Shots and Jots - My Facebook Stories

Good Son John

My first born son, John, drove up from Berkeley, CA, and as the sun set Pia and I had the most wonderful dinner with him last night.

When he was little, I had John read, a lot. Good books, smart books, that would get him to think. On his own. To challenge the way he looked at things, to challenge everything so that he could see what made sense to him and make his own mind up. We saw films and theatre and went to museums discussing everything we saw and read. We had long conversations into the night about politics, the world, history, religion, the poor and how important it was to never forget what we had been given and how lucky we were.

When John turned 16, I bought him a guitar and a bunch of other stuff and when I gave it to him, he got upset. “Stop buying me so much stuff!” he said, and I was truly flabbergasted. I had never heard someone say that.

 

When we bought a new house John was upset with me. “It’s too big just for us, you need to let more people live here.” That honestly never occurred to me.

 

When Pia and I returned from a marvelous vacation in Jamaica, and shared with him just how much fun we had had playing tennis, and having cocktails at sunset on the beach, he said, “I’m so glad you guys had a good time. Hey, how was the crushing poverty?”

 

You see, John had hung out with homeless people while I had only driven by them. John built houses for the poor in Costa Rica while I had only written checks. John fought on the streets all over the world to stop senseless wars and to protect the working people, while I had only talked about that. He started a newspaper called Seattle Free Press whose front page headline once was, “Fuck Mars Hill Church” and he fought endlessly with Seattle Solidarity to get people paid a fair wage and what was owed them. He’d walk into the manager’s office and ask they pay the wronged worker and when the manager predictably refused, he said, “Fine, but I want you to look at the flyer I left on your desk. You see, if you do not pay this woman, who worked for you for 6 years and now you refuse to pay her what you owe her, we’ll be back next week to legally protest with ten people outside your door. And if you don’t pay then, we’ll be back with 20, then 40, then 80 then 160. And if you don’t think we can do that, look at the number on the bottom of the page. We have a 90% success rate. And 2,000 members. See you next week.” They’d eventually collect the money when the greedy manager/owner finally realized he was losing so much business, and John and his group would turn ALL of it over to the worker, keeping none, ever.

 

So the child became the teacher, and sitting with him last night reminded how important it is to listen to your kids and to hear what they have to teach you.

 

Thank you, good John.

When Life Gives You Lemons

Who is good at something the first time they do it?  No one.  It takes practice to get good at anything, so why are we so hard on ourselves when we’re not good right off the bat? 

 

I always say to my students that I watched them come into the room and saw that no one fell down.  But, I happen to know that none of them was born walking.  That they all started as babies sitting around mooching food off people, then one day they started crawling, and then one day they pulled themselves upright and tried to walk.  And what happened?  They fell down.  Did they quit?  N0.  They got up again and tried again.  And they fell again.  In fact, they repeated this process for two or so years until they sort of mastered walking.  And now they all walk pretty darn well.

 

I think one reason I keep directing is to make up for my utter, complete disastrous early directing work. Ted Walch, the head of drama at my high school and my early mentor, selected me to direct the main stage show.  Now, this was a big deal because it was a brand new theatre and no student had ever directed there before.  I was extremely flattered and, having my priorities in the right place, determined to do a good job so that maybe I could get a girl - any girl - to like me.

 

Any optimism I had about this miracle actually happening came to an end when I read what play I was assigned to direct: “Woyzeck” by Georg Büchner.  This play is known as one of the first truly modern plays and is extremely challenging to do. But I’ve always said that one of my greatest strengths is that I am naïve and shallow, and so I blundered ahead full force not knowing what pitfalls awaited. I came up with this utterly clever scheme that was so clever that you would have thought a graduate from Harvard with a degree in Cleaverness had come up with it.  The stage was really wide and deep, you see, and “Woyzeck” had 21 scenes, all of which required the lead character to move from one scene to another, so I, clever boy that I was, thought I’d just put the furniture for each scene just next to the other scene, so Woyzeck would just finish one scene, the lights would go down, then the lights would come up on the next scene’s furniture and Woyzeck would just walk into that scene.  Then he’d finish that scene, lights would go down, he’d walk to the next scene, etc… one scene right after another.  Clever!  What could possibly go wrong?

 

Well, I had never really done a main stage show before, and we ran quite a bit behind schedule with rehearsals, etc… so our Opening Night was really more like a tech night.  You know, where you try out being on the set with sound and lights… and furniture… for the first time, only now we had a full house of expectant parents, teachers, donors, the Headmaster, some US Senators, and most terrifying of all, girls.

 

So what I didn’t know was that when actors are on stage and all those lights are shining in their eyes, they really can’t see anything for a couple of minutes when the lights go off.  So the clever concept of my “Woyzeck”, played admirably by the Jimmy Stewart-like Sam Merrick, moving from set to set in the dark, but now completely blind from the stage lights, didn’t go too well.  In complete dark, the audience heard between each of the 21 scenes Sam running into the furniture, which inevitably had bottles on them. They’d hear the sound of tall and lanky Sam hitting the table and plummeting to the floor, crying out, “God damn it”, followed by the slow roll of bottles, usually one at a time, crashing onto the ground, or worse, onto Sam. “God damn it again,” he’d yelp.

 

This was compounded by the fact I had asked a young man to be my backstage manager who had cerebel palsy.  So when the front stage manager in the booth heard the noise on stage during the blackouts, he was afraid that the backstage manager had fallen, and if the lights came up too soon, we’d all see him being helped up or actually crawling off the stage.  So these loud crashes and inevitable bottle rolling sounds were followed by long periods of dark and ominous silence.

 

“Woyzeck” is a very modern play and strange just in its own nature, without any help at all from my direction, so the audience was already pretty confused and these black holes of drama weren’t helping any.  Also what wasn’t helping was that I had cast this beautiful young boy, Johnny, in the role of the mentally challenged character in the play.  Those of you that actually know this play might well ask, “Mentally challenged character?” because, well, there is no such role, but I, clever to the end, decided there needed to be one. I thought that the heavy-handed writing of Buchner needed an even heavier hand to beat the meaning of the play mercilessly into the audience, so I had put this box, see, down stage right because I had read in the “Directing for Dummies” book that was the most powerful part of the stage, and early in the play I had the lights just come up on the box.  Then they went down.  Then later in the play I had the lights come up on the box and this boy Johnny run up to it and open it, then the lights would go down, then later lights up again, and this time Johnny pulls out A GI JOE DRESSED JUST LIKE WOYZECK!  Then lights down and so on and so on with Johnny manipulating that toy soldier just like Woyzeck was getting manipulated in the play.  See?  Get it?  Clever, huh?

 

When I told my teacher Ted Walch I was going to do that, he just started laughing and said, “You’re not really, are you?”

 

This all might have gone well except that I had given a book, before rehearsals started, to Johnny called, “Method Acting or Your Life”.  Johnny took his acting thing very seriously and took to this book like a duck to water.  Method acting, in theory anyway, requires the actor to create emotional memories so he can actually LIVE the part he plays, and boy, did Johnny do that.  Early in rehearsals he started drooling a lot for no apparent reason, and I’d see him around the school hallways soon thereafter talking to himself and his imaginary friend, Jesus the Taco King.  Just before the show opened he got himself committed to an institution by walking around downtown squawking like a chicken so he could use that memory on stage. When he was finally released they ruled he was indeed sane, but could he leave them some eggs?

 

So, it shouldn’t have come as a great surprise when Johnny missed every one of his cues on stage with the box.  The light would come up on the box, there’d be no Johnny, and the light would go down on the box.  Again and again.  So that happened, along with prolonged black outs with people, furniture, and bottles falling on stage, plus just the very nature of the play itself, and the audience all around me as I sat cringing was whispering, “What does that box mean?”  and “These silences with people screaming curse words must mean something, dear God!”

 

So, thankfully, “Woyzeck” is only two hours long.  Albeit, the most painful two hours of my life, unless you remember that time I walked in on my mother naked and could never eat liverwurst again. The play was supposed to end and the lights would come up on center stage where Johnny would run out and manically scream this blood curdling scream, and then he’d run off again, like a madman.  The lights would go out, and we’d be done.  Clever, yes; amazing, yes; clichéd and trite, yes! But it of course if didn’t quite happen that way.  The play did end, and the lights did come up center stage, but Johnny never made this cue either.  So the stage manager decided to take down the stage lights and bring up the house lights, and the audience, dutifully if not totally confused, applauded politely and started to stand to put on their coats.  It was then that Johnny was pushed on stage by the cerebel palsy plagued back stage manager, who feeling quite proud that he actually hadn’t fallen the entire night, decided to take a bow from the wings.  The audience stopped moving as they had no idea who the bowing “actor” with braces on his legs was, and they were now totally confused by Johnny’s running into the middle of the stage where he started laughing like a crazy person, all too realistically.  So confused was the audience that they actually sat back down.  The back stage manager finished his bow and triumphantly turned to go back stage when he fell down, and Johnny finished his mad laughing and ran back off stage, and the audience just sat there.  They weren’t sure if there was more show coming, if the light was coming back up on that damn box again, or what.

 

I was crawling out the back door on all fours when Ted Walch stood, tears running from his eyes he had been laughing so hard, and yelled across the stupefied audience, “Is it over, John?”

 

So, you see, don’t quit, ever.  You can only get better.

 

Worrying About
Crabs

The doctor was one of the leading, most highly respected OB/GYN’s in Baltimore.  He also was one of the sweetest men I had met, standing about five foot five and always in a blazer, dress shirt, and a bow tie.  His wife was lovely, too, always conservatively dressed and proper, and together they were the spitting image of the perfect June Cleaver couple.

 

That’s why it must have come as quite a surprise when the Doctor discovered he had crabs.  And that came about the same time his wife discovered she had them, too. Both must have been completely flummoxed as to how this had occurred, since both were of coursevery faithful to each other, but I think when they saw their beautiful black lab scratching like mad in the corner, they knew how this embarrassment had entered their house.  They immediately marched up to their college age son’s room.

 

Bill was home from school for Christmas break and, like most college age guys, didn’t often wash his towels after he showered.  He was careful to dry them out and then put them back in the closet lest his mother scold him for not washing them after use, and this, they soon realized, was why they all shared crabs. How exactly the Labrador got them was a little more hazy, but nevertheless, some words were exchanged between parent and child, a lot of baths with medical shampoos followed, and soon the world was right again.

 

Throughout the ages, parents have worried about their kids, even, and especially, when they are off to college. What the hell are they thinking? What will become of them? My son John went off to study in Oxford, and his first report card had written in pen at the top of it by a professor, “John’s belief in Marxism must be encouraged at ALL COSTS!!!!”

 

But Bill’s parents, I think, had learned that their son’s ultimate fate was out of their hands and switched from worrying about his future to just trying to keep him alive so that he made it to 25.  And, I imagine, they started worrying about what to do their best to prevent STDs from entering their house.

 

Because Bill, whose nickname at school was Meatball, had a tendency towards the outrageous.  He was a stocky guy, a former wrestler, not tall, but wide, with his head looking like it was just sort of stuck on top of a meatball as an afterthought.  He wasn’t unattractive looking, not at all; in fact, he was sort of cute, unless you were a vegetarian, maybe.  He was very funny, a guy’s guy for sure, and he was definitely the reason I stayed in college in the south.

 

Yale had taken it upon itself to not accept me.  I was pretty devastated about not going, since my Dad had gone there and said it had changed his life, and because blue and white were my favorite colors.  This is pretty much how I picked my colleges, through their color schemes and mascot designations.  Anyway, I probably shouldn’t have told Yale that when I had my interview, and soon found myself looking at which of my backup colleges I should attend.  My plan was to go to the easiest one, get straight A’s, and transfer right back to Yale and show them what a mistake they had made.  So off to Washington and Lee University I went, a school I had never even visited, and with map in hand, I hopped into my rust ridden Fiat Spider (that pretty much only worked when I drove downhill) and looked on the map – remember using those? – to find out where the hell Lexington, Virginia even was.

 

My parents were happy to see me go, believe me, although my mom did cry.  Tears of joy.

 

Anyway, my plans of transferring went awry, as plans often do, when I met Bill, aka: Meatball.  You see, I was a pretty shy boy and had gone to St. Albans, a prep school that was so rigid and disciplined that Hitler’s kid would have dropped out.  I was used to keeping my head down and working hard lest I get whipped by some British want-to-be tweed eating professor, and when I got to the south with its laid back, casual, work if you want to, there’s always tomorrow attitude, in combination with Meatball’s funniest-antics-on-earth approach to academia, I couldn’t see one reason to leave the south and go back up north to Yale.

 

Now my parents began to worry.

 

But I am so grateful for meeting Bill because he taught me to laugh so hard it hurt, to not take things seriously, and to enjoy the ride. He was the PERFECT college friend for me.  What do you do when you find out you have crabs?  Why, walk into the school cafeteria, put your hands down your pants, rip out some pubes, and throw them around the room, that’s what!

 

Now, Washington and Lee is a beautiful school.  Started by George Washington and later run by Robert E. Lee, it oozes history and southern charm, which might be why Meatball and another pal, aka: Spanky, having drank too much of that southern charm that night, decided in the wee hours of the morning to grab a can of rust coating paint and a couple of brushes before meandering up the beautiful manicured lawn to the historic white columns of the Federally protected colonnade and cover them with penises. As the sun rose the next day, school officials, and eventually FBI agents, stood in front of the 150 year old landmark to see something no one had ever seen before in all of human history: each column had huge paintings of male genitalia on them in the maroon colored, rust preventing paint. 

 

Meatball and Spanky were caught of course, as they had spilled some of the paint while creating these masterpieces – and masterpieces they were – and then stepped in said paint, covering their shoes in rust preventing maroon-colored paint.  They then had walked back to their dorms, up to their rooms, and into their forever-unmade beds, footprints behind them every step of the way. It still took the FBI 4 hours to find them. It was the South, after all.

 

Bill was filterless, it’s true.  He had a hard time getting girls to go out with him – I don’t know why.  So sometimes when a guy would be making out on the stairs with a girl, Meatball would walk up the stairs past them, then stop at the landing just above, and pee down the stairs, so that the urine slowly made its way like a little yellow stream towards the loving couple.  That way he could then walk back down the stairs, past them, and be gone before his victims realized what had happened.  I know it’s not funny, it’s gross and when I tell that story in public I lose a lot of friends, but at the time, it really made me laugh.  I bet they didn’t do THAT at Yale.

 

Speaking of making out, sometimes guys, believe it or not, were able to convince girls to go upstairs to their bedrooms.  Even today that seems miraculous to me, but it happened and this fact was not lost on Meatball.  He’d wait until the couple had gone upstairs and had sufficient time to start getting acquainted.  Then he’d grab a broom from the cleaning closet – a place no one ever visited, believe me – and race upstairs.  He’d listen outside their door for confirmation, then run to another bedroom down the hall, throw open the window, and crawl out on the two foot wide ledge. Now, we were on the third floor over the street, but that didn’t deter Bill as he, broom in hand would slide along the ledge in the middle of the night, all the way around the building until he was sitting, legs a-kicking like a happy kid at the movies, just outside the window belonging to the amorous couple.  He then would whip out a lighter, light the broom on fire, take the wooden handle part of the broom, smash the window with it, deftly turn and thrust the broom through the now broken window so that the fire raging part was all the poor semi-naked girl laying on her back could see. 

 

That taught those girls not to go upstairs with boys, believe me, although I am pretty sure that wasn’t Meatballs intention.

 

So it should come as no surprise, since I was sort of the Nick Carraway to Meatball’s Gatsby, always watching from afar but always enjoying the show,

that one day I got a call from the main office on campus asking if I would take some filmmakers around to show them how W&L partied.  Says a lot about a school that tries to promote itself this way – take that Yale.  My first stop was, of course, Meatball’s room, who opened his door naked except for a strategically placed trashcan top.  Turns out the filmmakers were from National Lampoon and Universal Pictures, and they, too, saw, almost too literally, the beauty of the man called Meatball, for soon after they made a film called “Animal House” and I heard that a certain bow tied OB/GYN from Baltimore just loved that film, and in particular, the John Belushi character who he thought looked very familiar.

 

And Bill?  He’s the President of a bank now.  No kidding.  He’s a great, responsible, loving husband and Dad to a bunch of great kids, who he worries about everyday.

Let Go, Let Be, Let In

Let go, let be, let in.
 

I have been out of town the past week on a journey back home. I was in Washington, DC, my hometown, to see my dear 85 year old father. My mother passed away four years ago almost to this day, and in many ways my Dad has been on a slow decline since then. They had been married 55 years, and my Dad always talked about how much he loved my Mom, and still does today, which is, frankly, sort of a miracle because she was, well, not very nice some of the time. A lot of the time, actually.
 

But I have a memory of seeing my young parents, who were two of the most stylish people I have ever experienced, coming home from the Opera Ball at 3 in the morning, my mother dressed in whatever Jackie Kennedy would have worn and with the hair do to match, and my Dad in his white tie and tails, and they were laughing and sweeping across the living room floor, waltzing, their hands and heads posed high in elegant grace. I watched that forever in my jammies on the stairs from between the banisters until my mother kicked her high heels off and my Dad spun her and leaned into her and they kissed, hard and with meaning, real, passionate, and truthful meaning. I went to bed, knowing to leave them alone, and I went to bed smiling, knowing that love was all around me.
 

Last year when my wife, Pia, and I were having dinner with Dad, he told us that for the past twenty years he had an affair.

And so this night when Pia and I went to bed, we held each other so very tight, and Pia cried, and then I did, too. A lot.
 

Something had gone terribly wrong at some very undefined point. My mom who was once so there, wasn’t. She was always there physically but slowly, imperceptibly, day by day, she had started disappearing. In pictures she’d be smiling but it was from some far off, distant place, I don’t know where, but it wasn’t a happy place because she became mean and hurtful to all of us, and we didn’t know how to handle that and when I, as the oldest, sat my Dad and brothers down decades ago and said, “Something’s wrong, something’s wrong, Mom is in her bathrobe all day and never leaves the bedroom,” my father got furious at me and screamed NOTHING IS GODDAMN wrong. And I yelled back, “How can you say that? She watches ‘Little House on the Prairie’ ALL DAY!” But he got up from the table and stormed out of the restaurant and that was that, there was nothing to be done, and for the next twenty years my Mom laid in her bedroom watching that idyllic version of life of happy children running across that prairie being chased by the ever wavy haired and handsome and faithful, Michael Landon. And to this day I don’t know exactly what was wrong with my mother and that is so, so sad.
 

Now my Dad no longer dances across the floor but sits in a wheelchair looking out the window onto the street in the hope of seeing someone he might know walk by. And today as I stand behind him, watching him in silhouette as he watches life go by, he says to me, “What was I thinking? I had a family and a wife I loved, and I miss your mother so much” when a cab pulls up in front of the house, and out comes his friend of these twenty years.

I knew she was coming and encouraged her to do so. I have known her for some time now and like her a great deal, actually. Maybe even love her, as she is, in fact, quite special. Yes, I cried when I found out my Dad had cheated, but I also knew that my Dad was probably not getting any love anymore from my Mom as it was hard for her to love when she was off in some far away place and not present, and yes, I wish Dad hadn’t had an affair but also at the very same time I am happy he did, so yes, it’s confusing, it’s so very confusing and I can’t figure it out, but I’ll tell you what is not confusing.
 

When my father saw his friend get out of the cab, his face lit up, and he struggled to push himself out of that wheelchair to stand on those ancient legs, and move to the window where he placed his hand, open and waiting, against the glass on the inside of the house. And his friend, seeing him through the window, made her way to him, and placed her hand up against the window from the outside as if to touch him. And they beamed at each other, and she ran, as good as anyone at 80, dragging her bag as best as she could before I could help her, into the house where she hugged my father, and he held her so tight I thought she was going to break, and then they sat down, on opposite sides of the table, and just reached across to each other and held on. With meaning. Real. Passionate. And truthful meaning.

And I smiled once again, because no matter how confusing it can be, it always feels right to have love all around you.
 

Let go, let be, let in.

Thanks and Giving 

I got up this morning to write about gratitude, and on the way to the kitchen to make a cappuccino, I walked past the funny little chocolate cake pictured here. It came from the high end grocery store, Metropolitan Market, and cost an unbelievable $30.

Then I sat down to write and thought, “It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m supposed to be thankful for all that I have. So why am I so sad?”

I made the mistake of reading the news and looking at some posts on Facebook, a lot of which had to do with the verdict on the Ferguson shooting. And none of that made me feel grateful. It made me feel sad. Sad that a young man was killed. No matter what you might think actually happened, a boy was killed and lay in the street dead for hours. And, unlike what police officer Wilson said afterwards, I do regret, no matter what may have happened, that someone – anyone – was shot and killed.
 

I am not grateful for that. It makes me sad. And I am also sad that we live in a world where there is so much repression, anger, and yes, racism. I am not grateful for any of that.
 

It somehow seems wrong, thus, to be grateful for all the amazingly good things I have when there is so much poverty in the world. I am not talking only about a lack of money when I say “poverty”; what I am really talking about here is a poverty of compassion.
 

I sit in my beautiful house, which has heat, and running water, and toilets - things that we take so for granted, and yet it means we live better than something like 90 percent of the world. By being born white, and male, and into a well-off family where I was educated; by not being ever physically abused and where I was always loved; by not knowing hunger ever and where the only real pain I have known was being dumped by the pretty girl with the cashmere sweater and diamond bracelet who attended the exclusive great private college – I have been given so, so much and so have most of my friends so what are we all so scared of and where has compassion gone? A boy was shot and killed on the street and it happens all the time.
 

Last night my oldest son John returned to Seattle for Thanksgiving. I sat in our warm BMW, listening to Bono, waiting at Westlake with my youngest son, Mads, who just returned the day before after being on the east coast for 5 months. We watched all the shoppers, bags in hand, getting a jump on the holiday buying season and trying their best to not look at the homeless begging in the rain around them.
 

From out of this throng of people appeared John, handsome and strong, and I was so happy to see him. I hopped out of the car as did Mads, and opened my arms, but John ran instead into his brother’s open embrace, and they smiled and hugged so strongly. As they rocked back and forth, I stood in the rain and watched that and was grateful.
 

Several years ago my son Mads was arrested at a protest here in Seattle. Long story short, he was charged with assaulting an officer. Four cops testified that Mads had hit a fellow cop in the face. We were all terrified as we watched the court system move to press charges and defend the police officer. But son John, who had been protesting for years, said the cops arrest people all the time and make up bogus charges. I was skeptical because cops had always been nice to me when they pulled me over in my BMW, but John spent all that night looking at videos of the protest on YouTube and sure enough, eventually found footage showing a cop violently punching my son Mads to the ground, and no proof of Mads ever hitting a cop. We took that video to the prosecutor and the charges were immediately dropped. Remember, four cops testified that Mads had hit a cop – they all lied. And that made me sad, too.
 

