justices. Before he could utter a single word, apparently one of the Justices cautioned him yet again by welcoming him to the “dignified” and “respected” halls of the Supreme Court.  What to do?

“Good morning Your Honors”, he began. “We are here to talk about the words ‘Fuck the draft’ ”.  He relayed to us that several of the Justices looked shocked as he repeated the phrase several times, but he won the case anyway.  Like in the Miranda case, guaranteeing fundamental freedoms is sometimes messy.

Not too long ago, someone posted on Youtube one of the most offensive short films you’ll ever watch. It’s called “Innocence of Muslims”, and basically the video ridicules Islam generally and defames the prophet Muhammad specifically.

The film is so poorly made that but for the treatment of its subject matter, no one would have seen it or cared.  The quality of the acting, writing, and directing is laughable.  I went on YouTube myself to see what had caused such worldwide attention and anxiety, and initially thought I had stumbled upon a spoof.

Yet the video has gone viral, with more than 20 million views on Youtube alone. It has garnered protests and violence around the world. It has been banned in more than a dozen Muslim countries.  It has escalated hatred of America and the West.

The video and its aftermath are unique in two ways.  First, the actors were apparently not told they were filming an anti-Islam film. No one was given a full script nor was there any reference to Muhammad or to Islam during production. The actors were told they were shooting an action film, and all the religious references were dubbed in by the director/producer during post-production.

Secondly, religious and special interest groups around the world immediately started spinning to serve their own purposes. First we heard that the film was financed by Israeli Zionists bent on defaming Islam.  Then it was reported that the film was instead financed by a group of Egyptian Muslims bent on making the West look bad. Then it came out the film had been financed by an individual crackpot with an axe to grind.  Who really financed the film and why? I don’t know.

It’s neither the first time nor the last that someone will use his or her fundamental rights to wreak havoc. I wish the person or group who made “Innocence of Muslims” had more sense. I wish the author or authors of the film had put their first Amendment rights to better use.  At the very least, I wish they had simply shut (the fuck) up.

Mackenzie, I hope you’ll treasure the fundamental rights that have been bestowed upon us by our founding fathers. They are hard fought and well earned. Yet I also hope that as your grandma used to say, “if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all”.

All my everlasting love,

Dad









Saturday, October 6, 2012

On Facing Adversity


Dear Mackenzie,

A man gets shipwrecked on a deserted island. Every day he scans the horizon hoping to be rescued, but help never comes. He’s despondent and fears he’s going to die in this Godforsaken place. To protect himself from the elements the man builds a little hut for himself out of driftwood.  One day while he’s out scavenging for food, he sees smoke rolling up to the sky from the direction of his hut. He runs to the hut only to find it being engulfed in flames.

The man is stunned as he watches his last hope for survival burn to the ground. He’s overcome with grief and anger at the notion that all is lost, and he cries himself to sleep. Early the next day, however, he is awakened by the sound of a ship that has come to rescue him. “How did you know I was here?” the weary man asks his rescuers. “We saw your smoke signal,” they answer.

So far you’ve been very blessed throughout your young life. Other than maybe not getting an acting role or two that you may have wanted, or having to do schoolwork when you’d rather be at Disneyland, you haven’t experienced much in the way of hard times. And if your mom and I could have our way, bad luck and trouble would never find you at all. 

Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do to shield you from it.  At some point you may be challenged in your career. You may stumble in your personal life. Maybe you’ll face financial challenges. In fact, sooner or later all these things may find themselves at your door.

The urge to give up when the going gets tough is only human. Uncertainty creates anxiety, and the fear of pain trumps the desire for pleasure in virtually every instance. So what should you do to keep from giving up when nothing is going right?

Below are Dad’s three rules for overcoming adversity in your personal and business life. Ready?

Rule #1: When things don’t go right, face the brutal facts.

This is one of the hardest things for people to do in crisis, but if you don’t do it you’ll only dig a deeper hole for yourself. Your boyfriend left you? Face the brutal facts. Your company is going under? Face the brutal facts. You have a life threatening illness? Face the brutal facts. You can’t solve any problem that you can’t admit at least to yourself.

One day many years ago I was on vacation in Hawaii, when I got a call from the controller of the company I was working at. “What’s up?” I asked him as I sipped my tropical drink. After a few seconds of silence he spit out “I thought I should tell you we can’t meet payroll tomorrow”.  I thought I had misheard. Cash flow is cyclical in almost every business, which is why companies have revolving lines of credit. “Why don’t you just go into our credit line?” I gamely suggested. “It’s tapped out,” he said. “I’ve been hoping collections would accelerate”.

The controller had refused to face the brutal fact that our receivables that quarter had not kept up with our expenses. Maybe he was embarrassed. Maybe he feared he would be blamed if he shined a light on the problem. Who knows? But without facing the brutal facts he couldn’t address the issue. Needless to say he wasn’t our controller much longer.

Rule #2: When things don’t go right, tackle the issue that is directly in front of you without getting distracted by related problems not yet at your doorstep.

I once read a script where two detectives, a rookie and a seasoned veteran, are trapped on the top floor of an abandoned building. Bad guys are shooting at them, and more bad guys await them on the stairwell and in the lobby. “How many do you reckon are on the stairwell?” the rookie asks his partner between rounds.  “And how many do you reckon are in the lobby?” “Why don’t we worry about staying alive for the next sixty seconds?” says his partner. “We can deal with the other guys soon enough.”

However difficult what you face in life may be, Mackenzie, I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty that you’ll be able to deal with it more effectively if you can focus on the actual problem at hand. If you lose your job, for example, the challenge in front of you is to get another job. That’s what you must make yourself tackle.  It’s true that if you don’t get another job you may lose your house.  You may well feel humiliated in front of your family and friends at having been fired. Yet you must make yourself minimize those fears and feelings lest you get overwhelmed and derail the real task at hand.

Rule #3: When things don’t go right, remember that the knot in your stomach is temporary.

The ultimate brutal fact is that not all problems are solvable. Loved ones die. Passion fades. Lebron left Cleveland.

The loss of your grandma was a bitter pill for me to swallow and I miss her every day. But as time goes by the pain lessens, and the memories of her and of our time together fill my heart with warmth and love. When I was in my twenties and a romantic relationship ended, I was certain I’d never find love again.  Yet I did find love. And years later I can barely remember some of the people who broke my heart.  I guess I’m saying if you can imagine what the problem might look like to you from the rear view mirror, you’ll be better able to handle it in the present.

All that said, my sweet daughter, may you never get shipwrecked on a desert island. But if you do, I hope this letter helps you build your hut.

All my everlasting love,

Dad