So I was grateful as I stood in the rain last night, surrounded by the fortunate and the unfortunate, and watched my two boys hug. It could have gone another way and gone so wrong.

With fortune comes responsibility. Those of us that are this lucky, I believe we have a responsibility to give back and to help, and to always show compassion for those less fortunate. Both John and Mads fight hard for the oppressed. They do not care about BMW’s or Ralph Lauren or shopping. They care about helping people, and for that, I am extremely grateful also.
 

Yes, Ferguson has made me sad, and yes, I feel guilty for having been given so much. And all I can do today as I sit at the dining room table on which sits so much bounteous food including this "let them eat cake" cake, is to reach out to my young men, and take their hands, and hold on tight and tell them to thrive. THRIVE while you can, and do so with compassion and love for all people at all times.

Life's Sweets

This is a sweet story, hence my picture of macaroons. Macaroons are lovable little treats bought usually in small boxes that you take with you, as is this story that reminds me that everyone has poetry in their heart and that it is the poetry that makes life sweet.
 

Last night Pia and I dined with friends at Millers Guild, the urban mecca for meat, belonging to pal, Chef Jason Wilson. One of our friends, besides truly being one of the best tennis players in Washington State, is a fireman, and he sees some pretty awful things pretty much every day. He was telling us about a man who got his hand caught in some contraption and when he violently pulled his hand back to free himself, his wedding ring got caught and pulled off all the skin and muscle on the finger to the bone.

I didn’t dare make the analogy about how marriage can strip you to your bare bone essence, seeing how Pia and I were having such a nice time, and I even shunned the fireman’s suggestions that we all look at the pictures of said finger he had for some reason on his phone. “My god, don’t you have something nicer to share with us than that?” I bellowed.
 

We all looked at him, trying desperately not to look at the photo on his phone. He eventually shrugged, put that away, and started in with this:
 

“We get a lot of calls to go to elderly care facilities. We rushed to one last week where a 90 year old woman had fallen, probably due to a heart attack, and hit herself pretty badly on her way down. When we got there, her aged husband was frantic in the hallway, worried and scared for his wife. ‘Hurry, hurry, please, please!’ he yelled. We moved into the room where we found the lady not moving on the floor, covered in blood, and now blue. The nurses from the care facility kept the husband outside as we went to work on the woman, giving her CPR and doing everything we knew to bring her back. But it was no good, she was gone.

“We knew the husband would want to see her, so we cleaned her up as best we could, closing her eyes, wiping the blood off her face and making her clothes look as nice on her as possible as she still laid on the floor. I went out to the husband who was so worried and looking up at me with such hope. ‘I’m sorry. We did everything we could, but we couldn’t save her.’
 

“He sat for a moment to take that in, and then stood and went into the room. Now, there were still a lot of fireman and paramedics in there, and every one of them were veterans with lots of years doing this. But none of them had seen this before, and none could help crying.
 

“The elderly man looked at his wife there on the floor and without saying a word, walked over to her and laid down next to her. He put his arm around her and spooned her, like he had done for all their years of marriage. He didn’t talk, he just held her and stroked her hair. One last time.”
 

That is the sweetest story, a little macaroon given to me and now to you, from my fireman friend, reminding us again of the poetry in life. And in death.

Desmond O'Grady

One of the senior figures in Irish poetry, Desmond O'Grady, has died. Most of you will not know of him, but this is the man who got me to love stories.

 

I was asleep when my father woke me late that night. I was home from college and my father knew never to wake me unless it was an emergency. He met a man... who he said was like no other he had ever known. Dad was in Egypt designing the American University's library there. He was eating lunch on the rooftop of the Hilton, in his Pierre Cardin suit and Gucci loafers, waiting for his meeting. It was hot, unbelievably hot, and no one was there, except, in a far off corner, there was a man, in a full tweed suit, spouting something very loudly and waving a book of poetry. He suddenly turned and saw my father and made his way to him, poetry in one hand, a bottle of gin in the other, cigarette dangling from his mouth. He sat down at my table uninvited, and began to speak in prose. "I was in the IRA because the fuckin' British are imperialistic bastards" was the first thing he said to my father. 'We had attacked their barracks, but they were very skilled and soon had out maneuvered us. My pal Billy, friend since grade school, he yelled "We have to get out, we have to get to the truck!" and he ran. But the British cut him down and I watched the bullets tip him in half on the street."

 

My father ordered another drink and drank it down immediately.

Desmond focused on my father, "What the fuck are you doing in Cairo and who the hell are you?"

 

"I'm Hugh Jacobsen... and I am an architect... and I think the British are imperialistic bastards, too," he managed to spit out. "Good," Desmond smiled, "Let's get another drink and then I'll show you why I love Egypt." "Oh, I really can't, I am supposed to go to a state dinner tonight and..." Desmond did not wait for my father to finish, slamming his hand down on the table. "Fuck that. You're coming with me."

 

Dad did go to the dinner, of course, but received a phone call just as they all sat down to eat. "A Mister Desmond O'Grady says you must return to the hotel at once, sir, there's an emergency," said the manservant at the American Embassy. "Oh, good!" said my father. "Perhaps," said the servant, "But the hotel staff also said Mr. O'Grady was lying."

 

When my father finally got home to the Hilton that night, his door was kicked in my Desmond, who saw doors only as things to be kicked, I learned later. "Come with me, Jacobsen, into Egypt."

He grabbed my father by the large 70's lapels of Mr. Cardin and yanked poor Dad into the elevator where he immediately began reciting poetry. His own, of course.

 

We each must have a place to sit our perch 
where we may live our separate selves, or worse, 
a while, daily. There we may lapse with ease 
into our local dialect for talk
with friends. This we punctuate with mock 
gestures to make a point when we so please. 
That's when our dreams, conjured in innocence, 
find likeminded dreamers who believe us 
in this our public shrine of reverie.

 

Into the cab he threw my father and off they sped through Cairo until they were surrounded only by the desert, and my father could see the city's light disappear on the horizon. Desmond spoke seven languages and used that skill to get into an argument with the cab driver, who, angry, promptly through them out of the cab in the middle of no place. "Fuck that," Desmond pulled out his poetry and a bottle of gin, and stomped off to climb sandy dunes that towered around them. My father, still in coat and tie and his little Gucci's, followed meekly behind.

 

They eventually came to a stable, the door to which Desmond kicked in. Of course. Inside the horses (well, let's not wax too romantic, donkeys probably) stirred and whinnied (let's be honest again, I don't know if donkeys actually whinny) and there, sleeping on the hay, stirred five men who turned menacingly towards the door, reaching for weapons as they did so. My father's Gucci's curled upwards in fear until one dark and mustached man said, "Oh good god, it's only Desmond. Jesus, can't you open a door like the rest of us?" and he said it in a beautiful Irish accent.

 

They drank and read poetry all night until one of the said, "It's time." They threw my father on one of the donkeys, then they all hopped on donkeys, except Desmond who hopped on one and promptly fell right off. So they got a young Egyptian boy to ride behind him to hold him on so Desmond could pontificate and recite his poetry using both hands.

 

They rode and rode, my father said, until finally and suddenly they rode no more. It was pitch black and my father whispered to Desmond, "Why have we stopped?" Desmond, in some ritualistic manner put the poetry book and gin bottle away, and said, "Just wait, Hugh."

 

They waited, all facing the same direction, when my father saw the first rays of that day's sun, rising directly in front of them. But between the sun and them was something more magnificent: the three great pyramids of Egypt. My father said they towered over them, behemoths from the past, footprints left by men long ago. The sun rose and they turned a dark orange, then yellow, and then for a magical instant, as the sun's rays filled the world, the pyramids disappeared. Only to appear moments later as the day got on its way, "Now, you see why I love Egypt." Desmond smiled, and the little boy behind him pulled the donkey head back towards home where all their beds waited.

 

Desmond's poem from the elevator above went on:

 

I launched and sailed this boat, my life, as mine
to master. In fair and foul, through dark and shine,
I safely navigated many a sea.

But now, as the poet said in dream to me:
'The devil is tired. The devil a monk shall be.'

 

The final time I saw Desmond he woke me from my sleep, too. He grabbed me by the feet, raised them up for his head as I struggled on my bed, "So you are the Prince of the Jacobsens! I have one thing to say to you: LIVE A FULL LIFE AND LEAVE SOME RECORD OF IT!

 

Desmond was not a man. He was an experience. One that I will never, ever forget.

The Kennedy Lie

Throw Back/Throw Up Thursday story: I have always been told I look like a Kennedy. I don't see the resemblance other than perhaps the condescending look and Ted Koppel-as-hippie haircut here, but I went with it.
 

It was at about this age that I managed to trick a girl into going out with me, and we went to a fancy french restaurant where I, boy that I was, had neglected to plan ahead and make a reservation. "May I help you?" said the heavily accented maitre d' at THE hot spot in Georgetown, La Pretentieuse. I had heard that no matter how good your french was, they would never understand you so I best not even try, since my french sounded like a cross between Tarzan and Rain Man.
 

"Yes, please, sir. We'd like a table for two," I blurted out. He didn't even look up. "Zat is not possible. You need ze rezervation to be made months in advance, bien sur!" My date pulled on my arm, shamed by the man with the PhD in Pretension. People were looking at us, clicking their tongues. But I came from a family steeped in a rich history of Pretension (in truth, while no one in my family was actually on the Mayflower, it was rumored that someone in my family knew someone who was near the docks, while being arrested, and saw the Mayflower depart), and wasn't about to be undone.
 

"Can I put my name down on the waiting list?" I shot back, slowly opening my blazer so he could see the label from where my parent's had bought it. But this maitre d' was good and again, he didn't look up. "If you wish. What iz your name?"
 

I stared him down, planted my feet, and let him have it. "Kennedy." The room fell silent and ze man behind the podium slowly looked up. Our eyes finally met as he sized me up, and within minutes we had our table.
 

Ok, so maybe that story is funny, but what is not funny is that when I lived in New York at 25 years of age, I was still doing the same thing. My dates would ask, "Don't we need a reservation?" but I would just smirk and say, "I guess most men do, but not me." But little did I know my number was up, and I was about to get my comeuppance.
 

We walked into the french restaurant on East 61st. Just another joint on another day with another date. I used the same ploy to get a table fast and the waiter sat us and took our order when the owner of the restaurant ran up. "We are so honored to have you here," he gushed. I hung my head a bit in false humility and said, "Ask not what your country can do..." when he interrupted me. "It's so great you are here at the same time." That caused me to pause. "The same time... as what?" He pointed to the other dining room, "Your mother, she's sitting right over there."
 

The color drained from my face immediately and for once, I was speechless. There, across the room with friends, sat the regal and very real Ethel Kennedy. My date started to flee from the table, eying the front door, "You are so busted," she cried. But I remembered what stock I came from, and was not to be defeated so easily. "Why don't you sit down and watch a master at work," I suggested, standing and adjusting my tie.
 

I sauntered over to Mrs. Kennedy's table, steeled myself, and bent over to give her a kiss. She was startled to be sure, but when I said, "Hi, Mom!" she relaxed and talked to me for ten minutes, asking how my day was. You see, she had eight children and just figured I must have been one of them.
 

That was the last time I ever used the Kennedy name.

The Kennedy Center Honors

I stumbled across this video of a segment I directed at The Kennedy Center for CBS in 1983 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iavKGauZ-mc)and that prompted me to write this post:
 

For the past 37 years or more, just after Christmas, CBS airs an amazing program called the Kennedy Center Honors. It’s a magnificent show honoring five extraordinary individuals who have spent their lives elevating the cultural vibrancy of our nation and the world, and I’m always amazed that so many of my friends in the arts or elsewhere have not seen it.
 

Roger Stevens, the founding chairman of the Kennedy Center, asked George Stevens, Jr., (no relation), the founding director of the AFI, to have an event for the Center. George Stevens asked the great violinist Isaac Stern to become involved, and then "pitched" the idea to the television network CBS, who "bought it." With the announcement of the first honors event and honorees, which were Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers, and Arthur Rubinstein, CBS vice president for specials Bernie Sofronski stated: "What turned us on is that this is the only show of its kind. In Europe and most countries they have ways of honoring their great talents. England has its command performances for the queen, and we should have one for our President," which CBS has done now ever since.
 

On Sunday, there is an early evening White House reception with the President of the United States, who hangs a specially designed ribboned award around their necks. The performance itself takes place Sunday evening at the Opera House in the Kennedy Center. The Honorees (wearing their medals) and guests sit in the front of the Box Tier, a few seats away from the President and the First Family. The Honorees do not appear on stage nor do they speak to the general audience. The show consists of events from the recipients' lives, presented documentary style in film and live onstage, with the complete list of guest performers kept unpublicized until the show is in progress. For example, for Dolly Parton, a 2006 Honoree, Jessica Simpson, Carrie Underwood, Kenny Rogers, Alison Krauss and Shania Twain performed.
 

In 1983, they honored choreographer Katherine Dunham, director Elia Kazan, singer Frank Sinatra, actor James Stewart, and composer Virgil Thomson and the list of people on stage who came to pay tribute to these great artists was breathtaking. To name just a few: Warren Beatty, Mikail Baryshnikov, Art Buchwald, Perry Como, Agnes deMille, John Houseman, Cary Grant, Gene Kelly, Burt Lancaster, Carol Burnett, the Joffrey Ballet, Geofrey Holder, Arthur Mitchell, Andy Williams, Audrey Hepburn… Of course Ronald and Nancy Reagan were there and the show was hosted by Walter Cronkite.
 

And then there was that skinny kid whose tux was too big for him standing in the wings in absolute awe. I had worked on this show for several years prior, as the kid who shuttled stars like Jimmy Stewart from the airport to the hotel, ran for their coffee, and got a lot of parking tickets. But by ’83 I had moved to New York to direct and had lost touch with the producer George Stevens, Jr., so I was happy when he called. “John, we’re honoring Katherine Dunham this year and looking around for what the live segment of the tribute might be.” I knew Ms Dunham was a major pioneer in black theatrical dance and one of the leading dancers of the 20th century, and I also knew that she had discovered many of the greatest inner city dancers in our country like Alvin Ailey, so I suggested to George, “Well, up here in New York City are all these kids from the streets doing this weird thing called break dancing.”
 

The next thing I knew George had sent me an 8mm camera and told me to shoot some of this so he could see it. I wandered around the city for a few days, shot a bunch of stuff, got it developed and sent it down to George, who called immediately after watching it, saying, “I am sending you a check. I want you to get the best break dancers in the city, cast them, choreograph and rehearse them, make them SAG, fly them down here to DC, and they’re going to perform at The Kennedy Center for the President."
 

So I did. I hired a guy, Michael, to take me around the city to hand out business cards that I had created that said, “Want to dance on national television? Auditions are at the Minskoff Theatre…” and he took me to all the schools, back alleys, and parks where these kids could be found. I was really out of place, to say the least, and always felt like a narc out of a bad B movie as I tried to talk to these kids in Harlem. “Yo, what’s up, my main man? Left on! I dig your hip and groovy moves.” Michael just told me to shut up and pass the cards out before something bad happened to me.

Later that week I got to the Minskoff for the auditions and was stunned to see the line of dancers going around the block and down Broadway. We got all sorts of people auditioning, but most were amazingly good street performers who left me speechless after watching them spin and hop and leap around the stage. We cast 16 people with names like DJ Mr Supreme, Mr. Wiggles, Mr. Wave, Flip Rock, and Crazy Legs, and started rehearsals for a week at the Minskoff.
 

Every day, for 8 hours a day, we worked, and the kids hated every minute of it. They weren’t used to being blocked or choreographed, and resented this white older guy telling them what to do. I was 25 and actually had no idea what I was doing, but I knew they were going to go on stage at The Kennedy Center live on national television in front of the President of the United States, and that we had to do something very special.

Michael was instrumental in helping me keep the kids in line, who’d constantly complain we were making them dance too much and for too long, and so, because we were pushing them and because it was a Union gig, we gave them a break every 50 minutes. As soon as we’d say “Break time” they give us the finger, turn their music on and start dancing again. They just didn’t want to be told they had to dance, but they truly LOVED to dance.

It came time to finally take them to Washington, DC. We had made them all SAG, paid them all for their first week of rehearsal, rehearsed for maybe 30 hours, and amazingly, had over this time started to become friends. I had sadly arranged a costumer to create clothing for them on stage, which as you’ll see in the video here was an unfortunate decision on my part (“Hey, let’s get a Broadway designer to give these street kids a real street look.”) But the kids wanted to know what to wear AFTER the show, because I had told them that when the show ended, everyone would go to the Hall of Presidents where there would be 100 white linen covered tables with gold rimmed glasses and silver service, and there we’d all eat with the stars and politicians, and listen to Count Basie who was playing. They couldn't wait for that.

We flew to DC, and that of course was a first for everyone of these kids who had never been on a plane before. The vans from the Kennedy Center picked us up at National Airport and as we drove into the city I caught the kids staring at the DC Metro subway cars, which were brand new and shiny, squeaky clean. “No! There will be no graffiti put on those cars by any of you! “ There were pretty disappointed and later spray painted my suitcase.
 

When we walked into The Kennedy Center Honors for rehearsal that afternoon, the crowds of lily-white tourists grabbed their children and opened a pathway for the “toughs” from New York. We made our way backstage at the Kennedy Center, past the large bronze bust of John Kennedy, went to our dressing rooms, and then up into the wings of the expansive Opera House.

While The Kennedy Center Honors is a live television broadcast, they rehearse the show once that afternoon so everyone knows where to go and also so they can tape it in case anything goes wrong in the live broadcast and they have something to fall back on. So here we were, after this hard week of rehearsal and travel, now with the kids in full wardrobe in the wings waiting to go on to be taped. The designers had created at my request a huge backdrop of New York City with glimmering lights, the camera crews were all geared up and ready to shoot, and the producers George Stevens and Nick Vanoff were in the house with their team ready to watch what we had brought from New York for them.
 

The backdrop was lowered, the music we had selected started, and the massive red velvet curtains parted, and the kids ran on stage. Even though there was no real audience yet, let me tell you, when those curtains part on those massive stages, and you see the majesty of the seats in those great theatres, it is breathtaking.
 

But not any where near as breathtaking as the kids' dancing. They just blew everyone away, and even the jaded fat, white, gum chewing seasoned camera operators leaned out away from their eye pieces to double check that what they were seeing was real, mouths slacked jawed in amazement It was 1983 and Break Dancing and Hip Hop was just appearing to white people.

So, I had choreographed the kids to run off the stage into the audience so they could high five the dignitaries as they exited, which they did now in rehearsal. When they got to the back of the theatre and were high fiving each other for their performance, they suddenly stopped when they heard, from the stage, a loud, shrill voice. “Oh my god, OH MY GOD. That was fantastic!” We all turned and there, alone on that huge expanse, stood Carol Burnett, just ecstatic for the kids. They all clapped in return for her and ran up to meet her and no matter how much I tried to stop that – “We’re in the middle of a rehearsal!” there was no stopping them, or her. They knew who she was from TV and her being there and clapping for them made everything worthwhile.

So the night came and we were all once again in the wings, but now, all the other performers who had come to honor their friends were there, too. Audrey Hepburn walked by asking for tea; Perry Como was warming up his voice; Burt Lancaster gave a speech; and Walter Cronkite was introducing each act. Just before us, as I stood with my dancers in line in the wings as they waited for the stage manager to cue them to run on, we watched Mikail Baryshnikov stretching and loosening up before he ran on stage to pay tribute to the great Frank Sinatra.
 

It was at this time that one of the young ladies that was dancing for us turned to me in her heavy Puerto Rican accent and asked, “Who is this Katherine Dunham anyway?”
 

Another New York backdrop lowered for Baryshnikov, and a lone lamppost was wheeled quickly on stage, and he was on. The tuxedoed and always sexy Baryshnikov, jacket casually thrown over his shoulder as if he was dancing after a long night of partying, swung and leapt to Sinatra’s “That’s Life.”
 

“I said that's life - (That's life)
And as funny as it may seem
Some people get their kicks 
Stomping on a dream
But I don't let it, let it get me down
'Cause this fine old world, it keeps spinnin' around
I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king
I've been up and down and over and out and I know one thing
Each time I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race.”
 

The audience lept to its feat and roared its applause for the greatest dancer perhaps ever and for one of the greatest crooners ever, and the stage manager turned to my guys and said, “You’re on in three, two, one… go!”
 

And I stood breathless as I watched these kids, all from the poorest neighborhoods in New York, some as young as 14, take that stage and take Washington. They were just brilliant and watching Katherine Dunham’s face, who had worked with so many inner city kids her whole life, made everything worthwhile as she was so focused, so moved and so, so pleased. The audience now, again, leapt to their feet and applauded and cheered, and the kids, and I, were beside ourselves.
 

Later when I was re-introduced to Jimmy Stewart, he asked, “What..what…what do you call that kind of dancing?” “Break dancing,” I said. “What’s broken about it? Looks pretty good to me,” he smiled.
 

After the show, when the kids were changing, I asked the back stage manager at what table are the kids assigned for dinner. I had my table number but they had mentioned they did not have theirs. She checked her book and said, “They have the kids eating down here with the staff.”
 

I was dumfounded and immediately called one producer who told me he thought these kids would prefer eating with the staff where they might be more comfortable. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and so called George Stevens, my friend and other producer, who upon hearing this news, immediately hung up.

Seconds later I saw the backstage team rushing a huge table past me, followed by a team of waiters with a new white table cloth and silver service and gold rimmed glasses. The back stage manager walked past me, but handed me a handwritten ticket that read, “101”. The kids had a table that the Great George had ordered just for them, and when the kids entered the Hall of Presidents, in their best black and white clothes they could muster, all those Washington dignitaries and Hollywood stars stood and gave them a standing ovation.
 

This show went on to win an Emmy, and it is said really helped to legitimize Hip Hop. I just think it should be remembered because, as you can see in the tape, President Reagan at least once was digging Hip Hop. Never thought I'd say that.

Left on. I mean, right on.

The Real Champ

The first shot led to the second shot which led to the third shot.

Today, Pia and I were dominating the first three games in the tournament we were playing in when... well maybe "dominating" is not the right word. "Losing" would be more accurate. Anyway, I lunged for the ball, sort of like Nadal does but not in any way similar, and Pia raced as well towards the ball and BAM! We met, like two passionate lovers should never meet: on asphalt, in public, screaming and over within seconds.

 

We both lay there not moving, in pain, when our opponent screamed, "That's our point!" These 80 year old players can be ruthless. I didn't break my collar bone again which is a relief, but I did sprain my ankle, but Pia, sweet Pia, broke a rib when she drove her body unmercifully into my shoulder.
 

But she got up, helped me up, and said we had to finish. We played the rest of the match out, amazed that our opponents could get across the court so fast using those walkers, and even though we lost, I couldn't help but watch Pia, because as she raced across the court to hit ball after ball, holding her rib with her free hand, she was the real champ.

My Mom's Birthdays

So another August 19th has come and gone. August 19 was special to me because it was my mother's birthday.

Well... actually it was my mother's FAKE birthday, as we came later to discover. We always thought that August 19th was THE day, and certainly we had celebrated that day for her (because she threatened us bodily harm if we forgot). But, when I was home from college once, I was talking to my mom who was at the sink in our Georgetown house (I can't remember what she wasdoing, certainly not any kind of housework) and I was rummaging through the drawer looking for something (probably food). I stumbled across her birth certificate, which was fun for me to see. My mom's birth record! She had recently lost her passport and gone through this big rigamarole with her prim and proper mother who wasn't very helpful in providing the birth certificate to my mom to get the passport saying she'd get to it but was just too busy making cookies (she made a lot of cookies), so my mom finally did an end run around her and ordered her passport herself. Mom hadn't looked at the necessary birth certificate as it was still hidden in the draw with past unopened mail. So I opened it and gazed at it, thinking of my mother as a baby when she was then, most likely, nice... and that's when I saw that mom's birthdate was listed not as August 19, but instead as April 9.

 

Then I saw something that I had never seen before in my mother: emotion. My Mom was honestly flabbergasted. "How is this possible?" she screamed, immediately calling my grandmother as I stood there listening to them argue. They fought back and forth saying all sorts of not very nice things, including, "Let's face it, Mom, you were a slut." But in the end, my lovely grandmother could not be budged from the main point of her defense: my mother had "arrived a bit early" (ie: four months), somehow blaming the whole event of conceiving my mother out of wedlock, then lying to my mother these 50 or so years, on my mother.

OK, so that was pretty sweet to witness, and even more so since my Ma Mere (as she liked to be called, which I always thought meant "large body full of salt water") had spent so many years concealing her actual age to everyone and about a million dollars in makeup and surgery covering up any actual trace of aging (or real human emotion). I saw my Mom age 3 months in a millisecond. Precious.
 

But not one to ever admit defeat, she immediately announced that we would celebrate both her birthdays every year. One out of tradition, she said, and one for reality. And so, from then on, we had to get her two gifts every damn year.

The Importance of Being There

Today is my father's 86th birthday.

 

In many ways, he has led the richest of lives. He has been an architect to kings (Hussein) and American royalty (Jacqueline Kennedy); he was one of the four architects to remodel the US Capital; he travelled up the Nile on J. Carter Brown's yacht and flew across the world on Bunny Mellon's jet; he was published in thousands of magazines and won hundreds of awards, and he was repeatedly voted one of the world's best architects.

 

But to me, of course, he was just a dad, who came to my games, who took me camping, who hugged me in the hard times and laughed just as hard in the good; and he was a dad who was always there when I called and who ended almost every talk by saying "Go get them, tiger. I love you."

 

He was busy designing homes for the rich and famous, so it meant a lot to me the few times he came to Seattle to see my family and me. On his last trip here, Pia made one of her amazing dinners when Dad told us he was cutting his trip with us short so he could visit Meg Greenfield, the Washington Post columnist, on Bainbridge Island.

 

I was sad and, to be honest, hurt that he was leaving us, but drove him to the ferry. I dropped him off, gave big, hard hugs, thanked him for coming, and walked back to my car.

When I was a boy, I played catch with my Dad. I'd wind up and let the ball rip into his mitt as he crouched like a major league catcher, and he'd yell "Strike one!" and then throw the ball back.

Playing catch with my Dad was an important and good memory, and I thought of it many times when I was missing him.

 

When I got to my car after dropping him off, I looked back at the ferry before it left the dock. There on the stern of the boat stood my Dad, always in a tie and coat, and always the gentleman. From that great distance, I watched him slowly wind up, like Sandy Koufax in the '66 World Series, and in slow motion, rip that imaginary ball across the gulf that now separated us. His follow through was perfect and he even kicked up his leg like those pro pitchers do.

 

And without thinking, I raised my left hand - you know, the one with the vintage Rawlings baseball mitt - and snatched that burning fastball out of the air, never to let it go.

 

Happy birthday, Dad.

Nicole de Vesian

Perched high above the lush valley of the Luberon and affording spectacular panoramic views of vineyards, orchards and medieval villages, sits the town of Bonnieux. Dating back some 2,000 years to before Roman times, this picturesque Provincial town is a wonderful place to sit with yourself in its simple beauty, elegance and quintessential Frenchness.
 

Here I met Nicole de Vésian, also a simple beauty, elegant at all times, and quintessentially French. She was a designer for Hermès, the haute couture company that creates some of the most magnificent leather goods in the world. What Hermès seems to be always searching for is this ideal of beauty, of perfect shape. The right thing, the good thing, the beautiful thing, a desire for excellence — and maybe they are a little bit obsessive and mad about detail, which is a quality I find true in all artists.

 

Nicole owned the house next to where my parents stayed and when I was lucky she invited me over for a walk in her garden. She was a small woman in stature, but larger than life in vision. When she moved to Bonnieux, she told me, she purchased this then unremarkable property at the lower edge of the village, its house in ruins. What compelled her to buy was the garden space, even though she had never really gardened before. But it was filled with old stones with a view of the valley, and had potential only Nicole could see. How she eventually used these relics allowed her to accomplish an important design goal: to subtly remind the visitor that this house, which she called La Louve (which means she wolf), sits in a milieu suffused with the perfume of antiquity.
 

Traces of prehistoric inhabitants have been found nearby. Nicole would travel throughout Provence and retrieve these lost pieces of bygone times, masterfully placing them in secret corners of her garden to remind us that history is always present. She created seamless transitions from the past in her home, from her old stone house into her garden, and from her artistic terrace out to the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside. Classically French in form (even if devoid of symmetry), pared down without being austere, her green and grey tapestries quickly came to inspire gardeners and garden designers the world over. Indeed, she always inspired me.
 

Nicole's vacation from eternity is now over, and I miss her of course, as I long for so many things now gone. But Nicole de Vésian left her footprints in the sand by giving us all this sculpted terra, and when I see her heavenly garden I remember how important the obsession for excellence is.

http://www.gardenista.com/posts/nicole-de-vesian-a-magical-garden-where-clouds-grow-on-a-hillside-in-provence

Pay Attention

When I stumbled out of bed this morning and made my way through the house to make coffee to jolt me awake, I was instead jolted by the most glorious sunrise. I stopped in awe at its beauty and then remembered, “Oh snaps, I’m a photographer! I got to take a picture of that.” So I rushed to the closet, like a fireman to the fire, hopping, and falling, into my pants, throwing on my old college sweater that Pia hates because she still can’t get the beer stench out, grabbed a coat off of her JHilburn rack of stunning brand new men’s coats (I thought I better look good just in case there was another photographer on my dock at 6:30am who was shooting for GQ - hey, you never know), and started down the stairs and out the door, only to remember I probably should take my camera.

So I rappelled back up the stairs, dodged our Labrador, Flirt, who was barking not because she thought an intruder to be entering but because she sensed the possibility of a stinky salmon treat, grabbed the camera and raced down the stairs once more, then out through the garden, leaping the gate (OK, I didn’t leap), and slid along our dock, all the while removing the lens cap, turning the camera on, and setting it to capture that stunning early morning color.

Which was gone by the time I had arrived at the dock’s end. How could that be? 5 minutes of idiotic behavior, rushing about like a chicken with its head cut off, only to find that all the reds and pinks of some exotic aberration had given way to blues and grey of another Seattle day already. 5 minutes. Is that all it takes to miss glory?

Yes, it is. As I stood in the now cold, dreary morn, camera in hand to catch some fleeting beauty lest I forget it, I thought of how it is all temporary. My father, such a funny, charming, and talented man who made such a difference to so many people by designing how they moved through their houses and greeted their sunrises, is now just a shell of what he was and preparing to leave. My stunning boys, so noisy and dirty and full of so many hormones that you needed to wear a helmet to avoid being bombarded when around them, now gone, off on their own journeys, bombarding someone else. And my childhood, high school and college buds, the thespians of New York, the filmmakers of Los Angeles – with whom I shared so many vital, massively fun, deep moments if my life, where have all of them gone?

I can’t stop time any more than I could stop the colors of the sunrise from disappearing. I try to hold onto the special moments, sometimes even thinking, like when returning home from vacation, I’m just going to take one last look, take one last deep breath of this air, and that will stay with me forever. But it doesn’t. It goes, and is replaced soon by another vista, another scent, that is often just as stunning, and temporarily impressionable.

Since my babies were born I have taken pictures. From their first moments - snap, snap, snap - to the point where they just dreaded seeing me come into the room holding the camera. Then, later when alone, I’d sit in my family room and place the best of those pics into a photo album, in chronological order. Every one would tease me about taking the pictures and the obsession I showed in religiously storing those shots, but we now have perhaps 30 books of 30 years of our lives together stored, and sometimes, when the three boys, now men, have returned home for their brief stays, I’ll find them down stairs in our family room huddled around each other, laughing and smiling as they go through those albums. And THAT brings it all back and makes everything - EVERYTHING – good and right and worthwhile.

So, I’ll go through it all again tomorrow. I’ll see that moment where the sun starts another day and if I think it’s worth the crazy rushing about, I’ll race out again to try to capture it before it’s gone. Because that’s all any of us can do, to pay attention right now to the joy every day brings.

The Worst Story Ever

This is just the worst story ever.

I am the oldest of three brothers. And with that comes some responsibility. When we were young, my parents would leave me to babysit my two younger brothers when they went out. Now, I was probably 15 or so when this started, and my middle brother, Matt, was then 12.

One time my parents left my best friend, Neville Waters, and I in charge. The night started off normally enough with all of us doing our homework, laying our clothes out for school the next day, and getting the little ones to bed. Then Neville and I had an idea.

We went around the house and reset the clocks. It went from 10 at night to 7am. While Neville hid, I then went into sweet baby brother Matt's room and woke him about an hour after he had fallen asleep. "Matt, get up, you're going to be late," I said. Matt stirred groggily, mumbling something coherent like, "What? How... I'm so tired." "Get up, you'll miss your bus," I barked, leaving his room to run down stairs to the giggling Neville.

Sure enough, poor Matt, his eyes barely open, came crawling down the stairs, school packpack dragging behind him. He ate his cereal I had put out for him, looked up at the clock, and said, "Oh, I'm going to be late. I'm so tired." From the closet Neville watched, as did I from the kitchen, Matt put on his coat - it was pouring outside - and go out into the still dark morning. He crossed the street and stood an awfully long time for the public bus, barely able to stand upright he wanted to sleep so badly. Then the bus came, and Matt got on, paid his fare, and sat down, not noticing he was the only one on board. The bus shut it door, and roared off into the night.

Both Neville and I, our faces pressed up against the window watching, just fell to the floor laughing. But as Matt would later tell it, he didn't find the story so funny. He sat on the bus for maybe ten minutes when he finally noticed it empty. He looked around baffled then finally asked the driver, "Where is everyone?" "The driver nonchalantly replied, "Oh, it's never crowded at midnight."

The force of the banging on the door surprised both Neville and I. I mean, Matt was still a little guy so who could imagine he could make so much racket. We finally let him in, mainly because we were afraid my parents would come home and see him kicking the front door, and Matt pulled courage from some place never before seen, grabbed me by the neck, which admittedly I fully deserved, and growled, "Never, ever do that to me again." 

We only did that one more time to him and it worked like a charm again. But in hindsight, I can't believe how mean I was to Matt, who is now, and in truth has always been, one of the most kind and sensitive people I know, and who has nothing but love to give. I am so, so lucky to have him as a brother, but I'm not sure he feels the same way about me, and who can blame him?

All Writing Leads To Better Writing

I like to write early in the morning, when it's dark and quiet and I can enter the world of the story without any distractions. I was hired to write a comedy earlier this year and the next draft is due next week. It's been going well, except that it's not funny, but I am working on that. 

Sitting down at the desk is always daunting, though. There's an expectation of talent waiting there like ahuge wall that needs to be climbed, and I sit staring up at that wall not knowing sometimes where to start.

But I have learned that I don't have to be good. I just have to write. That critic who is whispering to me that there are better writers out there, that so and so isn't going to like my work, that I'll never be good - I tell that critic to GET OUT and leave me to the curse of the blank page. That empty page staring back at me demanding to be filled. But sometimes, believe it or not, I have nothing to say, and sometimes I have no funny in me at 6am in the morning, although I could just look in the mirror and laugh at my hair.

But you see, I don't have to write. That is my thought, because then writing becomes a chore; it becomes work, if I am forced to do it. My rule is I don't have to write when I sit down at the desk for three hours a day. Nope, I don't have to write a damn word, but... I can't do anything else either. No email, no Facebook, no photography or phone calls. So I sit there, staring at the blank page which stares right back. I tap my fingers, look around the room, hum a show tune... fine, fine, bored out of my skull I'll pick up the pen and doodle. And I'll doodle until I get a letter. Then I'll write a word around the letter, then a sentence around the word, a paragraph around the sentence, and before you know it, I am over that wall and I am writing a whole bunch of pages around that, like these stories that I sometimes post on Facebook in fact. Still not funny, maybe, but it's writing, and all writing leads to better writing.

Fire Dance at Christmas

My father was big on Christmas and really made it special for us. He sang carols, so proudly and loudly and always off-key at every Christmas party, he always wore his Christmas tie, and he loved getting us gifts. Once he built a cowboy town with little posters on it outside the Sheriff's office that said, WANTED: John Jacobsen. A year later he built a model train town, complete with factories which he painted soot black along with most of the run down houses he built around it, with a real ghetto and striking workers picketing outside, and there was a statue of a man raising his arms in surrender - Dad told us this man had given up when the indians attacked and saved the town. Another year when we had moved into a new house Dad triumphantly and proudly lit our new fireplace which unbeknownst to us had a design flaw and all the wrapping paper from the recently opened gifts, strewn now across the floor of the living room, immediately caught fire as the fire leapt out of the fireplace. Dad screamed for me to get water, so I ran into the kitchen to fill a glass, and came back out to see him yelling and hopping around. I drank the water, which I remember tasted cool and refreshing, and I also remember Dad's face as he stood amongst the flames, watching me drink. That was special.

A Hot Plate of Gravy and Breasts

I needed a job. I was out of college for the summer and was going door to door on M Street in Georgetown asking if they needed help. I really had no experience in the restaurant business, other than gorging, but one of the joys of being young is that you often don’t know better so I just plunged ahead and kept asking, “Do you need any help, do you need any help, do you need any help?” and I kept hearing, “No, no,” until I heard “yes.”

 

Ann Southerland said yes. She was the chef at a top end restaurant called The Big Cheese, and she needed help in the kitchen making salads and assisting the dessert chef, who, she mentioned, was also the dessert chef at the White House. “Was I interested?” she asked. “Yes,” I said quickly, “I like desserts.”

I worked a The Big Cheese on and off for seven years on school breaks and when I got out. I started in the kitchen, making salads and amazing sweets, then moved up eventually to the chef’s station where I worked under Ann and her sous chef. I loved learning to cook and really enjoyed my time with most of the staff on those sweaty, hot summer nights that smelled of garlic and gruyere.

 

The sous chef was a young woman from Washington, DC, and a very hard worker. We were both at the counter away cutting carrots, lamb and our fingers at 7am one morning when she said to me, “I think it’s great what you are doing.” I casually replied, “What?” “You know, working, like the rest of us,” she said. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, your father is a major architect, quite wealthy I suspect, so you don’t really need to work.” That stunned me, and I actually didn’t say anything because it hurt me. I just kept on cutting, carrot after carrot, and worked for my money like everyone else. But it was somewhere around this time that I started to realize that sometimes people hold prejudices and that they sometimes say mean things that reveal their own fears. They can be forgiven for that, because they are just so scared and I feel sorry for them. Living in fear is painful.

 

But that hard working sous chef and I did share one thing, which a lot of us do, and that is the fear of having no money so it didn’t take long for me to notice how non-sweating and beautiful smelling the waiters were. One in particular, think Suzanne Summers back then, would glide into the kitchen fluffing her permed blond hair, laughing and singing “Your love, is taking me higher…”, and then she’d say something like, “Oh my god, they just left me a hundred dollar tip!” She’d smile and waive her pile of bills at me and say something like, “You have parsley in your teeth,” and she’d glide out of the kitchen in those tight little pants leaving me dumbfounded and in awe.

 

I started working as a waiter soon thereafter, although my pants were not as tight. One Saturday night – the big night in the restaurant biz – the maître d’ came over as I counted my money in the kitchen and told me he had just sat an 8 top. I fixed my hair and went out to the table.

 

It was a Parisian family, in town to celebrate the graduation of their daughter from Georgetown University. So charming and elegant, and their daughter, who was about my age, was beautiful, and bonus, in a low cut dress. Sorry, but I was a healthy heterosexual male full of hormones and, well, you can’t help but notice that sort of thing when you stand above the table trying to take dinner orders, no matter how hard you try. She wore a cream colored luxuriously laced, underwire bra with lightly padded cups for subtle, natural-looking enhancement made of smooth stretch nylon, with a fascinating graphic floral print from, if I read the label correctly, Lord and Taylors.

 

I could suddenly feel the cold, death-like stare coming from her father. “Yes, sir, may I take your order?” I managed to get out. In his heavily accented English, he ordered Crystal Champagne, and then I went around the table noting their appetizers and entrées wishes. The father asked for the soft shell crabs, and was very disappointed when I told him we had just run out. “Zoot alors! (he didn’t really say “Zoot alors, it’s just fun to say it now) Zat is why I came here, but OK, fine…I’ll take the Steak Goujon.” I wrote that down and said, “C’est un bon choix, monsieur,” trying to impress the young lady. The father looked at me and said, “You sound like Tarzan when you speak French.”

 

I think then I said, “Me go now,” when the young lady reminded me she hadn’t ordered. She asked for the cheese soufflé, a specialty of the house. “Of course,” I said, “But I do have to tell you that the soufflé takes a half hour to prepare.” She smiled and said that would be fine, they had champagne coming and then appetizers, and she was in no hurry on this special night.

I took that as a good sign and glided into the kitchen singing, “Your love, is taking me higher…” where my former co-workers sweated away cooking. The sous chef stared at me and said, “You have parsley in your teeth.”

 

No matter. I brushed my teeth and went on about my night which was going well. The champagne and the appetizers had been served and consumed, and now it was time to serve my graduating lovely her soufflé. Now, as you may know, the preparation of the soufflé is a tricky thing and has to be taken out of the oven and rushed to the table before it falls. So I had my pal, Sean, an Iranian who looked just like Omar Sharif, clear the table of the plates, I loaded all the other prepared dishes including the father’s Steak Goujon, onto the tray which I hoisted on my shoulder, and I awaited the sous chef’s delivery of the soufflé.

She stood there, the sous chef, watching me sing, then she reached into the red hot oven, pulled out the stunningly beautiful perfect soufflé, and dropped it. “Ooops, I burned myself,” she said.

Wow. I was beginning to question my ability to forgive her. But, all the rest of the food was still hot and ready and had to be delivered so I rushed it out into the restaurant and placed it before each guest. I explained to the young lady with the fascinating graphic floral print bra that we had dropped her soufflé in the kitchen and that I would be happy to get her anything else she desired, on the house. She smiled and said she understood, which showed her ability to forgive, but her father seemed to lack that kind of compassion.

 

“What kind of restaurant is thiz, where you throw ze food around ze kitchen.” He barked. “Ah, well, it wasn’t actually thrown, more like a drop,” I muttered. “And you are out of half ze menu!” he went on, to which I not so cleverly got out, “Only one thing, actually.” He demanded to see the chef, and I suggested he didn’t really want to do that, it was the sous chef and she had… definite opinions about things. It was about this time I saw my fellow waiters starting to hide.

“And look at zis mess!” He pointed to his Steak Goujon, “It looks like a dog stopped by and did hiz bizness on my plate.” It did, sort of, now that I looked at it, with the pile of meat surrounded by gravy. “Take it away!” he yelled. I tried to convince him otherwise, as did his daughter begging him to calm down, but it was no use. I lifted the plate from the table and turned towards the relative safety of the kitchen.

 

“Wait!” he commanded and I stopped and turned back to him. He went on to yell at me for a couple of minutes and I stood there holding the plate and taking it when all of a sudden he just stopped. His mouth went slack and he started to point, which is about when I heard the young lady scream.

I looked down to see that while getting yelled at I had let the plate tip just ever so much and the very hot gravy was following the path of least resistance off said plate and was now pouring into the young lady’s cleavage.

 

The rest was like a slow motion movie: I cried out something like, “Oh dear god,” which no one really heard because the now scalded girl was screaming so loudly herself. I turned to the bar behind me to put down the offending Steak Goujon and the bartender who had already decided to hide on the floor threw up a towel for me which I caught like in an action film. I turned to the howling damsel in distress, took that rag with only the best intentions I swear to you, and started trying to rub that hot gravy off her breasts.

 

In hide sight, I can see why her father got upset. He grabbed my hands away from his daughter's scalding globes, yelling something in French that translates to the equivalent of “You American capitalistic pig, take your hands off my daughter’s breasts!”

 

The rest of the night didn’t go too much better, but on subsequent shifts in the following weeks, I would often hear laughing in the dining room and peer through the door to see that lovely young lady re-enacting the breast burning incident to her just as lovely friends, laughing and laughing. I would have gone out to say hi, but my boss the sous chef demanded I return to cutting the carrots, as I had been demoted back into the kitchen for the rest of the year.

Tears Are Words Begging To Be
Written

Talking to my brother Matt Jacobsen, a photo of my kids when little, and especially sunsets, like this one last night I took in Los Angeles - they all make me cry now. They all remind me of another day gone. Did I do anything amazing? Did I change anyone's life? Did I make any difference at all? No. All I really accomplished was to finish the pecan pie. It's getting really pathetic. I cry at the beginning of It's A Wonderful Life, when the credits are rolling. I cry at Deodorant commercials. And I cried when I heard of the death of John Pine, a boy I only casually knew in college who passed early Thanksgiving morning. Tears are words begging to be written just as sunsets are calling us to photograph them before we forget how important each day is.

Complicated and Complex

Today is my youngest son's birthday. No longer a teen, he turns 20 today.
 

How bittersweet it is to have raised three boys, all of whom are young men now, and to be on the tail end of child raising. You spend so much time focusing on the needs of your young that when they no longer need you (as much), you find you have a lot of time on your hands thinking back to when they were little.
 

You remember the thousands and thousands of good times you had with them. When Mads was little, we were holding hands walking to the pool. Mads has always been extremely inquisitive, and when he was six he was pushing me on some question to which I responded, "Well, Mads, it's complex and complicated." He thought about that, and then said, "What does 'complex' mean?"

 

That was, and is, so Mads. So literal and precise with words, and he just looked up at me, because he KNEW he had me, and I knew that he knew that he had me, and I could only say, "Complex means... very complicated," to which he responded, "So... you're telling me it's complicated and it's very complicated?"
 

Yes, that's what I'm saying. And it still is complicated and very complicated as he turns 20 and makes his way and I sit back, trying to help, longing to be 20 myself again (sort of) and excited he gets to experience so much that lies ahead of him, but still missing his little hand in mind, and his beautiful little brown eyes looking up at me, and appreciating every day that inquisitive, probing and brave mind of his.

Happy birthday, Mads!

I Can't Hear You

Oh, last night's performance was going so well. We had a marvelously talented cast that was bringing so much life to Sebastian Lisic's extremely funny script, "The Epic of Gilgamesh", that I was directing. The sound team of Jason Alberts and Rob Pearsall were all set to record the show for the radio broadcast, and the audience was primed for comedy and ready for a great night.

Apparently it was a great night for football, too, as just as we were starting, the roar of the fans at nearby Memorial Stadium filled our ears. The actors all turned towards the sound, surprised at the competition, but undaunted, and merely projected louder. That worked pretty well until the marching band started in with the National Anthem. Jason and Rob were suddenly turning dials at the soundboard faster than the human eye could keep track of, and the actors started speaking even louder. If anyone wasn’t clear on the difference between projecting and yelling, it became immediately clear last night.

Especially when the clogging started. Turns out Friday is the practice day for the Kittitas County Cloggers whose weekend cacophony caused increased comments and commotion that eclipsed the actors’ accomplishments but did little to cream their capability. So the actors were pretty much screaming by this point, trying to over come the 40 or so cloggers banging away next door, and outdo the marching band which had an apparently unlimited repertoire of John Suza songs, when the announcer began painstakingly blaring out each of the player’s numbers, positions, names, and whatever else he could think of. “Number 40, at running back, Milton Shufflebottom! Milton believes that America is the greatest nation on earth and that the Washington State Education system, even though it ranks lower than that of Louisiana, can still kick some ass and make a comeback and graduate most of its kids so that they can add. Right on, Milton!”

It gets worse. Did you know that the usual mariachi group today consists of as many as eight violins, four trumpets and at least one guitar? Yup, and in the case of the one that started practicing on the other side of us, a big ol’ bass drum. When that started pounding way, in odd syncopation with the clogging, the ever professional actor Julie Briskman just lost it. Tears were streaming down her face she was laughing so hard. Then Dave Drummond and the rest of the cast joined in, trying to scream through their lines while laughing, and pounding on the table when they thought the bass drum would strike next. The audience, which must have given up hearing the comedy of the actual play by this time, started to laugh, too, probably at the absurdity of it all, and the author leaned back over his chair to me and said, “They like the play – look, they’re all laughing!” 

At least that’s what I think he said. I couldn’t hear him.

Opportunity
Everyplace

After talking with a writer yesterday who carried with him the heavy gift of self-doubt given him by his fear-filled family, and after reading so much love and admiration about dear Robin Williams, I wrote (or paraphrased) this to my acting students this morning and thought I'd pass it on to you for what it's worth: you are the one you've been waiting for.

Today, maybe now, just take a moment in silence and think about that. You are the one you've been waiting for. It is very powerful, because you are the one. “Who am I?”; “What’s my purpose?”; “What’s my contribution?” and “What are my unique talents?” are good questions to ask yourself. You are not your name, or your job - those are titles, things you do. You are something deeper, more powerful, almost undefinable in words, and you already know this. You just don't think about it much, do you? I know because I forget to think about it, too, sometimes.

You have a great motivation working for you, which is your desire for happiness. To me, happiness is feeling fulfilled, and everyone wants to be fulfilled. If you keep your eye on this most basic motivation, then the choices you make come down to a single question: “What am I hungry for?” Your true desire will lead you in the right direction.

You are the one you’ve been waiting for and the world, all of us, is in you already; how we are all connected to one another; how we all have the same problems in varying degrees, how fear stops us all. As a writer, director and teacher I experience this every day: when I see your fears, I feel my own. When I see your courage I am reminded that I, too, have courage, if I can only be brave enough to go through it. Your success is mine, too, and I can not give you happiness or fulfillment and you can not give me that either. All fulfillment really comes from within. It's why they say you can't truly love another until you truly love yourself. It starts with us. And to love ourselves, we have to forgive ourselves for not being perfect, for no one is perfect.

There is opportunity everyplace, waiting for you and me. When you see opportunities in everything, you will simply be happier because the world is abundant and waiting for you. It takes courage and work to break the old programming that the world is dark and scary, but the time to start new habits, to see new things, and to make the choice to tell the world, and yourself, what you really want is to be fulfilled NOW. Whatever fulfillment is to you, know that the time is now to take that leap toward your own happiness. There is no yesterday or tomorrow to make your dreams happen, and it's your happiness you have been waiting for. No one else's.

Craft and Vision

II am confident that anyone who studies with me, whether it is acting, writing, or directing, can learn the craft I teach. Craft can be hard, there is no doubt, but mastering the craft is essential to being an artist. You can't just want to play the violin, you have to study and learn how to get your fingers to move all over the damn place. You can't just want to be a ballet dancer, you have to learn how to, I don't know... plié and leap and wear tights. You can't just want to make a film, either - there is a lot of just basic craft stuff you must learn first. Like how to tell a story.

And while it is essential to know your craft, it is not enough. You have to have a point of view and feeling. You have to use your imagination. Creativity takes courage. And usually, you have to see the result you want in advance, and use your craft to create it.

That's what I realized with my photography. Yes, the camera you shoot with helps tremendously, and you have to master that camera and you have to master the craft of photography, both of which I am still working at. But once you do master those two things, that still doesn't make your pictures art. Art to me is seeing the picture before I take it, and then using my craft and the camera to get that picture. 

The craft will get me A picture, but it is accessing my emotion and my imagination, and being brave enough to explore that and show that to everyone, that will get me the poetry. And poetry in dance, in writing, in music, in film and photography - that is what we should all be about. Poetry in everything we create and everything we do.

Lauren Bacall
and Me

So.... I was working on Broadway under the legendary Hal Prince which is the only reason I got an invitation to the legendary producer Manny Azenberg's summer beach party in the Hamptons. 

How is that for an opening line?

But true. And better, I went to that party and wandered through the massive shingled mansion smack on the beach in awe of how successful a major producer of Broadway theatre could actually be. Eventually I made my way onto the beach where long white clothed dining tables had been lined up. I stood in line with lots of Gatsby-esque guests (I think, sadly, I was wearing Willy Wear...) and finally found a spot to sit and eat. After wolfing down as much food as I could in as short a time as possible, including stuffing food in plastic bags that I had brought to tie me through the next weekend, I looked up to see... Dick Cavett and Bianca Jaegar sitting across from me, although they were not stuffing food into plastic baggies. 

They were talking about something that at the time I was passionate about but since then have completely forgotten about, and at some point I ventured in with an opinion. We all argued a bit until the woman to their left started in with me, at which time she and I debated for a good while, until I finally said, "I just can't agree with you, Shelly."

The whole table froze. Time stopped. No one moved until "Shelly", taking a drag so deep on her cigarette that it pulled the silverware across the table, looked straight at and deep into me. "I don't know who the hell you think I am, but I sure to hell am not fucking Shelly Hack!" And with that, she got up and stormed away from the elegant beach table.

Dick Cavett just started laughing to himself, enjoying every moment of it. "Nice job. That was Lauren Bacall." And that was the first, and last, time I met Lauren Bacall.

Sunsets

Great sunsets happen all across the world every day. As I shot this photograph last night in Kirkland, I thought how truly amazing the colors were striated, and how sunsets have been happening like this not only all over our world for trillions of years but also all over thousands and thousands of other worlds in other galaxies, and then I thought of the unfathomable odds of my existing at all on this earth at this time to witness it.

'So what's the probability of our existing? It's the probability of 2 million people getting together – about the population of San Diego – each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice, and they all come up the exact same number – say, 550,343,279,001.'

Then I thought of my sweaters. My sweaters sit on their closet shelf, folded and stacked neatly and organized by color by my stylin' wife, Pia. I get angry at my sweaters for not coming off the shelf when I need them without pulling all the other damn sweaters off the shelf also. Then I have a big mess that I have to clean up and organize perfectly or my stylin' wife will growl at me.

Today I am going to say to myself, "I am so lucky to be here at all. Let the anger at my sweaters go." And I'll try to remember the beautiful colors of this sunset, and organize my sweaters accordingly.

A Parent's Love

I get up early in general, usually to write, but here at Round Hill I get up to catch the first light to see what gifts the sun might bring me and my camera. But today I was given a gift greater than anything my camera could ever capture. 

I was snapping away with the sunrise, and with the beautiful Jamaican flowers, when I saw I wasn’t the only one awake. There on the far off dock were two men, sitting at a small table, basking in the first rays of the day. The movements of one of the men... they were erratic, and sudden and… tremendously expressive, as if he was a modern dancer in a performance piece. But he wasn’t that at all. He was actually a young man with some kind of mental challenge; what I do not know, but something was definitely off.

I found myself wondering if he was blind, too, because his movements were so unconventional I thought, “If none of us could see how others behaved in public, how would we know how to behave in public?” His face opened high to the sun, seeking it and worshiping it. His hands danced around the air out of happiness, and his body swayed to music I could not hear, but wished I could.

But what really caught my eye as I lifted my camera and could see closer, was the man behind him. It was clearly his father, standing with patience and calm, for he’d seen all this before. It did not scare him, but nor did it fill him with joy as it did me. He just waited for it to end, which it did, suddenly, when the boy just stopped and reverted back into himself. The father stepped forward, took both his son’s hands gently, and guided him back off the dock towards the hotel. They walked past me, both oblivious to my watching, and I couldn’t help but be taken by the father’s kind love for his adult, handicapped child. He held his hands the whole way, always gently talking to the boy, and guiding him. I’m not sure the boy heard a word. Every day, and all of this father’s remaining days, guiding his adult son. Getting up in the morning like this, walking him, feeding him, changing him – there will never be any rest for this father. And yet he smiled gently with deep understanding and love as he walked away from me, his boy in his hands.

What a gift that was, because a parent’s love is so beautiful and pure. I see it with other parents on the beach playing with their children or when my friends tell me what their kids are up to. I remember it when I was waiting at the school for my boys to get out of kindergarten class – so many parents excited and smiling because they knew their little one was about to run into their arms. And I was smiling to, for that, but also because I couldn’t wait to hear how my little one was doing and hold him in my hands.

It is the only true love, I fear, a parent’s love. It is unconditional, always there, never judging, always embracing, and the one thing that this boy knew, on this pier to greet yet another day, that was real and constant.

Get Out of Your Way

Discipline is part of anything but definitely part of being an artist. So look at yourself and ask, what do you want and how are you going to get it.

Great people let things go: Anyone who reaches greatness has mastered the art of letting go.

One thing I see all the time, in myself and those I coach and teach, is that we get in our own way. We say we want to write a script, or have a career as an actor, but we don't take the steps to actually make that happen. We come up with a lot of excuses (the toilet needs cleaning, I have to write a post on Facebook...), but we don't take the daily action to get what we say we want.

Now maybe we don't actually want it, that's possible. Maybe we just say we do for... I am not sure why we do that, but we do sometimes. But if we DO want to act or write or direct or whatever, then we need the DISCIPLINE to take daily steps. As I say in class all the time, if you want abs, you got to do ab exercises every day. Can't get them any other way.

And sometimes what's in the way of discipline is fear. So we have to somehow let go of fear so we can take action.

Great artists, without exception, are masters at letting go regardless of whether they’re aware of it or not.

Letting go doesn’t mean the absence of resistance to accomplish; it means letting go of resistance and focusing your mind elsewhere.

When you let go of something you’re no longer at the mercy of its influence. What you let go of can no longer direct your path.

Truth is, if you’ve ever done something in the face of resistance, whether you were aware of it or not, you chose to let go of that resistance.

Self-discipline is the art of choosing what to be attached to and what to be detached from. Work on that.

Choose a time to make work and hold that time inviolate. If you lack inspiration, wait. Don't do anything else. The work will come.

When I have been hired to write a script, I set a deadline to finish it. Nothing happens without a deadline. Then my rule is, I write into my calendar when I'll work 5 days a week, just like a job. Not all day - hey, I work for myself! - but everyday I have to show up at the desk, shut the door and sit. I don't have to write, but I am not allowed to do anything else either. No email, no FB, nothing. Eventually I'll start something, and that almost always leads to writing the script.

And I've learned to let go of my work being any good, too. Cause it often isn't. But if I keep writing, everyday, I generally find something that is good enough to pursue and develop, and that often leads to something better.

Do that with your acting or writing. Tellingly, the artists who do have strong habits—the writer you can never see on weekends, because she's always tapping away at a new manuscript, the painter who disappears into her studio every other evening, despite working full-time hours—are the ones who are also carving out names for themselves in their respective fields.

Choose a time to make work and hold that time inviolate. If you lack inspiration, wait. Don't do anything else. 

And start today. Not tomorrow.

You Got To Produce
A Lot of Crap

A writer wrote me this morning to say she was quitting writing. That made me sad, and I wrote her back some version of the note below. I thought I would share it with you, in case you, too, thought your writing was the Spawn of Satan, and would rather clean the toilet than ever write again:

You are definitely not the first writer to feel this way. Many go through bouts hating their work, believing they have no or little talent. Maybe all of us go through that at times.

But I might say if a writer doesn’t sometimes have this feeling, I’d be worried. That doubt is what drives us to get better, to push ourselves deeper and harder than we thought possible. The trick is to not to let that fear and hate of our work stop us. My approach has been to push that critic out of my life. She just keeps me from writing because she makes me feel I can do no good not matter how hard I try. I say “she” because she probably is my mother, who once told me, “Oh, John, we had such high hopes for you.” I was nine.

But I have learned that I have to produce a lot of crap - stuff that I often know is crap - before I can produce anything good. As Rumi said, “You have to go through the fire to get to the water.” I mean, basketball players weren’t born dribbling. Violinists didn’t come out of the womb virtuosos. And you weren’t born walking either, by the way. But I notice most of you are now excellent walkers.

Why? Because every time you fell down you got up. You fell, you cried, and then you got up. And you did that again and again for years until you became a master walker. Why should anything else you want to be good at be any different?

The first couple years that we’re all making stuff, what we’re making might not be so good. That’s normal. But, while there might be something worthwhile in the work - there are glimpses of good stuff –we still think it’s not that good when, say, it’s compared it to the writing of Hemingway, which is what we tend to do. “Oh, I am not as good as the greatest writer in the history of the entire world, so I better quit now.” 

But, BUT – there is something there and you sense it. One idea. One sentence. One character. A period perfectly placed, by YOU, at the end of the sentence just so. Whatever it takes to spark you, to make you want to go on, grab it! Your point of view, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. Your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is not as good as you could make it. You can tell that it’s still sort of crappy. That’s really good news! You want it to be better and don’t want to produce mediocrity. Love that voice and learn from it. Let it drive you back into the writing because all good writing is just good rewriting.

A lot of people never get past that phase, though. I wrote hundreds of ideas, sometimes even into the script stage, but stopped because I thought the ideas stupid, or that no one would want to hear them, until I realized the real reason I was quitting was that I did not have craft. I was blaming the story rather than my lack of craft. The story wasn’t stupid. I was. I needed to go out and get craft to make it better.

Most of the writers I work with are in this phase. Some writers take a short time, and some a lot of time, to develop their skills depending on whether they can make consistent, focused, and quality time to practice. I like to call this FAILING UP. By failing again and again, you learn to not care about failing and you get better. (By the way, this is one of the reasons that mentoring can be useful—you have dedicated and consistent time to produce crap and there’s someone over your shoulder giving you the necessary craft and pushing you onward through it).

But what’s so important is that you can understand that the distance between what you know is quality and the lesser quality you achieve is temporary. You will get better. With practice.

And what I know this, even if I haven’t read your work: your stuff isn't crap, so you are already way ahead of the game.

Remember, you do not have to be good. You just have to show up and write and put it out there. Keep your mouth shut that you think your work sucks. You will find that people actually like your work, and that surprise will give you hope. I promise you, keep writing, keep getting your work out there, and someday you'll write something and say to yourself, "Wow. That's not bad." And that's a good, good feeling.

You Must Not Quit

I mentor many artists; usually, writers, actors and directors. I worked with this one writer on his script and then he produced it and hired me to direct it. It was a fabulous piece of work he created and I was honored to be a part of it. But when it closed I heard nothing more of his plans to move forward with it so I wrote him.

Me: What's going on with the show?

Writer: Nothing happened with the show, the only raves have been my own. It is going as I expected it to.

Me: Let's talk for, as I would say, what you expect is what will happen. I can help you. You've spent a lot of money and worked so hard - let's make it happen. Seriously, call me so I can talk you through this.

Writer: Sorry John, I don’t have it in me. I can’t be successful, that was the point of this whole effort.

Me: No, no, just talk to me, no charge, via email or call. Let me try to help you. It's too good a project to let die, and it always takes lots of repeated effort, by ALL of us, to find any success. Success doesn't come because of talent, it comes because of persistence.

Writer: I don’t have the persistence to promote my own mediocre work. The point of this exercise was to see if people cared, and the statistics reveal no one does. I received the conformation I was looking for.

Me: I was going to write my script this morning, or some dreadful platitude on Facebook, but I think I will write you instead.

I will say it again - your work is not mediocre. Your work is, in fact, quite good.

It is your outlook that sucks.

Perception is everything and the way we, you, look at the world controls our, your, world to a great extent. Perception is everything.

What do you want? Do want to write? Do you want to tell stories? Because the WANT is everything. If you want it, do it, like you have done. Now, as you know, craft is involved in writing well but craft takes time. TIME and practice, again and again. Now I think you are a good writer, and as you know, I work with a lot of writers at different stages. I would tell the same thing to them as I would to you: stop thinking about how good (or bad) you are. It doesn't do any good and just breeds insecurity. Get that critic out of your life.

Just write. And write. And write. You will get better if you show up, apply yourself and just keep doing it. If I can help in that process, fine, but do it regardless.

Now, there are a lot of writers and artists who are immensely gifted and who have produced great work and yet, no audience has ever seen their work. Why is that? It's not lack of work, or even lack of talent. It's lack of getting people to find and see their work. 

I used to believe that if I was talented people would jump at working with me. I now know that is absolutely not true. It is my job to produce the best work I can, but it is also my job to get my work out there, to show my work so people can see my efforts, and so I can learn, from hearing them, how to get better.

Either I learn how to do this - no one is born knowing how to do this - or my work will never get out into the public, because it won;t walk out the door and do it by itself. So, learning how to get my work out there, like learning how to write better, is a craft, too. One that I have to focus on every day and practice. I have to practice how to get people to see my work. And so i have directed plays that have 6 people in the audience, and i have directed crappy plays, and I have written shitty screenplays, and I have given bad direction and... my list of crappy work is very long.

As is, I assume, everyone’s. But, WE KEEP GOING. I do not let that critic in, because he stops me from working or doing anything. I just keep at the writing, and I keep at figuring out how to get people to come see my work, and to hire me. A lot of people never do either, and sometimes I get hurt they don't support me, and I take it personally. And that stopped me sometimes and made me want to hide, as it does a lot if not all, people.

You can't go off one attempt of a play which hardly anyone knew about, because you are young and do not have the breadth of relationships to reach a lot of people, and you can’t go off on the failure of your idea of having that person through Twitter lead people to you as proof of anything except that you need to learn how to market and sell your work better. And that takes time. And practice. And determination.

You got to want it, and I think you do. I think you want it and you are just scared of failure. Get over it. FAIL UP, which means, keep failing, keep failing, keep failing - you are smart as hell, you'll figure it out, and you'll get better. Writing well is a lot harder than getting people to come see our work, but nevertheless, they both take skill, determination and work to learn how to be good at.

What you are feeling is normal, but you must push through it. You can not let fear stop you. You may say it is the mediocre work that is stopping you, but it is not. It is your fear. Because mediocre work, which you do NOT practice in any case, can always improve, but fear will stop us dead in our tracks.

Writer: I appreciate the effort you put towards this long response, but I know how things work out in my life. This is just another failure.

Me: It is not another failure. It is another attempt. An attempt that was immensely successful in its production, and can use some further attempts in its marketing.

Fail up, fail up, fail up. Do not quit. You will be forever disappointed in your self if you quit.

We all want to be Heroes of our own journey. I want to be a Hero in my writing, to leave something that I did that was actually GOOD. I don't think I've really done that yet and am afraid I will never do so. You should see some of my very early productions – the Smithsonian has recorded them for posterity as “Possibly The Worst Calamities in Human History”. Seriously, it worries me. The clock is ticking, and I want desperately for to think I am good at something. Really good. 

Look at those stories and photos I post on Facebook sometimes. In truth, they are small, they are inconsequential, but it feels good when people respond positively to my work. But look, it's still only about 100 people a story that say they like it, if that. That's pretty tiny. A 100 people out of all my "friends" on Facebook. A 100 people out of all the people I know, out of the entire world. Don’t get me started on counting the aliens who never like my work, either.

And yet, it is something. To me, at least. Maybe I'll take those stories and make a book, as people suggest. But that scares me. What if no one buys it? What if people think it's egotistical? What if the New York Times crucifies me and everyone I knew as a child uses my book as a splash guard by their toilet? Will this just reaffirm my mother’s opinion of me? And when I get hired to write, I am scared they will hate it and when they say they like it they are just being nice. When you say you love my work I tend not to believe you and when you say you hate it I think you are telling the truth.

Don’t get me started on MY fears.

But over the years, through many scripts, films, photos, stories, and productions, I have slowly - slowly - gotten a bit more confidence, and sometimes I actually write something that I like. And that feels good and drives me to get that feeling more. And I can feel myself getting less dependent on what others think, and relying more on what I think.

Step by step. Take a step, with or without me. Talk to someone – a life coach, a therapist, a good friend. Keep taking steps and don't judge yourself. All you have to do is to show up and try. I promise. I PROMISE.

Writer: My life has been failing down. This is only a continuation of it.

Me: Let me help you. It's what I do.

Me: How you doing? Let me know what's up, not with the show, but you – I haven’t heard from you. What are you doing for Thanksgiving?

Writer: The attendance confirmed it. People didn’t come. Which means that those that did come determined it is crap early on and didn’t recommend it. I’m done.

Me: Hi - I wish we could get together so I could talk with you. Seriously.

I’ll remind you that on my first professional show a total on 9 people came. 9. And the show ran for a week and still we only had 9 people. That’s right, five performances for a total of 9 people. And my Dad saw the show 4 times. He said he couldn’t bear to sit with the homeless people I was letting in.

But the next show I did had 20 people, and they weren't all homeless. Then 40. Then a hundred, then, well, back to 9.

Merry Christmas. And I'll say it again: you are talented, you are such a nice person, and I believe in your talent and you.

Writer: I don’t have the money nor will to continue something which has had no positive impact on my life.

Me: Well, hell, I didn't have any money either. What beginning artist has money? But I did have the will, because I wanted to do it and thought maybe I had just a tad of talent. More likely it’s because I didn’t think I could do anything else and the idea of siting in a cubicle all my life gave me hives. 

I mean, who knows how much talent one has? I don't even think it's an important question. The young artist wants to do something, he likes it, it gives him pleasure to create it. So he does it. 

But that isn't enough, to just create it. What good are fifty songs in a drawer if no one hears them? So the artist wants people to hear his work. Now the artist must get good at something beyond just creating the work itself. How to get people to hear it? So the artist gets his work out there somehow. Any way he can. And typically most people just walk on by, not even hearing the work, so busy are they in their day. Did you see that video of the master violinist playing in the subway station and no one stopped to hear him play?

So maybe the artist learns to play his music on a different corner where people are more likely to linger, or perhaps he adjusts his music to songs that do stop people more often. Or maybe he is just determined to get better and keeps working at his craft, day in and day out, seeking out help and working harder than he ever thought possible.

But one day someone will stop to listen, and one day, maybe, that person will say, "I love your shit. Here's ten bucks." And that day is the best day because someone, other than you, loved your music. So you keep playing and you work hard on getting better and you keep trying new ways to get your music out there. Some ways will work, some will not. Some songs will be hits, some will be the suckiest songs ever written. The point is, you do not quit. You do not quit. 

Not if you want it.

Now if you don't want it, that's a different story. No one says you have to be an artist. Then the question really becomes, what do you want?

If it’s money you want, then I always suggest going into the concrete business. There’s not a lot of competition here in that field and you only need to buy rocks and sand and water, I think. 

Look, I’ve think the most effective writing and living are done when we are willing to be vulnerable. I think we spend most of our lives trying to cover up our insecurities and what a waste of time is that. Use those insecurities, talk about them, write about them and before you know it, everyone will be talking to you because we all have them. Everyone of us. There’s no such thing as a secure person, there’s just a bunch of us with varying levels of insecurity. And we’ll appreciate you for sharing your vulnerabilities with us, and making us all realize it’s okay to admit we are not perfect, that we are scared sometimes, and that we are human.

I hope you have a Merry Christmas. Call me if you want to talk.

Your pal – John

And that was it. No more emails from him.

Remembering

I watched with wonder as the Confederate flag was lowered in South Carolina. Long over due, to be sure, and much needed as well, but a flag is just a symbol, and removing it does not remove what is the real problem, the underlying racist beliefs of many, many Americans. I think some believe that if we can get rid of the symbols and hide the unpalatable truths of what our country has done, then people can forget and we can all live as if it never happened. Or that it still does. Remembering is important and so is forgiveness of others and self.

Georgetown in Washington, DC is one of the most beautiful urban areas in our country, with many fine mansions and impressive examples of Federal architecture, and it certainly was a wonderful place for me to grow up. Home to Presidents, Congress people, journalists and writers, it is steeped in a rich history that visitors can feel and see as they stroll along its beautiful red bricked sidewalks.

 

Less visible is the willfully forgotten history that the chic Georgetown of today was once the center of a booming slave trade, a significant port for traffickers in human flesh transported from Africa to the plantations of Maryland and Virginia. And lest we forget, at one time there were neither blacks nor whites in Georgetown -- then known as Tahoga -- before British settlers came ashore around 1696. It was a peaceful village inhabited by the Nacotchanke Indians, before the whites wreaked another tragedy upon them in the name of progress. So obscured has this history become that not even most Washingtonians are aware of it. Nor are they aware of the flourishing black community, some descended from those slaves, that once occupied a large portion of Georgetown -- until a combination of legislative, social and economic pressures (called gentrification) gradually forced nearly all the black people out, turning the neighborhood into the wealthy, effectively all-white enclave it is today.

 

But when I grew up there, many of these blacks families still lived all around us and Georgetown still had the charm of a Southern town, with grass growing up through the untended sidewalk cracks, cicadas serenading the streets, and Negro gentlemen sitting on their front stoops hoping to catch the occasional breeze on the humid summer nights. The Washington Senators would be playing baseball on the radio inside, where the women would be cleaning up dinner, and the men would all have a beer, listen to the game, and try to stay cool. Their wives would eventually join them, as would my brother ten year old Matt and I sometimes, leaving the cool air-conditioned and isolation of our house, where the only awareness of what was going on in the outside world came from white men on three networks on television.

 

Those were some of my happiest memories, listening to my neighbors talk and laugh. They would howl with laughter, and slap their knees and stand up and jump around when they got excited, unlike my social group across the street that always sat well-dressed crossed legged on the leather chaise, cocktail in hand, a polite smile on their face rewarding the witty repartee. But my friends across the street, on the stoop in the summer air – Neville, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, Mr. and Mrs. Waters, Billy, Buster, and Dr. Burdett – they were fun and alive and in a strange way, very free.

 

I remember them all, but Dr. Burdett is whom I thought of when I saw that Confederate flag come down. He was a general practitioner and one of the best in Washington, DC, although he worked only in the black community. He certainly was one of the kindest men I had ever met, and certainly also one of the wisest. My brother Matt with his fascination of history, found this true, too, and spent countless hours talking with Dr. Burdett on that front stoop about the history of Georgetown and, in particular, the history of blacks in Georgetown.

 

One day, impressed by Matt’s knowledge and love of history, Dr. Burdett came out of his red brick townhouse, sharply dressed in his customary thin bow tie and straw hat, and sat down on the stoop next to Matt for their evening discussion, but this time, he brought with him a book. It was a big book, hard to handle it was stuffed with so many clippings and photos, but as old and tattered as it was, it was a very special book. Dr. Burdett’s grandfather created it in the early nineteen hundreds, his father had added to it through the forties and fifties, and Dr. Burdett had kept it up since then. 

 

It was a scrapbook of black Georgetown, full of newspaper articles, photos, and remembrances from the past. It was a treasure like no other indeed, as at that time there was simply no book ever published on the subject, and my brother Matthew took to it like a baby to his first breath. He gulped it in and rejoiced at the life it brought and he held it close to his chest as if he could absorb it deep into his soul.

 

From across the street, I watched from the dining room window as Dr. Burdett slowly went over every page with young Matt, pointing out characters long gone and gesturing to where they had lived around us. Like I said, Dr. Burdett was a kind man, but even knowing that, I was surprised to see Matt stand, thank him, and bring the book to our house.

 

Matt came bursting through the front door and shouted, “Look what I can take to school for Show and Tell! Look everyone!” and my whole family spent most of the night looking through the jewels in that tome. It was a time machine Dr. Burdett had given us, and I was humbled to see that I was in many ways just a visitor to a neighborhood that had been at one time predominantly black.

 

Matt was humbled, too, and so proud the next morning as he came down still holding the book to his chest. He ate breakfast and crossed the street to wait for the public bus to take him to school for Show and Tell. He got on the bus, paid his fare, and took the trip he had taken thousands of times. So excited was he that when he got to his stop, he bounded off the bus and rushed into the school. 

 

And then he stopped dead in his tracks. He turned back to the bus but it had gone, and gone, too, was the book. Panicked, he raced to the corner as fast as his little legs would move him, and he stood there looking back and forth, but there was no bus, just white parents in their station wagons dropping their privileged kids off to school. 

 

Matt stood on that corner and cried and cried until a teacher saw him and brought him back in.

 

My parents called the Metro and my Dad even drove to their Lost and Found, but the book was lost, forever.

 

No one spoke at dinner but when we were finished Matt stood, excused himself, and went out the front door to the stoop where Dr. Burdett per habit sat, fanning himself in the summer heat and listening to the Senators on the radio in his house. This time we all watched from that dining room window the horrible silent movie playing out in front of us. We saw Dr. Burdett wave to Matt, smiling and gesturing for him to sit down and we saw Matt stop in front of him and say something briefly. The smile on Dr. Burdett’s face dropped and he stood in disbelief as Matt tried to explain. And then he walked back inside his house and closed the door.

 

It took several days, but later that week I saw Dr. Burdett back on his stoop, cold beer in his hand, with forgiveness on his face. When I told Matt, Matt smiled and went to the dining room to see his friend sitting there. Matt watched for the longest time and then, slowly, went back up the stairs to his bedroom. He never, ever went out to sit with our dear and noble black neighbor again.

My Kind of Heroes

I saw both American Sniper and Selma this past week. Both are films celebrating different kinds of heroes. One hero fights peacefully for the rights of people of color, and the other kills “savages” in a foreign land we invaded.

There are of course historical distortions in both films, as filmmakers tend to use, in the words of Adolph Reed, “the past like a props closet, a source of images that facilitate naturalizing presentist sensibilities by dressing them up in the garb of bygone days.” History is often besides the point in Hollywood films, but I found American Sniper unforgivable in its inaccuracies because it caters to the worst, most primitive part of ourselves, that dominant, America Is The Greatest Country on Earth, everyone we attack are primitives, it doesn’t matter why we invade, killing 200 people should be worshiped and I love my Daddy no matter what mentality. On the other hand, I found Selma moving and inspirational.

After all, Selma is not necessarily there to educate us – probably never a good idea to look at Hollywood’s’ films as educational – it is there to motivate us. Perhaps American Sniper could claim the same thing – it wants to motivate us, too, I just don’t want to be motivated to kill people. But if the main intent of Selma is to motivate us to continue to fight for the civil rights of all people, so that we all have as much of an equal playing field on which to achieve our dreams, which we definitely do not have now, then I am all for that.

I remember walking into my parent’s bedroom in 1968 and seeing my father sitting in front of the television, crying. Martin Luther King had just been killed. I couldn’t understand why someone would shoot him, and my father explained to me that some people hate others simply because of the color of their skin. I thought of my best friend, Neville, who was black, and told my father “I don’t see the color of his skin, I just see him,” and my Dad told me that would change as I grew older.

All I knew was that I loved playing ball against the alley wall with Neville, and that I loved pretending to be the Cleveland Brown running back Jimmy Brown when dodging Neville on the park football field, and that I cried the same tears when Neville’s dear Grandmother died that I did when my Grandmother died. And when Neville’s grandfather died, who had fought in World War One, I attended his funeral in the Baptist Church where I was the only white boy, and I watched an old man, who was best friends with Neville’s grandfather and who had fought in another needless and pointless war, this one romantically remembered as The Great War, stand in front of the Congregation and sing in his deep baritone voice, acapella, the beautiful spiritual “My Buddy”:

Nights are long, since you went away.
I think about you all the day.
My buddy, my buddy,
Your buddy misses you
Miss your voice the
touch of your hand
Just want to know that you understand,
My buddy, my buddy your buddy misses you.

And I cried again that day, too, and didn’t see any reason that the color of that great man’s skin was relevant in any way.

But my mother did. It wasn’t because she was from the South or because she was poor or uneducated or because she was just plain stupid. She wasn't any of those things. It was because she was scared. Why she was scared I am not sure, as my parents had so much, but as my father got more successful in his career and made more money, she moved away from her liberal roots and beliefs of feminism and equality, and she began hating paying taxes, voting Republican, and becoming a rachist.

Yes, that’s how she said it: rachist. Well, she said it at least once, and probably said it this way because she had too much wine, but I’ll never forget that day she said it. We were in Provence, France in the summer and we had been invited to have lunch with Patricia Wells, the famous food critic for the Herald Tribune who had studied under Julie Childs and ran an amazing cooking school every summer just outside Vaison Le Romain. My parents knew her quite well and my wife Pia and I were able to tag along. Like I said, some people get, just by birth, better playing fields than others.

And Patricia Wells’ home in Provence was definitely one of the great playing fields. In her large garden, all the plants were labeled with little tin signs – lavender, thyme, basil – and every plant was manicured within an inch of its precious life. The house was large and pristine, probably originally a farm house now superbly remodeled. In its kitchen sat the oven that once belonged to Julie Childs, and in the library, hundreds of Herald Tribune articles and awards by and for not only Patricia, but by and for her husband as well, as he was the Editor and Chief of the august newspaper. In the backyard an ancient huge tree, surrounded by their wine vineyard, towered over a perfectly appointed white linen covered table that sat fourteen. The staff was putting on the finishing touches and serving the hors d'oeuvres as we approached the other guests.

It was then that Pia gasped. In front of us, walking arm in arm with Patricia, was Ina Garten, the cookbook author of the famed Barefoot Contessa empire. Pia whispered to me, “I think I have died and gone to heaven” but I swear she actually said, “Oh my god, two for the price of one.” Pia says I have made that up to make the story better. Imagine that.

It was during lunch in the dappled light of that noble tree, drinking the Cote du Rhone from their vineyard and enjoying the butter lettuce and squash blossoms just pulled from the Wells’ garden, when it happened. We were all laughing at the various witticisms being thrown about the table, and even saying how this was perhaps the most amazing lunch party we had ever been to, a one in a lifetime event, with such incredibly accomplished guests, all so nice, all so mannered – I call these “We Envy Us” moments in life - when my father launched into one of his great stories. Mom and Dad were just returning from a luncheon party in Washington the previous summer, and pulled into their parking spot in the alley behind their house. Dad turned the engine off when suddenly a gun came through his open window and a man said, “Give me your money.” My father, understandably terrified, immediately complied, handing over his wallet to the man, but my mother… she didn’t move not even when the man yelled, “Give me your ring!” He put the pistol up to my father’s head and she still didn’t move, so he reached across my father, grabbed her hand, and put the gun to it. “I’ll blow your hand off to get that diamond,” he screamed. Only then did my mother relent. I guess she figured she could live without a husband, but not without a hand.

All of us at the table were of course shocked and expressing sympathetic terror when my mother, who had been up to this time quiet, as her mouth had been completely full so busy was she scarfing up the exquisite food on her, and others’, plates, finally spoke. “Are we talking about black crime in Washington?”

You want to know what kills a liberal lunch party in Provence faster than anything? Say that and you’ll see for yourself. We all just froze when she followed up with the now infamous line, “That’s right, I’m a rachist.” Even as I type this now, a decade later, I am still at a loss for words. She might as well have been wearing a white hood. I was so angry that I started to stand, probably thinking if I could just find some gasoline I could light her afire and we could then see how Patricia Wells roasts her marshmallows to make smores, which you know would just be delicious, when Jeffrey, Ina’s husband to my right and the Dean of the Yale Business School, put his hand on my shoulder and eased me back into my chair, whispering, “We all have bat shit crazy mothers. Get used to it.” 

Still, all I see when I look at Neville, who remains my good friend today, is Neville. I do not see his skin color. But racists do see skin color, and fear it. And those characters in American Sniper, and those that made it and maybe some that loved it, see skin color, too, and, scared, wave their flags, insist we are better than any one else, and dominate the world with their guns, bombs, and “heroes”.

Love and Hate

This morning I got the best present. I was asleep, dreaming. I was carrying my brother down a flight of stairs, and he is a lot bigger than me, and I was a lot wimpier in the dream than normal, and when I lost my footing, we both fell down a never-ending flight of stairs. While we were bouncing about in slow motion – all my dreams are filled with clichéd cinematic moments – a phone someplace began to ring. Not a modern ring tone say of Sir Mix A Lot singing "I Like Big Butts", but the old ringing sound. Slowly I came to and realized that my cell phone in my office was ringing and I in my kerchief sprang out of bed, happy to not be bouncing down the stairs anymore, and ran to answer it. Alas, I was too late, but fearful it might be bad news about my Dad back east, I checked to see who called.

The message said the call was from Jamaica. I knew exactly who it was and, excited, called back immediately. 

Every year Pia and I go to Round Hill, Jamaica for several weeks of vacation. This is very small resort built by British colonists and remodeled fairly recently by Ralph Lauren who has a place there. It’s beautiful of course, placed perfectly on the azure bay looking west for the sunsets, but what really makes it special are the people there.

One year I was so enjoying having High Tea on the veranda with little sugar cookies and finger sandwiches, being careful to hold my little pinky up as I sipped, when a very old man on the arms of a very stunning and young lady were trying to negotiate the few stairs in front of them. I got up and helped him and suggested he sit in my seat, and he in turn, with the most elegant English accent, invited me to join him and the young lady. Turns out this ancient codger was John Pringle, who founded Round Hill, and his story was truly fascinating. He attended Eton and Cambridge, rode in the British Calvary, and came to Jamaica because his grandfather owned one of the largest pineapple plantations in the world here, along with something like 600 thousand acres. Soon the pineapple business started to fade and he and his brother built a high-end resort, which attracted Presidents and the likes of Clark Cable, Fred Astaire, and many others. I was so enjoying talking with this gentleman and hearing his history when he suggested I buy one of the villas here.

“Oh, I don’t think I could afford that,” I said.

“I don’t see why not. We don’t pay any real estate tax, you know,” he responded as he licked the jam off his fingers.

That astounded me. These villas were huge and the owners, all wealthy white travelers from foreign countries, paid no tax on them? They also paid their full-time staff about $100 a week. And I had seen how some of the staff lived – their places were very small and dank, hot and sometimes very run down. I delicately tried to point out the discrepancy and of course Mr. Pringle resorted to the old defense, “Yes, well, but we give them work they would not otherwise have. You see, the blacks need us.”

And there it was. Just that hint of veiled racism that comes from hundreds of years of privilege and colonialization, passed off as an act of kindness.

That was the end of that conversation as the finger sandwiches had lost their charm for me suddenly. I walked up to my tennis match where Pia and I for all these years have played everyday with the same two young Jamaican men. As always, and to preserve our marriage, Pia and I played on opposite sides of the net. She played with one kid, O’Neil but called Squeegee by his friends, and I played with Duane, aka Shata. These matches were epic for many reasons: one, these guys were wicked good, waaaay better than us so it was super fun to watch their athletism. I’d drill the ball at Pia, loving husband that I am, and Squeeggee from the complete other side of the court would race across and get it. Then, the two Jamaicans would laugh and replay the joy of the point in Patios, the local Jamaican dialect that was created so that the white landowners wouldn’t be able to understand them. And finally, all the tennis staff, each a beautiful and regal Jamaican man, would always stay to watch our games because Pia and Squeegee had never been able to beat Shata and me. Every time Pia would win a point, though, and there were many times that happened, they’d all leap to their feet and cheer madly for her, slapping five with each other and again replaying the shot in Patois. Then when I was lucky enough to make a good shot, nothing. They’d just sit there, unimpressed. “What am I, chopped liver?” I’d quip, and they’d just nod yes.

Well, this last spring Pia and Squeegee did beat us and you’d think Jamaica had just won the World Cup. They all went wild, laughing, jumping up and down, and screaming in celebration for her. And no matter where we went on the hotel grounds, the staff knew of the historic victory and congratulated Pia. It was a tough time for me and my ego, but I soldiered through somehow.

But I didn’t go back to High Tea. Rather Pia and I would hang with the tennis guys, hiding in the shade of the awning from the blistering sun, talking and laughing and replaying our good and bad shots. One of the teaching pros, a strapping man in his forties, who plays a wicked game of tennis, told me he went to America once. Most of the Jamaicans never leave their island because it is so expensive to do so; plus, they have to pay $500 to get a visa and there’s no guarantee they’ll actually get it as the local immigration officials often just pocket the money and look the other way. So he essentially won the lottery and went to Chicago.

“Chicago,” I said, “Such a great city! Did you visit the museum there?” It slipped out before I could think, but Steve let it pass or didn’t even see why I was worried. “No, I didn’t, I was too busy working,” he said, genuinely smiling. “Yea… were you teaching at a club there?” I asked. “No, I was working as a porter at a hotel,” he said, not thinking twice about it.

Pia and I would go to watch their soccer matches when they were off duty, and cheer for them, and meet their friends from in town who would share their drinks and island food with us, and we met Squeegee’s pretty girlfriend and had such lovely times that I invited them all down to the restaurant for dinner with us. They just stopped. “We can’t do that, John. We can’t join you in the hotel restaurant.”

Of course they couldn’t and maybe in the States the staff wouldn’t be able to join guests either, but there is something wrong with that which made me uncomfortable. And there it was, no matter how much we became friends, there was a wall between us, put up by people decades ago, and put up by the way we all live now and also simply by what families we were born into, and it was invisible and denied by so many of its creators but still there and still so sad. And it’s not just in Jamaica coming from ancient British aristocrats either.

But what those, who stole natives from their land of Africa hundreds of years ago to bring them to America as slaves, dropping some off on a small island called Jamaica so white colonists could start the world’s largest pineapple factory and make their millions, could not stop from happening was the phone call I got this morning from Squeegee. He just called to say hi. On Christmas morning. From Jamaica. Making a call that probably cost him several days pay, but he and Shata and the others at the tennis courts were all there laughing and yelling hello and sending best wishes from that tiny little paradise so far away. It was the gift of friendship, forged on the court and built under the awning on hot, lazy afternoons. And we laughed and talked about nothing which meant everything and then Squeegee had to run back to work and hit the balls with some other wealthy tourists.

I hung up, so grateful to get that call. It meant so much as I looked at my beautiful tree in my beautiful house waiting for my beautiful children to wake and rip through their gifts and eat the silly Snowman cake pictured here. I was so happy because someone who didn’t have to, reached out across the world and touched me.

What also touched me as I made my way to the kitchen to make coffee was the dog poop on the floor. I looked down at the mess now between my toes, then up at Flirt the wonder dog who sort of looked the other way like she had nothing to do with it (which in a house of boys is actually a possibility), and all I could do was laugh.

No matter how wonderful a moment is, there’s always some crap headed your way. So enjoy it while you can. To every race, class, creed, religion, gender, person and species, Merry Christmas to all.

Congressman
Gerry Ford

This is a picture of my dear brother Matthew and I when we were wee ones. It was taken at our grandfather's house in Chevy Chase, Md, most likely on Christmas Day, 1961. He had been a business man all his life, this farmer boy from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and after World War Two he was able to sell literally a whole train load of meat to Argentina and became in one day a millionaire.

 

So, he did what any brand new American millionaire would do back in the fifties: he bought a British Rolls Royce, got his suits made on Saville Road, and modeled his entire house after how the British aristocracy might live. This room is a good example as he paneled the walls like a British study, hung British fox hunting reprints around, laid smoky grey carpet down to match the cushy sofa and leather chairs designed by Dunnam to further its clubby British demeanor, popped a globe of the earth in and bought the entire set of Encyclopedia of Britannica. which I don't think anyone every opened, to show just how educated we had suddenly become.

 

My brother Matt was not actually reading those books that lay here at his feet; they were just placed there to make him look like he was. In fact, and don't tell Matt this because he doesn't know, he was from Rent a Brit, a company that leased handsome English babies out for holiday photos. My parents liked him so much they decided to keep him on.

 

Anyway, back to the millionaire story: my grandfather made this huge sale when several weeks later he got a call from his friend from Grand Rapids who now happened to be serving in Congress, Gerry Ford. Mr. Ford, who it was said couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time (which made him immensely qualified to become Vice President under Nixon and eventually President when Nixon was forced from office), asked to have lunch with my Grandfather and while they were talking about the big sale and the sudden wealth, Mr. Ford mentioned that this sale was the real reason for the lunch. "You just can't sell meat of that low quality to Argentina," he whispered to my Grandfather. "In fact, you can't sell meat of that quality to humans any place. We're passing a law next week prohibiting its sale and making sweeping changes to our meat laws here."

 

Soon thereafter the Agricultural Research Service was created. So, basically, you have my grandfather to thank for the healthy meat you eat. Unless you are from Argentina, of course.

 

Have a very American Christmas, old chap. God knows we did, and do.

Love Never Dies

She thought her life was over. Her kids were grown and now with families of their own, and her husband, who had been so sick these past three years, had finally passed away. Her body ached as she walked through her house of forty years, and in every room she heard the echoes of her children playing, her husband laughing and their dog, long gone now, barking incessantly.

Then the phone rang. She picked it up; maybe it was one of her kids calling to see how she was doing. They were dears, the lights of her life, and they called regularly now that their Dad had died, worried about her. “Hello?” she said. There was a pause on the other end, and then, “Nancy, is that you?” She didn’t recognize the voice. “Yes, it is, who is this, please?” she responded. “Maggie Millgan?” the voice asked. “Yes, I’m Maggie Millgan. Who is this?” There was a pause, and she could hear a sigh. “It’s Ben Wilson,” came the voice over the phone, and out of her past. 

Ben Wilson had been her sweet heart in high school. He was the most handsome, funny, and kind young man she had ever met, and he was her first love.

“Oh. Ben. Oh,” was all she could manage. She found herself adjusting her hair and then blouse just a bit.

“Yes. 'OH!' Is right. I’m sorry to call out of the blue like this, Maggie, but I wasn’t sure if this was your number or not and… I was worried you might not remember me,” Ben said. His voice was still so gentle. “I remember you, Ben. How could I not?” she said.

They talked for an hour that day, and it was like they had never stopped talking. She told him of her husband’s passing, of her wonderful children of whom she was so proud, and he said that his dear wife had past last year, too, that he was very lonely in his big, empty house, and that his thoughts often drifted back to Maggie and the fun that they had had. 

He called every day for the next two months and Maggie dressed for the calls. She knew it was silly; he couldn’t see her, after all. But she did it anyway. Once she even put on perfume.

And then one day he said, “I’d like to come see you sometime.” And she said, “I’d like that, too, Ben, but don’t wait too long. We’re both 90.”

They married a month after the day he came to visit. They wouldn’t have waited that long, but they both needed some time to find a new house to start their lives together in. Just before their wedding ceremony, Maggie’s older daughter couldn’t help but ask her mom, in a sort of reversal of the birds and the bees talk that moms often have with their daughters, “Mom, I’m just curious, you’re both so old. Do you have sex?”

The question caught Maggie, who was still adjusting her wedding dress to get it just right, by surprise. Maggie had always been a little shy about these matters, and her daughter, well, a little too bold. “Well, sweet heart, that’s a wee bit private, you know. But I will tell you this. Ben and I had gone out to dinner the other week. When we got into bed that night, Ben was feeling a bit… randy. We were laying side by side, and he tried to turn over to me, but you know he had a bad shoulder injury when he was young and that is acting up a bit again, so it hurt for him to lay on his shoulder. So, I turned on my side to him, but I have that arthritis in my neck and back, so that just proved too painful. He tried to reach over with his hand to take mine, but that hurt, too. So we both lay there, side by side, until I was able to rest my right hand on his left hand and squeeze it once and then, he squeezed mine back, and held it tight, and we fell asleep.

“The next morning, the sun streaming through the white window curtains woke us up. It was bright and beautiful out, and he looked at me and said, ‘Wasn’t last night just magnificent?’" 

Maggie smiled at her daughter now, and put the finishing touches on her dress. "And that’s all I am going to say on the matter, because that’s all that is important. Now let's go get me married."

New Year's in West Virginia

For many years on New Year’s Eve, Pia and I with our three boys would go to Piedmont, West Virginia. My Dad the architect was a good friend with Jim Lehrer the newscaster who with his wife Kate had bought a very large estate outside Shepardstown. They had hired my father to renovate the property, but when Dad visited the site, he said, “Lovely. But anything build after 1810 is being torn down.” There were many buildings on the property that dated after that time and the Lehrer’s were a little taken back, but my father with his great eye persisted and they tore everything down that wasn’t germane to the location.

The original house was built in something like 1735 and of course George Washington had slept there (this is true of pretty much every home built during that period – the father of our country slept around a lot, apparently). Once everything was gone that was built after 1810, Dad painstakingly restored this house as it had become quite run down over the years. Floorboards were replaced and then sanded down to look like they have been there for hundreds of years, and they removed all paint not to period, thus leading to the discovery of 19th century wall paper underneath twenty coats of latex, and it took the restoration team from Versailles to restore it (see pic of Dad and I below). Anything that was not original to the period was removed and that included light fixtures and kitchen and bathroom conveniences. Lest the poor Lehrer’s had to live without modern day invention, Dad hid the Sub-zero freezer behind 19th century cabinets, and built the modern sink and toilet into a large period looking green box he placed in the middle of the upstairs bathroom. 

So, visiting this house was very special and literally like going back in time 200 years. All the rooms fed off the main hall (below), and their doors had to be kept shut in the winter because only the large fireplaces in the room provided heat. And you needed to carry lit candles as you moved from room to room because there was no electric light. It was magic.

Because it was so dark outside as well, since there were no other houses anywhere nearby, we’d play the famous game of Flashlight Tag. Each of us had a flashlight and we’d divide up into two teams. The first team would go out into the freezing cold and hide, then the second team had to go find them. You couldn’t turn your flashlight on unless you saw the enemy and were firing at him, because of course once you turned your light on, you had given away your position. There was really only one rule that my father really insisted on, and that was you could not cut through the warm and well-lit house while playing. 

We started playing this when my boys were very little, and they’d cling to me in the darkness, except Henry who apparently had no fear and would say things to me, at 13, like, "When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song NOW, and die like a hero going home, dammit."

I never really knew what to say to that. What song should I sing? "Who Let the Dogs Out?"

Mads the youngest, on the other hand, would screech in my ear,“Dad, I want to go in, it’s really scary out here,” but he'd whisper it not quietly enough because his other older brother John would yell from the darkness across the way, “Shut up, you’ll give away our position!” which of course gave away HIS position and he was shot by a piercing beam of light often followed by some kind of victorious and rather cruel cheer from my father or one of my brothers. Who were all adults. And delighted in beating my children. That’s for another post. Or therapy. 

Well, while I am on “Hello, Dr. Freud, can I talk to you about my family”: my father would wait until it got real quiet in the blackness of the night, then he would say, in a loud whisper with some kind of German/Japanese/East Michigan accent, “I’m going to get you, Yank, I’m going to get you!” And he’d howl like he was a kamikaze pilot (if they indeed actually howled) and Mads would just cling to my leg like a humping puppy and I couldn’t really move and Mads would start wailing, and I’m trying to get him off my leg and to quiet down and I’d inevitably fall to the ground cursing, and when I looked up, there would be my Dad, smiling, who’d shoot me in the eye with the light, then slap five with his team mate, and my brother, and they’d both shoot wee, crying Mads who by that time was begging for his life. Sometimes they’d shoot him more than once and little Mads would yell, “I’m dead already, I’m dead! What kind of person shoots a dead kid?”

Anyway, every year while they all played, I’d be able to sneak off in the dark, after I was dead… and walk away from the house, finally turning back to view it from the distance. It stood like a monument on the hill, lit only by the roaring fires in each room, and by the ladies moving from room to room carrying their candles. That’s when I saw my father sneaking into the kitchen, breaking the one cardinal rule of Flashlight Tag, while we froze our hinny’s off outside, and watched him have some hot cocoa and a cookie or two. True war knows no honor, not when it comes to cookies.

We laughed and laughed about that as we all went back in to change for New Years. Dinner was a formal event and the men wore tuxes and the women, gowns. I like dressing up; it makes occasions feel special and not just like any other night. Besides, everyone looks better when they dress up. Well, except for Dennis Rodman maybe. I'm not sure even Givenchy could save that train wreck of fashion.

On New Year's in Piedmont we’d have a grand dinner with champagne and caviar, and make lofty toasts, recite poetry memorized in school and sing songs out of tune. Son Mads might play the guitar and brother Simon the fiddle, and for an little bit, as we all finally relaxed watching the fire slowly die out at the end of the night, there was no internet or Facebook, no cell phones or television and really no outside world at all - there was just us, a family, lucky to be together, lucky to be in that house, lucky to be here at all.

Say goodbye to 2014 remembering how lucky you are to have all that you do. Love.

Be a Hero

Great stories are about heroes.  They are about people who sacrifice what is most dear to them in order to help others and by doing so make the world a better place.

 

We seek stories because we are all looking for heroes.  Heroes to inspire us, heroes to show us the way, and heroes to encourage us to be the heroes of our own lives.

 

A hero is somebody who is selfless, who is generous in spirit, who tries to give back as much as possible and help people. I think we all want to be that kind of hero. It takes courage to be a hero, of course, and without courage I don’t think we can truly practice any other virtue on a regular basis, because it takes courage to forgive when you’ve been hurt; it takes courage to be kind when someone is attacking; and it takes courage to be generous when you are afraid of not having enough.

 

I knew one woman who gave a Lancôme bag to a friend for Christmas, but the bag was the kind you get when you buy Lancôme makeup and you get the bag for free.  I knew another person who unintentionally gave me back the same book as a gift I had given her five years earlier.  I know a young man who gave his girlfriend a Combo gift.  A Combo gift is a gift that because it is expensive, covers your gift obligations for several occasions to come, meaning because you got it for her now, you don’t have to buy anything for her next birthday and Christmas.  Another was a couple that went to dinner.  He pulled out two coupons that said “Free Meal”.  The waiter pointed out the coupon didn’t say, “Buy One Get One Free” but “Free Meal.”  But her husband read the fine print: “Limit one per table” and piped up, “What if we sit at different tables?” And they did for the entire meal.  He might haven gotten a free meal that night, but I can bet he didn’t get dessert when they got home.

And even though I am sadly sure there are a lot of other stories, there’s the one I most remember because it happened between children.  The older 10-year-old brother was walking with his little 5-year-old brother on the beach, carrying both of their identical dripping ice cream cones.  The littlest boy kept looking at his cone in his brother’s hand, clearly hungry for it, but the older brother insisted on carrying it.  Then suddenly, the ice cream fell off one of the cones, into the sand.  They both stopped for a second, and the older brother said, “I dropped yours.  Sorry.” The little boy cried and cried and ran back to his mom, so aware of the injustice that had just occurred.

 

I don’t want to be that little boy ever again. I want to be my own hero.

 

The best thing in the world is being generous and thoughtful. Give more than you should this Christmas, and make everyone smile.

Before the Fall

A friend lost her cat today. And my Mom died a couple of years ago, and my Dad is really ill now, and my grandparents died before all of them, and then recently dear, funny Timothy my friend, died just down the block and as I was walking Flirt, our beautiful Labrador who will flirt with you until she finds out you have no food and then she’ll stop flirting with you, we passed a squirrel frozen dead in the street who had a crow eating its eye out.

 

I called to console my friend with the dead cat and shared all of these thoughts, but fear I didn’t do much good. I just made her cry more.

But I felt for her. I’m going to be really sad when my Dad dies. And also when Flirt dies, and I miss Timothy a lot, but there’s nothing I can do about it and if I think about it that gets me even more depressed, but if I ignore it, that doesn’t seem right either. Sorrow is coming.

On Fall days like this, I can feel Winter coming. The leaves are dying on the branch; the air is cold, still and quiet, and darkness sets upon us way too early. I can’t stop the seasons changing anymore than I can stop death or apparently, console my friend. Or myself.
 

The seasons keep to their essential rhythm, as does life, and as does Flirt who just came in to stare at me. She’s just there, in the doorway, silhouetted by the last light of day, glaring. Then I remember, it’s time for her to eat.

I stand from my writing desk, and you’d think Flirt had just won the sweepstakes. She hops and barks with joy as I make my way to the kitchen, even though this is a routine we have repeated a thousand times and it never changes, she is just madly happy it’s all happening again.
 

And that makes me smile and remember that each Winter is followed by Spring, always, and that each spring brings soft grass, longer light, and the sweet smell of flowers. The old makes way for the new and these are gifts that I cannot refuse and they force me to ask myself, “What will I have contributed to life when my Fall arrives?” So I feed Flirt, and give her a good hug, then smile as I look out upon the setting sun, grateful for being able to experience it all.

The Shawshank Redemption

Big congratulations to my sister-in-law, Liz Glotzer, celebrating this week the 20th anniversary of Shawshank Redemption which she Executive Produced.
 

Liz is a shining example of what hard work can achieve. My dear brother, Matt, met her at Bennington College when they were both students there. When she got out, she was accepted to the Peter Stark Program at USC, THE producing program in the country. She got a job as a reader for Universal which meant she read something like 25 scripts a week for just about as much money. All my memories of her during those days are of her surrounded by a huge stack of material and her reading and reading and reading.

 

But that reading paid off as she slowly climbed up the executive ladder in the men dominated film world. She had become an expert on STORY and what would sell in Hollywood, and this eventually led to her a Vice President of Development position at Samuel Goldwyn and then to Castlerock Pictures as, finally, the President of their Motion Picture division.
 

At one time in Hollywood, the really big, hot scripts were delivered to the major execs on a Friday, assuming those hungry execs would spend the weekend reading and then, if they wanted to pursue it, jump into a bidding war Monday morning. One Friday, a script called “Rita Haworth and the Shawshank Redemption” by a pretty well-know writer, Frank Darabont, who had adopted a short story by another pretty well-known writer, Stephen King, landed on Liz's desk.
 

She came home, buried herself in that script and rather than waiting for Monday, called her boss, Rob Reiner, that Sunday and told him he had to read this immediately. He did, loved it, and they called Durabont to meet them right away.
 

“We’ll pay you a $250,000 to buy this script,” Reiner told Darbont. “Who’s directing?” Darabont asked. “I will,” Reiner replied.” “No, thanks.” Darabont said. The negotiations had begun. Reiner offered $500,000. No. $750,000, then a million. No still. Reiner was hard pressed – he knew this was a killer script. “Two million, that’s probably the best I can do,” he said. “No, thanks,” Darabont replied and started to stand. “Two million is A LOT of money, Frank,” Reiner said. “Yea, it is,” Darabont grimaced, “But it’s not the money I am saying ‘no’ to. It’s the director. I want to direct it.” He was walking towards the door when Reiner stopped him, “Ugh, I hate to let this go… but… I’ll let you direct if we can buy it for $35,000, and I can fire you in the first five days if you screw up.”
 

The movie was on, and Liz and her team put the script out immediately to agents for casting. The next day her phone was ringing off the hook and submissions of actors’ pics were flowing in. There was a message on her machine when she came in that morning. “Liz, baby,” came the aggressive voice, “It’s Marty, over at [insert BIG NAME AGENCY here]. I just read ‘Rita Haworth and the Shawshank Redemption’; in fact, I loved it so much I read it three times, and boy, do I have a perfect girl to play Rita Haworth!”
 

Congrats, Liz (sorry if I butchered this story)!!!

Before Electricity and Telephones

This is my parent’s dining table, where I spent all my Thanksgivings until I was 22 and many glorious meals since then. It was a happy place where there was plenty of food, too much wine, and rich stories. Every celebration my father asked all of us to bring a talent or a story to the table. One brother might sing, and another screech away on the fiddle. I sometimes felt shy, scared that I had no talent worthy to bring before my immensely gifted father, but my grandmother always had a story to tell and a lesson to give, and she always jumped in to save me any shame.

 

“We grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, in Iowa," she began. “It was sometime in the beginning of the century, maybe 19 aught 6, July 4, when my papa and oldest brother set out on the buggy for the town of Dubuque early that morning, and each of my 10 siblings and I, along with our mother, waited on the porch that evening for them to return. They came into the house, dusty and tired from their long journey, but excited to show us what they had brought back. ‘You’ve never seen anything like this,’ my father cried out, as we all assembled around the dining room table. Slowly and very delicately, he laid out in its center, something covered in a large towel,” my grandmother told us rapt boys around our own dining table.
 

“Our eyes were wide open and eager to see what he had brought, and slowly he uncovered two things we had truly never seen before. One was long and yellow, the other round and short. We picked them up, passed them around the room, sniffed them and finally one the brothers dropped the orange ball to the ground to see if it would bounce,” she laughed.
 

Her father picked up the items, scolding the boys. “That’s not what they’re for.” “What are they, papa?” the children asked and their father said, “This is an orange, and this is a banana. They’re meant to be eaten.”
 

My grandmother explained that they had never seen fresh fruit before, not like that anyway. They lived in the middle of the country, where there was no refrigeration and thus no way to get fresh fruit from the coast. Until now.
 

I took the second picture below in Walla Walla, and it reminded me of my dear grandmother living so long ago, before electricity and telephones, in a simple place where some humans had never tasted such fruit.

Fire!

I was talking to my dear Grandmother on the phone while I laid on the bed in my parents room, my feet up on their pristine white wall, when I first smelled it. Smoke. I told her I’d call her back, there was a fire, and remember her screaming as I hung up.

I think I was home from college. My dad was on one of his many business trips and Mom was… no idea, but she wasn’t home. The smell was coming from the corner of the bedroom, in the closet, so I stuck my face in there to find the smoke was actually coming from the ceiling. I ran upstairs to the top floor to find the roof on fire. 

Obviously my first action was to call for help, so I dialed 411. Just when I realized I was listening to that day’s weather report, my grandmother called again, still screaming. I told her it wasn’t good at 89 to scream all the time, that the roof was all on fire, and that I was going out there to put it out. I heard some more screaming, this time louder, and hung up.

So apparently my grandmother called 911:
Dispatcher: 9-1-1 What is the nature of your emergency?
Grandma: I’m trying to reach nine eleven, but my phone doesn’t have an eleven on it!
Dispatcher: This is nine eleven.
Grandma: I thought you just said it was nine-one-one
Dispatcher: Yes, ma’am, nine-one-one and nine-eleven are the same thing.
Grandma: Hey, I may be old but I’m not stupid, damn you!

It went on from there, but my grandmother wasn’t finished yelling at the poor dispatcher. A bit later:

Dispatcher: Ok, ma’am, please calm down, do you have an address?
Grandma: No, I have on a blouse and slacks, why?

Meanwhile, while Grandma screamed the woman into tears, I raced throughout the house looking for a fire extinguisher. I looked in all the usual places: the kitchen, the basement, my brother’s room cause he liked to use it as a flamethrower. No luck. But I did find a huge bag of kitty litter, which was odd for many reasons, the first being we never had a kitty. Desperate, I raced back up the stairs and onto the roof and poured the litter all over the fire. Like I said, it was a very big bag. Or perhaps a very small fire. Either way, amazingly, it worked. The roof stank, but there were no more flames. First lesson for all of us here today: kitty litter puts out fires.

The fire department arrived, was pretty unimpressed with my kitty litter tale, and insisted on examining the roof and house themselves, which meant lugging all their heavy equipment up the stairs, banging it against those pristine white walls, ripping all the clothes out of my mother’s closet, tearing a hole in the roof, spraying water in said hole, removing the burning embers they discovered in the ceiling beams, and then leaving the whole mess behind them.

Mom came home and was devastated. All of her paper mâché dresses, every one of her vinyl skirts and Andy Warhol knock off tops, and her prized long Jackie O white gloves - ruined. And kitty litter, did I know how much that bag cost when I grabbed it?

She spent the rest of the day trying to clean up that mess and was completely covered in soot by the time she sat down in this living room for her usual gallon of vodka. I was trying to commiserate with her and tell her I'd work off the cost of the litter bag, even though I was pretty sure she was exaggerating its price, when my Dad came home from his trip.

He came bounding through the glass doors here in the photo below, Gucci bag in hand, snappy in his new Paris-bought Pierre Cardin suit, like a kid in a candy store.

"0h I had the most amazing flight! Guess who I sat next to?" He bragged. I tried to wave him off, gesturing to my blubbering mother who was beginning to look a little like Broom Hilda, but he was oblivious. 

"Candice Bergen. That's right, Candice Bergen! And you know what? She is as beautiful as you imagined. Just stunning! And funny, too! They served us both champagne and... And... Why does it smell like cat shit in here?"

Well, you can imagine what happened next. But I have to say, my mom could really throw an ashtray and it goes without saying, Candice Bergen's name was never mentioned in my house again.

Halloween Candy
or the Lack Thereof

Just remembered this sweet memory of Halloween: When I was a teenager and getting ready to head out the door to go on what was perhaps the last trick-or-treat run of my childhood, my mom called out to me before I could escape. "John, would you put this outside on the doorstep before you leave?" I went into her bedroom and took the basket she handed me. "Sure," I said. "What kind of candy do you want me to pour in here?" "Oh none, just leave it like that," she smiled, turning Little House on the Prairie back on the television. I have the fondest memories of my mother.

He Just Is

Today is my youngest son's 21st birthday.
 

I don't remember what I did on my 21st, which was just after the Peloponnesian War, but I do remember almost every moment I've spent with beautiful Mads.
 

I'll spare you all the stories we have amassed together, but I will tell you one. A couple years ago Mads was asked to perform at the Neptune Theatre's big opening night. Mads worked hard on his music preparing for that, and I was so honored when he asked me to listen to his set beforehand.
 

Mads' music is like Bob Dylan meets Cat Stevens meets Nick Drake meets Karl Marx meets Malcolm X. It is beautiful, compelling, powerful, and honest (you can hear some of it here at https://soundcloud.com/mads-jacobsen - start with Handsome Bethany). He went through every song, some of which I knew well and some which were brand new. The last song, Select Your Brick, I had not heard before.
 

"So... that's a great tune," I said, carefully choosing my words as I didn't want this to be the last time Mads played me his music ever. "But... do you think closing your night at The Neptune on a song about throwing bricks at cops is a good idea? I mean, not every one in the audience will agree with you."
 

Mads thought for a second, thanked me for listening, and left the room, only to return moments later. "So," he said, "You're asking me to do what the you think the audience wants, and to do something that is not authentic to me, is that right?"
 

Damn him. Damn him because Mads from day one has known who he is. He has known what he wants and has fought for what he believes is right. He is passionate and impatient and determined, and he won't conform to clothes with horses on them made in sweat shops, or voting for one party when it is so much like the second, or regretting having his guitar stolen by a homeless man "because that man must have needed it more than me", and he definitely won't write music just to please people because art should also teach people, and motivate people to make a better world and that means "sometimes they have to hear things they don't like."
 

So I thought for a second - remembering that I tried to teach all my boys to challenge what is wrong in the world, and that our obligation as incredibly lucky white men born in America where we got an education and have been given so, so much, was to give back and to improve the world, even though I myself often fail at doing just that - and I suddenly saw that Mads, like my other two young men, was here to teach me what I had forgotten.

Mads didn't wait to hear what I thought about him playing that song. He went to the Neptune and played his set. As I stood in the back, looking like a narc in my Polo short and khakis (albeit a well-dressed narc), Mads played Select Your Brick. The crowd went wild, leapt to its feet and danced in the aisle. You see, authenticity is getting harder and harder to find and people are seeking that. Not that Mads cares. He just is.
 

Happy birthday, Mads. Shine and show the world the star you are.

She Cried

She cried on my sofa. And she wasn’t the first. As a teacher and mentor to actors, writers and directors, I learned long ago that anyone, really, can learn the craft I teach; what is hard to learn is to get out of your own way and commit fully to going after what you really want. 

When we cry like this, it’s because we are afraid to listen to that voice inside of us that screams to be heard. We are afraid of losing the security that jobs in cubicles provide, or afraid of walking out the front door and of putting our hand out to introduce ourselves as if it is wrong to say, “Here I am and I am proud of who I am.”

When I needed help decades ago, a wise therapist said to me, “You are so good at protecting your children. But you are so bad at protecting yourself.” I cried because I knew he was right, and I cried because I was letting myself down.

There is a child within each of us, and our adult selves are the parent to that child. Everyone I know that has children is a good, amazing parent and they instinctually know that when their child is afraid, or falls down, that their job is to pick them back up, give them a huge hug, and say, “Go back and try again. You can do it.” We need to do that with our own selves, too.

We all have fear, but realizing that the fear of suffering is worse that the actual suffering is the first step to going after your dreams. So cry if it helps, but dry your eyes, pick yourself up, love yourself for everything you are, and go after your dream. You can do it.

Love Is My God

Love is my god. Love is everything that a god should be. It is understanding. It is forgiving. It is patience, and it is never ending. It is giving and giving and giving until there is nothing left to give, and then still giving more. It is without judgement, confident and secure. It is loyalty through good and bad times, it is more powerful than death, and it isn't something you can find - it finds you.

Like Pia found me when she moved in next to me at the Edgewater Apartments so many years ago. I was watching my two little boys play in the yard with a new boy I hadn't seen before. He was right between my two guys in age and they were climbing, and throwing, and doing other boy things like putting nooses around their necks when I felt someone behind me. I turned to see Pia for the first time, in her doorway. "I made some dinner for the boys. If you'd like some, there's extra." That was the first of many dinners and the beginning of understanding, forgiving, patience, and giving and giving and receiving. Love isn't something you can find - it finds you.

One Moment at a Time

One of the many joys I have is mentoring other people. It's very rewarding if I can help someone take the next step on their journey to become the Hero of their own life, but it also reminds me what to work on for myself.
 

Settling into the idea that I have a lot to learn, and that we're all on a journey to learn, helps me relax into the moment of NOW. I can forgive myself for my mistakes and remember that failing is how we learn to do things better. Keep pressing forward, keep learning, but get the negative frustration that we are not as good as we know we can be out. It doesn't help me to worry about failures in my past and to fear what I will become - or not - in the future.

 

Instead, I try, again not always successfully, to focus on the stone in front of me that day, and to step on each stone in the path carefully and deliberately with intention. Soon enough I'll arrive at the stone at the end. If I keep my eyes focused only on that stone so, so far away, that "final result stone", I'll almost always miss the next stone on the path and fall off.
 

Then I'll be pissed at myself and curse the stupid rock and in the words of Guffman, "go bite my pillow" and it's just really embarrassing all the way around.
 

One day at a time, one moment at a time. I am only as good as I can be now.

The Last House My Father Designed

This is probably the last house my father designed. While he is still alive, he is failing in health now and hasn't really worked at his firm for about 2 years. Nevertheless, this massive compound is a stunning tribute to his eye for detail and love of light.
 

My father was very inspiring in so many ways and practiced architecture with a capital A. That means that almost everything was about making his Art better. You couldn't walk down a street with him without him pointing out the Mansard roof on a building, or talking about the use of the Roman Arch and how it has been handed down through the ages. He used to say, "When you look at a city, it's like reading the hopes, aspirations and pride of everyone who built it." I think of that every time I look around a city and every time I take on a directing project or sit down to write a script: you are leaving something of you behind in your Art, so make sure, as he also used to say, "They don't wrap fish in your work."

 

Dad started as a painter when he graduated college at the University of Maryland but his father, a business man, said, “I won't pay for graduate school for you to be a painter. Let’s put art and business together - what about architecture?”
 

That's how serendipitous life can be. Dad somehow got into Yale, studied architecture, and found his god.
 

He studied with the influential Vincent Scully and infamous Louis Kahn there. After he’d been out of school five years, one of his projects was on the cover of Architectural Record. One day his secretary said, “There’s a Mr. Kahn on the phone.” The tradition in architecture schools is that when the master comes by, you stand and he sits, so Dad found himself, while on the phone, standing next to his desk. Mr. Kahn said, “I saw that house in Architectural Record.” Dad lowered his eyes and smoothed the rug with his toe. Kahn went on, “We all have to do a house like that someday, and I hope to hell you got it out of your system.”
 

Louis Kahn was the most important influence of Dad's life and my father was, no doubt, the most influential in mine. Grateful for it all.

http://www.architecturaldigest.com/decor/2014-06/jacobsen-architecture-nantucket-massachusetts-compound-article

Setting Out for Somewhere Else

In Seattle, the rain is thin and cold, and makes you hunch up inside your coat, pulling your collar up around your neck as you rush from doorway to doorway. In Jamaica though, it is almost always sunny, but when it rains, it is wide and thick, heavy and quick, and invites you to step into it to see how wet you can get, and be thrilled that it is warmer than the sea and warmer than your skin and warmer than you thought rain could be; it is abandon and it is surrender and it is heaven.

"How often I found where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else." - Bucky Fuller

Round Hill

When Pia and I come for our annual rest in Jamaica, we always stay at Round Hill. Small, intimate and steeped in a rich history, it is the perfect get away, and as we walk the grounds we always feel so incredibly fortunate to be able to come here. We are lucky also to again see our friends that work here, to sit with nothing to do but talk with them, and hopefully to take a little bit of them away with us when we go back home to our busy, perhaps too busy lives.

Shata and Squeegee

There's beauty everyplace here, but especially in the faces and hearts of our friends who work at Round Hill. Each has a beautiful story and spending time in the afternoon shade hearing of their journey gives meaning to my time off here, and their peace and wisdom helps me accept that we are all the same, all on the road together, and that we all love, we all suffer, and we all are here to teach each other. Here beauty is never forced, it just is.

 — at Round Hill Hotel and Villas Resort - Jamaica.
http://www.roundhill.com/

Shata and Squeegee

Men’s feet are not meant to be up near their ears. The last time I did that I was 6 months old. If that was meant to be, then I would have had feet growing out the side of my head, which admittedly would make it easier to put my foot in my mouth. But does this stop Donovan, the Stretch Master Guru here at Round Hill? No. Every afternoon at 4 Pia has gotten me to go to this sort of yoga meets torture session by saying, “If you don’t go, fine, but you’ll die.”

So I go, because, well, what choice is there when it’s put like that. And Donovan is a truly nice man, off the mat and when there are no sharp objects around, but in that class, oh my sweet jesus, why do good things always have to be so hard?

I’m standing up and he says, “OK, bend over and grab your ankles.” God knows I have been doing that at various jobs throughout my life, so no prob. But then he yells - YELLS - “John, what are you doing? Don’t bend your legs! Extend your arms, lift your back up, make it straight, stretch your chin to the sky!” and he puts his hand on my stomach and the other hand on my back to push me until my face is upside down between my legs, trying to force this Byzantine Cirque du Soleil maneuver, until there is a loud crack at which point he says, “OK, well, something’s are not meant to be. Just do your best.” 

Then he tries to remove his hand from where he placed it on my stomach which has now been bent over so that it presses hard against my groin and his hand is… well, stuck. OK, that’s not too embarrassing. He sort of tugs at it gently, patting me on the back, then out of desperation, fearing his hand will somehow be sucked into the great abyss that is my stomach, he yanks so hard there is this sort of reverse whooshing sound. And he shakes his now free hand madly as if to rid it of pestilence, and I see that all the svelte women are just staring slacked jawed at me. Pia, of course, is laughing.

But Pia’s laughing not only because I look like a fool, again, but also because she appreciates that I am even trying to do it in the first place. It’s not easy this fighting aging, staying fit thing. You have to do classes like this, and you have to exercise every day, and you have to eat kale and fish testacies with semen (I haven’t done this but did a search for it on Google and it’s true). 

Pia says she’s proud of me, and that she wants me around for a long time, and for her, I’ll do anything. It reminds me that nothing good and worthwhile is ever easy. You have to work hard for the good things, and marriage is like that – you have to work at it, every day, and remember that even though sometimes there is a little pain, a little sacrifice, being married to the right person is so good, so worth anything, including seeing Donovan once a day try to get my feet up around my ears.

(this is not a picture of Donovan, fyi, although I am sure he can do this)

Squeegee and Shata

One of the many things we love to do while at Round Hill is play tennis. When we first started coming years ago, we played with these two young guys, O'Neil and Duane, who worked at the tennis club here, and since then we have played every morning at 8am with them. They bring such joy to the match, such true enthusiasm and warmth. They applaud all the time, in amazement of great shots no matter who hits them. But when Pia hits a winner, and she hit many this morning, it causes them and the entire club house to leap up and down cheering her on as she beats the men. Squeegee and Shata, which are our partners' nicknames, speak Patois, the local Jamaican language, jumping up and down, laughing and replaying the last point, duplicating shots as if in instant replay. I love hitting with them, as does Pia, and it makes us walk around with a smile all day; this is how contagious joy and love are.

Massages in Jamaica

It does look a little like a casket. At least that’s how I viewed it at first. Pia, who I’d like to believe has my best interests at heart, suggested that perhaps I’d like to have a massage after playing so much tennis and what with my collar bone broken and all earlier this year (note the cheap ploy for sympathy here, called the “Pet the Dog” moment in films). I thought, “My wife is giving me permission to have some Maria Sharapova-like creature rub me with oil, OK, that sounds like a super good idea, let’s go.” 

And then Pia suggested I also have a pedicure. Wait. Whoa. I’ve never had a pedicure. In my life. In fact, I don’t think another person has really ever touched my feet outside of my mom, and then that was with a burning hot iron. And, I have to say it, I am a man and men do not get pedicures. OK, I know that’s not true. So please, all my liberal friends, don’t write me to correct me. And my conservative friends, please, please don’t write me to agree with me here. I KNOW real men, whatever that means, get pedicures, I was just scared, OK? And real men get scared (see “First Blood” where Stallone is quaking in his boots; OK, he never shook in his boots but I was pretty scared for him in that jungle cause there must have been a lot of bugs).

But I agreed, not only because my feet were kind of aching from tennis, but also because I negotiated Pia into agreeing that if I did the pedicure thing, she’d go paddle boarding and for those of you who know Pia, THAT’S huge. In order to paddle board, you see, you have to be ON WATER. And fish pee in the water, so Pia doesn’t really like to swim where fish pee.

OK, the massage: you have to get naked to get a massage here. No one told me that. They do give you a swanky robe, which I put on and tied so tight my voice went up an octave. I came out of the dressing room singing like Barry Gibb when there in the doorway stood my massage therapist. Sharapova she was not. More like Godzillapova. And so I walked down the lawn towards what I knew now was indeed a casket as Godzillapova followed, like a prison guard walking me on death row, and I am desperately trying to lower my voice so she thinks I can take the pain she is about to inflict, when my robe blows up over my head.

Yup. I can't even think of anything funny here to say. It sort of speaks for itself.

But after that, you know, everything was just sort of uphill. I mean, where else could it go? Godzillapova did her massaging thing which was pretty amazing basically because she didn't hurt me, and the pedicure thing was... well, weird, OK? They actually SAND your feet. This woman has your foot on her lap and she is SANDING away, furiously, like a carpenter on cherry wood, except I am laughing because I am ticklish and singing STAYIN' ALIVE because that's what I am hoping and I could finally hit those high notes.

And the macho guy sitting in his robe next to me is just sort of looking over, shaking his swanky Euro trash head at me.

And Pia... she still hasn't gone paddle boarding.

Rain

I love the rain. It brings abundance back to our earth, and keeps hunger at bay. It washes the summer away and brings the scent of fall, and with that scarves, smelly dogs, pumpkins, old movies and kissing under umbrellas. Autumn means writing, as I seek the shelter of my office where I enter back into the cave of my mind and hear the downpour of the rain outside, remembering again the first day of school and the need to begin to work once more.

Smile

Start everyday off with a smile and get it over with.

 

Every morning when I wake I see this view. So every day I am reminded to be grateful. Grateful for the view, grateful for my house, grateful for those who live with me in my house, and for those that live with me outside, too. I certainly was grateful yesterday for so many reasons, but one was the constant stream of love that you all sent on Facebook. Let's keep that love thing going on every day. It's as beautiful as a sunrise.

Interventilation

It is a two armed world out there.

I know this now more than ever because I broke my collarbone this weekend wrestling with our pet lion (actually it was from playing tennis, but that is so pathetic), and for the past two days, as I push through the pain, simple tasks like putting your pants on, are impossible with one arm. Who knew?

So, for all my meetings this week, no pants. Sorry if this offends you, but my injury and pain pills have opened my eyes: pants are just another way women control us. When men were men they wore skirts. Maybe they called them kilts.

So no pants for me. If Necessity is the Mother of Invention, then Frustration is the Father of... Interventilation. That's a new word I just made up because I am sporting one of my wife's skirts, right now, and when I took the trash out - oh yes, Pia made sure of that. "One arm or two, YOU are taking the trash out. And stop your whining. " So out I went, dragging that can with my one remaining arm, in her skirt. And boy, do you feel some interventilation when you sport a skirt! Who knew? That sucker blew right up over my slim, svelte hips when the northwind swept down the street, and whooo, did I ever wish I was wearing panty hose then. Especially since the guy driving by almost drove off the road. First because he had waited his whole life to see a skirt blow up over a woman's slim, svelte hips, then because he started throwing up when he realized he had just lusted after a guy wearing a skirt and no panty hose.

OK, I'm going to blame this post on the pain killers. I better quit now before it gets even more embarrassing, and also because it's hard as hell to type with one hand. Who knew? Damn two armed world!

Paris Proposal

Ten summers ago Pia and I flew to Paris. She was the director of couture at Nordstrom then, so she had to work at Chanel for a few days then we planned to go to the Loire Valley for a bit, and I planned to ask her to marry me.
 

She suspected something was up and kept hinting around asking, "If something special was to happen on this trip, maybe what night would it be...?"
 

I told her if something special was to happen it might happen when we ate at this lovely restaurant in the Loire... but all along I planned to 
I ask her earlier, in Paris, at a very special dinner I had been planning for some time.
 

For weeks I had been calling Le Grand Véfour, one of Paris' most beautiful restaurants. If Pia knew we were going there in advance, she'd know I was proposing, so I decided we would "accidentally" walk past it and I'd then suggest we just go in and have a drink. But Le Grand Véfour doesn't serve just drinks, and Pia would know that, so I had to work out a plan with the maitre d' there.
 

Using my flawless Tarzan-like french on the phone from overseas, I talked to him. "OK, I'm going to tell her we'll just go in for a drink, and she'll say "they don't serve drinks" and then I'll bring her in and I'll ask you, "Can we come in for a drink?' and you'll say, "Sorry, we don't serve drinks" which will make her believe we haven't set up anything in advance, and you and I will go back and forth with you always saying "It's not possible, we do not serve drinks" a couple times, and then I'll use my charm on you and crack some jokes and then you'll smile and say 'OK, you crazy American, you can have a drink here'. Then Pia will be impressed and we'll sit down and I will have surprised her."

"Quoi?" he said. "Don't worry," I said, "Just make my reservation, we'll have time to go over it again when I get there."
 

Well, we didn't have time because our plane was late and Pia had to rush to work rather than resting first. I then had to saunter over to le Grand Véfour where I found the staff preparing for service, and the maitre d', a large man who could have been a mud wrestler had he not landed this job. "OK, hi, I'm that guy who talked to you about having a drink tonight to fool my girlfriend so that I could propose to her without her seeing it coming."
 

"The crazy American," he said. "Uh, yes, yes, that's me."

So I rehearsed him, now live, like a director would rehearse an actor. "OK, let's do that again, with more conviction. You got to really believe it. Let's take it again from 'It's not possible." Other staff members stood about mouths agape as he and I went over it repeatedly, but he played his part and I left thinking all would go well.
 

That was until Pia came home early, after a full day of work with no sleep, swung the door open and said, "I'm exhausted, let's grab a quick bite down the street and call it night."
 

"Oh, oh, honey, sure, but... I'll need to wear a suit and would you mind pressing my pants?"
 

"You don't need a damn suit. Let's get something quick."

"Honey... it's Paris and... well, I think it's important to dress for the city."

Now remember, she didn't have the ring yet. Remembering that is crucial in explaining why in the hell she would put up with me when she was so tired.
 

So she ironed the pants as I pretended to shower to stall us - we couldn't get to this restaurant too early, they wouldn't be ready. And she walked with me in her heels through the gravel of The Palais Royal as I pretended to want to quickly take a peek at the gardens. But she really stopped being so patient when I said, "Oh look, there's Le Grand Véfour. That's where Napoleon and Josephine ate! Let's get a drink there!"
 

"They don't serve drinks."
 

"Oh hell, sure they do," I said, but before I could finish, Pia had turned and was walking away. I grabbed her arm and it was all I could do to get her into the front door of the restaurant. You could see her heels marks in the gravel where I dragged her in.
 

And there, inside the door, was the maitre d, now in his tux, arms crossed, ready to play his part. Before I could even say my first line about a drink, he blurted out, "Ce n'est pas possible." Pia heard that, snapped at me, "I told you so, and was gone.
 

"No, no! Just say we can come in," I blurted out to the maitre d'.

"Ce n'est pas possible."
 

"Cut that out, forget the rehearsal, can't you see she's leaving?!?" I yelled.
 

Finally, I was able to bring her back in, and even though she was angry as an hornet, the maitre d' finally said it was OK to have a drink and seated us.
 

Now, the room is unbelievably stunning, as you can see from the photo here, and we were both amazed to be here, but it didn't take Pia an instant to see they hadn't removed the dinner service. And so she looked up at me, knowing that we weren't here for a drink, and I knew I better get this proposal done before she hit me.
 

So I got down on my knees, in Le Grand Véfour which was still empty because we were still so early, and I started in. But you know how wordy I can be and it wasn't long before I saw Pia looking up away from me, into the mirrors that have lined these walls since 1760, and as I looked over my shoulder to see what she was looking at, there I saw the entire staff of Le Grand Véfour, including the huge maitre d', waiters, chefs and bus boys, all huddled together, watching us from around the corner, to witness the romance of another proposal in this beautiful spot.
 

Pia had to say yes then. And she did, and we were married 10 years ago today.

Tonya Harding
and Me

I had no idea who she was, actually, even after The Event. In 1994, I was directing in Seattle when a call came from a lawyer, Kevin Dodge, of Davis Wright Tremaine. His firm was representing a young lady who had been arrested on assault charges. I wasn’t clear why they wanted to hire me. “You’ve helped us negotiate some media deals before, and our client is about to get a lot of media.” Ok, that makes sense. Who is she and what media do I need to deal with?“ I asked. You’ll probably be dealing with media from all over the world. Her name is Tonya Harding.”

Tanya Harding was an Olympic figure skater who was accused of conspiring to assault fellow skater, Nancy Kerrigan. Kerrigan had been struck on the thigh a few inches above the knee with an telescopic baton by a guy named Shane Stant, who turned out to be a friend of Tanya’s ex-husband. Jeff Gillooly. The injury forced her to withdraw from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and Harding won that event and was then selected for the 1994 Olympic team. 

Well, this was new to me. I had done some negotiating before, but never on this level. I bought a new tie.

It was a fast moving, fascinating and sad time. I watched her team of attorneys circle her and move fast to protect her. I really admired how they really worked hard to help her win her trial but also to make it possible for her to compete in the upcoming Olympics. In fact, that was one of their main objectives in hiring me: handle her image in the media so that Tanya is viewed positively and can skate in the XVII Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Their other main goal in hiring me, I soon learned, was to make as much money for Tanya as possible so they actually could get paid because Tanya had no money.

Calls started to immediately come in from all over the world. Every major network in the US wanted to interview her; every major paper, radio station and stalker was trying to get to her. You see these events on TV, with the press swarming celebrities and cameras firing off a million times a minute, but you really have no idea how scary and overwhelming that is until you are in it. You have no privacy at all, everyone becomes suspect of using you, and people just behave like madmen.

Tanya of course had made some very bad decisions. Foremost amongst those was marrying Jeff Gillooly who proved to be the “mastermind” behind the Kerrigan attack and who also later sold a sex tape he had made of his then wife, Tanya, to Penthouse Magazine. Another bad decision was to date a guy during this whole mess (whose name I have now forgotten), who, while I was negotiating her deals, called me to say that just the night before, he had made a secret tape of Tanya in the shower and could I help him sell it. 

Disgusting and sad, and it seemed this was always happening to her. As I came to know Tanya, I realized that the young lady before me had been abused my men her whole life. This kind of abuse informed pretty much everything she did and how she looked at the world. She had low self-esteem, which in some ways drove her to be the best, but she was jealous of others and believed the world owed her. She sought to control others to make that happen, even though she herself sought a man to abuse and control her, again and again.

We all got Tanya into those Olympics. Her lawyers were able to help make that happen through their negotiations with the Olympic Skating Committee and the courts. For our part, we changed her image, got her interviewed by very respectful and highly reputable reporters, showed the sympathetic aspects of her story, and negotiated very favorable financial deals for her.

To this day I still do not know what Tanya actually did or did not do in terms of the charges filed against her, but it did begin to bother me that I was making so much money for someone who might have hurt another person maliciously. I talked it over with friends and eventually with Kevin, the lawyer who had brought me on. He sympathized and said often lawyers deal with these conflicting emotions, but perhaps I should just go to Tanya and see what she said. I was skeptical but did that, and what Tanya said really surprised me. Tanya was dirt poor all her life, and certainly pursuing the Olympics as an amateur made her no money, but I shared my thoughts with her, and she said this, “I’ve already thought about this. After I pay my attorneys fees with the money you’ve made me, I plan to give the rest to an Abused Women shelter. They could really use the help.”

And so, there it was. Say what you want, judge as you will, but some good came out of a horrible event. The Abused Shelter got a lot of money, Nancy Kerrigan went on to place silver in the Olympics, and I got a swell new tie, and a good story for cocktail parties (and Facebook).

They Move Away

My youngest son, the talented and brilliant Mads, moved into his own place yesterday. So now, our house is empty.

But not completely empty. I got up this morning before the sun and walked the hallway of my boys' bedrooms. I can hear them laughing as they run past me, rubber band guns in hand, firing at imaginary enemies, dying grand, heroic, imaginary deaths. I see them reading, curled up on the bed or sofa, traveling in far off lands with Siddhartha, and I touch the holes in the walls and chips in the molding where young, strong legs slid and kicked. And the food stains on the rugs and the paint ball splatters hiding deep in closets (despite Pia's Homeric attention to cleanliness), and that cracked window from the errant projectile just now discovered. Then there's the scent of teenage boys...

It's all there yet they are not. Just echoes in my mind. Happy, joyful, loving memories. 

“Parents rarely let go of their children, so children let go of them. 
They move on. They move away. 
The moments that used to define them are covered by 
moments of their own accomplishments. 

It is not until much later, that 
children understand; 
their stories and all their accomplishments, sit atop the stories 
of their mothers and fathers, stones upon stones, 
beneath the water of their lives.” 

Young Person, Travel.

"The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page."

Youth is a time of total empowerment.

You get to do what you want. As you mature and gain new responsibilities, you have to be very intentional about making sure you don’t lose sight of what’s important.

So if you still have a reasonable amount of control over your circumstances, you should do what really matters. Because life won’t always be just about you.

During early adulthood, your worldview is still being formed. It’s important to steward this time — to give yourself opportunities to grow. A good way to do that is to travel.

So, young person, travel.

Travel wide and far. Travel boldly. Travel with full abandon.

You will regret few risks you take, when it comes to this. I promise you.

The Death of
Jon Pine

Talking to my brother Matt Jacobsen, a photo of my kids when little, and especially sunsets, like this one last night I took in Los Angeles - they all make me cry now. They all remind me of another day gone. Did I do anything amazing? Did I change anyone's life? Did I make any difference at all? No. All I really accomplished was to finish the pecan pie. It's getting really pathetic. I cry at the beginning of It's A Wonderful Life, when the credits are rolling. I cry at Deodorant commercials. And I cried when I heard of the death of John Pine, a boy I only casually knew in college who passed early Thanksgiving morning. Tears are words begging to be written just as sunsets are calling us to photograph them before we forget how important each day is.

Cooking Bacon

Sunday mornings smelling bacon cooking downstairs, seeing this bigger than life man in his bathrobe at the breakfast table reading the paper every day up before anyone else to go to work where he designed the most beautiful of homes like the one he designed for us bright and full of light like him whistling off to work again on the jet to some exotic site returning with stories of art and celebrity and inspiration but I'd see him sometimes in the stands as I played basketball and was grateful he was there, grateful that he gave me so much, grateful I had a Dad who loved the best he could.

Forgiveness

Martin lied to his mom, or so she said, and so, because her 15 year old son lied to her, she threw him out of the house.  Told him to go live with his Dad. To teach him a lesson.

 

It taught him a lesson alright – that his mother didn’t love him enough to forgive him for something that 15 years do all the time.  So he lived with his Dad, and he started to drink, and to stay our late at night, and then to not wash his clothes and eventually to not wash himself.

 

His Dad would sneak into the room of his teenage son who had now dropped out of school so angry was he about authority, and like the most skilled Seal Team member, the father would crawl in on his belly to surreptitiously snatch the filthy clothes off the floor and whisk them to the awaiting washing machine, only to return them to their original place with such stealth and guile that no one was ever the wiser.

 

Except one day, when Dad was in a meeting, he heard Martin get up early, and go into the laundry room.  He heard the machine stop, and then seconds later, he was surprised to see his son outside in the pouring rain.  As Dad pretended to listen to his client in the meeting, he was actually watching his son, standing in the downpour in his underwear, dragging the clean clothes through the mud of the garden.  The boy then turned and held the once again filthy clothes up over his head, shaking them violently in defiance to his father.

 

After the client had left, Dad went into his son’s room.  Martin had gone out, but across the white walls the boy had dragged the muddy and wet clothes and sludge now dripped slowly down like tears, pooling on the floor at Dad’s feet.

 

The father worried all day.  He didn’t know what to do – this was way beyond his pay scale and training. He had been reading every teenage self-help book available and indeed had a stack of them by his bedside.  In an earlier argument, his boy had yelled at him once how embarrassing it was his Dad needed a book to raise his own children, and the Dad had shot back, "I don’t need a book, I need a LIBRARY!”

 

When his boy came home late that night, his father was up and waiting for him.  Dad asked him to come into the living room to talk. The boy, petulant and defiant, sat there as the father searched for what to say.

 

He rambled for a bit, but then, quite literally, stumbled into this: “You can burn the house down.  I’ll just rebuild the house because…I will never stop loving you, and I will never, ever throw you out.”

 

That’s all the boy needed to hear.  That his parent would never throw him out and that nothing was more important than him.  Martin started to change almost the next day.  He had hit bottom and was coming back now, turning into that sweet child that he had always been, just like all the books said he would.  He just needed someone to tell him that they believed in him, and that no matter what they did, they would love him. 

 

And Martin forgave his mother, and in doing so, taught her what real love is.

 

We all need someone to believe in us.  We all need someone who knows our mistakes, and believes in us anyway.  This is the true nature of love: always there, always forgiving, and always giving. No matter what.

My Friend Timothy Died

My friend Timothy died two weeks ago. Here is a picture of him.

I have been struggling to write something about him, but it's been hard. Hard because he is gone, yes. Hard to accept that. Hard because I'll miss him a lot, yes. But hard really because no words can summarize or instill what a magnificent, Homeric, bigger than life in his celebration of life person Timothy was.

I loved Timothy for his style. He had velvet black tie shoes, beautiful grey pin stripe flannels, and wore tartan in the Northwest. The man could dress like few others in Seattle. He might say that there's not much competition here in that category, but I'd put him up against New York and Paris any day because style isn't just what you wear, but how you wear it and Timothy wore it well.

I loved him for his manners. He brought homemade shortbread cookies to our house every Christmas, and always wrote hand written notes of thanks after our parties. He listened and had no personal agenda to further. He cared, he said thank you and please, and he was a grateful friend.

I loved him for his courage. He loved Cole Porter and Gershwin and all songs from the 40's and he loved to sing, so he helped start an act of wonderful performers, and they sang all around the city for years, including performing at The ACT Theatre. He may not have had a Broadway voice, but he had heart and that's what sold his songs to all that were lucky enough to hear them. His cross dressing alter ego character, Jenny, still makes me laugh.

I loved him because he loved his dog so, so much. Clarke was the largest great dane I have ever seen, and Timothy practically rebuild his house to accomodate this beautiful creature.

I loved him for his laugh and I'll miss that most of all. He made me laugh every time I was with him, especially watching how much he enjoyed his own jokes. He'd laugh and laugh at how pithy he was and repeat its phrasing just to enjoy it again and again. I loved that and laugh now thinking about it.

A friend dies and leaves only ripples in the water to prove that he was ever here. There's no doubt Timothy's circles reached out and became greater and greater through each person he touched, but sadly, too, those circles will eventually dissipate until they are gone.

I don't want Timothy to be gone and I don't want to let him go and am angry that he died so young. 

And this is why it's hard to write this. Because there is nothing I can do but remember as long as I can how lucky I was to have been touched by him.

The Cops Lied

OK, so here's the skinny on what happened: my 18 year old Mads was at a protest to close the ports here in Seattle several days ago. You may have heard about that as the protests happened up and down the west coast partly in solidarity with Longshore workers in their many fights against their employers. 

Here, Mads was arrested and accused by an officer, whose partner witnessed and attested to the events, of hitting the officer with a sign, breaking his eye glasses, which is assault. It is also a felony. 

They found Mads an hour after the protest incident, when he was talking to friends somewhere else, and arrested him. He was taken to jail, searched, fingerprinted, and held overnight for arraignment without bail.

The next day he had a hearing, and Mads was brought in, wearing an orange jumpsuit and in handcuffs, by a huge officer of the court. It took all my self control not to lose it right there, seeing my child like that. Despite having a lawyer present to defend him, it made me feel helpless.

After we bailed him out, the next two days were spent taking care of Mads, hearing his side of the story in which he denied hitting the officer with his sign and claimed the officer hit him first. We also called criminal attorneys to see who could defend him if need be. A felony charge is a very serious thing and it had us all scared.

Mads' brother John, however, went to the computer and started searching the internet for video of the protest, and finding witnesses. He called several pro-Occupy Wall Street attorneys with experience in this, and he notified his network that Mads was in trouble and needed support. He was up all night, getting people to rally to Mads' aid.

Sure enough, John sat me down late last night and showed me a video he had found after hours and hours of looking. It did show Mads taunting an officer and holding a protest sign. But it also showed suddenly, without any physical provocation, the officer strikes Mads, sending Mads reeling back into the crowd. As Mads falls back, he throws the sign - but into the ground, never even hitting the policeman. The policeman was never struck by the small cardboard sign, that essentially weighed what a heavy piece of paper would weigh. He doesn't flinch at the sign and appears to make no reaction to his hitting Mads, Mads falling back, or throwing the sign to the ground. 

The police officer clearly lied in his report about being hit, about his glasses breaking, and omitted that he struck Mads first. His partner also lied as he bore witness to everything the first officer said happened.

So, what Mads had told us was true. He did not hit the officer. All he did was yell, which is not against the law. He was struck first by the officer. Much later, the cops came and found Mads, grabbed him when he was talking to his friends, threw him violently to the ground, handcuffed him roughly, and did a rape like physical search of his person. In the police car, one of the cops said to Mads, "I wish we hadn't arrested you so I could fuck you up in the alley."

The whole event is painful in so many different ways, of course, but in truth, the fact that what my boys have been saying about the police for years is true is the most disheartening. Most of us take the side of the cops, believing they have tough jobs and that most are trying to do the best they can. We defend them to our boys, tell them to show respect. Some of my friends even say my boys should't protest, and I suspect believe these protesters get what they deserve. That is sad, since protest is a right that is essential to a healthy democracy.

But this incident clearly shows these cops attacked and persecuted Mads and went out of their way to lie to get him charged with a felony conviction, thus possibly ruining his life.

That is unforgivable. It is wrong. To hit, and then to premeditate to screw with Mads, to go after him and charge for something they know he did not do? That is so wrong, and I know Mads is not the only one they do this to - they do it all the time. John and Mads and others are right to be wary - there are a lot of power hungry cops and the system is out of control. You see more and more abuse, especially here in Seattle, every day.

In the end, we didn't have to show the video or even mention it. The prosecutor immediately said he wasn't going to press charges now and Mads was set free. 

But here is the best part of the story: when Pia and I, Frank and Maureen, and John and his girlfriend Gina walked into the court room - it was packed. The prosecutor and judge seemed a little confused by this. It was obvious that usually courts only have a handful of people in there, all waiting their turn. But today, when the crowd of maybe 30 saw Mads, they all stood up silently. Mads knew a couple of them and shook hands, but John knew every one of them. He had called all his friends to come to show support, to bear witness in court at this mistreatment, and let the system know they were being watched and that these kids they were unfairly attacking were not alone.

The kids in the audience all turned, as if on cue, and looked at the judge. The hearing proceeded, the kids in the audience were respectful, but they were there, they were watching - and it stuck me, "this is what democracy looks like."

The Experience
Called Stewart Stern

Stewart Stern died Monday at 92. He was a friend, a co-founder of TheFilmSchool with me, and one of our country’s great screenwriters, having written “Rebel Without A Cause” with James Dean, “The Ugly American” with Marlon Brando, “Rachel, Rachel” with Joanne Woodard and directed by Paul Newman, and “Sybil” with Sally Field, just to name a few. He was born into Hollywood royalty as his uncle was the ever powerful Adolph Zukor and his cousins were the Loews, who controlled MGM. He was one of America’s best screenwriters and a living legend amongst all who knew him, certainly here in Seattle where he lived with his lovely wife, Merilee. I always like to say Stewart wasn’t a man, he was an experience.

I started to write a story about him, because if any one deserves a good story it is Stewart Stern. He gave us all so many rich tales, but my post got so long that I abandoned it. Instead, I wrote this long post…

When Stewart taught writers he often used a technique called Starter Lines. The idea is that you start with one thought or line, and then rif off on that thought. It helps writers, who don’t know what to say or where to start, to get going. I have so much to say about Stewart I don’t know where to start, so I am going to shoot out a bunch of starter lines that might each inspire a great story:

Stewart always hugged me so hard I thought I would break in two.

The last time I saw Stewart was at one of the Tuesday Night Roy Street events I created while Executive Director of TheFilmSchool, and, knowing it was my last night in the job, he cried.

He cried a lot and I loved him for that.

I went to his house many times, but once when I visited he showed me an orange jumpsuit in his closet. It was the only thing, actually, in his closet, and he pulled it out saying, “You know, Paul Newman died recently and we were best of friends. He left me this in his will.” Stewart held the jumpsuit up to his body and said, “It was the jumpsuit that Newman wore in Cool Hand Luke.” That was pretty cool, let me tell you.

He was working on a script about a young boy trying to grow up. He had been writing this movie for decades and had volumes, maybe twenty thick, packed notebooks, of well-organized notes, photos, and research laid out on the desk in front of me. He had invited me over to have me mentor him on his story, to see if we together could jump start him and his writing again. I read his work on the piece and sat there in awe, realizing I would never write as well as Stewart and baffled why he would think I could help him. And as it turned out, I couldn’t help him very much as he never write that film, to my knowledge. In fact, he never wrote a feature film after 1978, but that was very special time spent listening to how he saw the story and how he felt about that boy that never grew up.

When Stewart was young, he worked in a circus. The man that ran the circus called himself Count, wore a black top hat every place, and was from Russia or some such country. Stewart and the Count would go to his trailer night after night and the Count would drink vodka and inevitably lament how he missed his daughter and how guilty he was at not seeing her. He cried and cried and drank more and more. One night the Count took Stewart out back behind the circus tents where ten or so elephants stood sleeping. He lifted a whistle which he kept around his neck on a string, explaining that this whistle helped him get rid of all the shit, just get it all out. He brought the whistle to his lips and blew it, and the shrill shriek of it ripped through the cold night air. The elephants awoke, and, as if in a hypnotized, all reared immediately onto their hind legs and just crapped, all at once. Huge pounds of crap pounding onto the pavement. “Everybody’s got to get the shit out of their lives,” the Count said.

Stewart blew that whistle at the start of every class to help his students get the crap out of their heads and onto the paper. Hence, the name of his course, Going Through Splat, was in part entitled that because of the Count and the elephants, and also because of Jules Feiffer’s cartoon pictured here.

Whenever my wife Pia and I held a party at our house for TheFilmSchool graduations, which was quite often, Stewart always brought his home made bread pudding. Which was sinfully delicious.

Stewart fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. His father got a telegram from the War Department saying that Stewart was missing in action. Stewart always found that funny, saying, “I always knew exactly where I was, believe me.”

He told this story once: I had an attachment which I put on the muzzle of my gun so it made a grenade launcher, and shot one down into this group of five Germans. I knew one had survived because he was crawling on his stomach way in front of us. I had one kind next to me who was the other Jewish kid who had had relatives who dies in the extermination camps, and he wanted to kill his wounded German. And something came up in me and all I could think of was one of the songs that we used to sing about brotherhood, in a world of peace and plenty side by side walk hand in hand we will learn to know our brothers though they live in distant lands. So I said, “You’re not going to kill that soldier in anger. And then I did it instead and had to watch that German boy, dead, lay in front of my all day.

He always introduced himself to his students by saying, “Hello, I’m Stewart Stern and I was born 57 years after Lincoln was killed.”

Stewart volunteered at the zoo in Seattle, caring for the gorillas and would occasionally stand in front of me imitating their grunts and gestures. That wasn’t always pretty or polite.

He also did a mean cow imitation which I believe he also had done with James Dean on the set of Rebel, who apparently wasn’t a half bad cow himself. Dean apparently used to call him on the phone in the middle of the night, and they'd just moo back and forth to each other, laughing.

Stewart called me on the phone once very angry that something hadn’t been set up correctly in the classroom for him. It was very important to him that things were done as requested, and he lost his temper and shouted at me, even though I was trying to tell him that I’d check with our staff and was sure they would fix it immediately. He kept yelling and then slammed down the phone. I sighed and put down the phone only to pick it up again because it rang. It was Stewart, almost in tears and apologizing. “I am so sorry, dear John, there is a monster in me that just forces his way out sometimes and I can’t control it.”

He loved all things Peter Pan, and had so much Pan memorabilia that The Intiman Theatre asked to borrow some for its lobby display when they produced the play. In exchange, he asked that they do one thing for him. Later that week, they put him into a harness and hoisted him into the air so he could fly all across the huge theatre and see what it was like “to fly like Peter” and to never grow up.

He created the line “vacation from oblivion”. "Oblivion" is what he called death. So, Stewart’s vacation from oblivion has now ended. I hope it was a nice one and I'm so, so grateful I got to spend some of it with him.

Massimo Vignelli

Massimo Vignelli died today. He was perhaps the greatest graphic designer of the 20th century. He was also a great friend of my father’s and a friend of mine.

 

Massimo and his elegant wife, Lella, invited my elegant wife, Pia, and I to visit them in Italy. We were going to be there anyway for a film I was directing, and so we agreed to take our lives into our hands again and drive up the Amalfi Coast to Nerano, the small seaside town where they had a summer house.

 

We lunched at the beautiful Le Sirene right on the beach where we ate fish that had just been caught and where Pia never forgot they had brought her a silk covered stool on which she could place her purse. Massimo had told me to use the public payphone in the town square to call, so after I figured THAT out, I reached him, “Hi, Massimo, Pia and I are here, in town!” I said. “Va bene, Giovanni,” Massimo replied, “Now turn around and look up at the mountain behind you. I am there.” I gazed at the mass, scanning it for anything possibly alive. Behold – there was the tiny spec of a man, waving! “I see you, Massimo, I see you!” I yelled. “Va bene. OK, we’ll be waiting, ciao” he said. I tried to catch him, “Hah-hah. What? Hello? Massimo? Hello?” He had hung up.

 

Turns out everyone knows Massimo, at least in Nerano, so eventually, using my mad Tarzan-like Italian language (sign language, that is) skills, we made our way to their house.

 

Massimo had found this home and asked the elderly lady, whose family had lived there for hundreds of years, if he could buy it. As she was telling him to leave, she did mention, “Perhaps, though, you could remodel the house at your cost and let me live here while you are in New York, which you say is most of the year.” Smart lady and smart man, as Massimo made that deal and got to spend the most glorious days on that mountain overlooking the azure Mediterranean and the island of Capri.

 

Massimo greeted us with big open arms and we were soon joined on the terrace by Lella who brought us tea and lemon cookies that she had just made for us. We sat on that perfect terrace, overlooking that perfect view of Capri, on that perfect day that I will never forget, watching the sun set. I cry now not only because it is only afterwards sometimes that we realize how special life can be, but also because Lella, a famous designer in her own right, had taken part of her day to make us those little, special, lemon cookies.

 

I quoted Massimo just yesterday in the seminar I did. Perhaps my students will remember. Massimo once told me, “In America the word ‘ambiguity’ means ‘the meaning is not clear’, but in Italy ‘ambiguity’ means ‘many possible meanings.’

 

With Massimo one thing was clear – there were always many possibilities.

 

I was fortunate enough to interview Massimo and his wife Lella, for my PBS television show, The Artist Toolbox. Watch this episode – you’ll be happy you did as you get to witness Massimo and Lella talking about design and art in their Upper East side condo in New York. You’ll feel as lucky as I did that you got to sit with one of the special people of our time. Ciao, Massimo!

Mom Died

My mother's internment was this week. We stood In the pouring rain as the minister read what he read and as I stared at the small hole in which my mother's ashes were to be placed for eternity, I heard birds in the trees above us singing. They were robins, hundreds of them, and I thought that so strange, them sitting in the cold rain, singing. But, maybe not so strange. My mother's name was Robin, and her favorite birds had come to say goodbye.

My Birthday

My father heard something that morning that woke him. He wasn't scared by it, but he did get out of bed as the sun was just creeping through the windows, and walk to the bedroom next door.

There he saw his son, maybe two, in his jammies standing in the crib, singing, "Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me..."

 

For years after my dad would call me every birthday and sing that song and I would have to sit through it and hear every year that same story of him standing in the doorway those many years ago, proud and happy papa. But as he is now ill, on the long, lonely road that will end his vacation from oblivion, this is the first year he did not call.

 

He's still here; he's just not.

 

But the memory of his calling and the love he felt remains. So thanks for that, Dad, and thanks to all you who took the time to wish me well. It all means everything.

 

One of my friends from college sent me the attached video, and even though Mr. Rodgers doesn't sing quite as well as I did at two, it's still pretty sweet and simple and full of love, as all birthdays should be.

Valentine's Day

Every Valentine’s Day is better than the last.
 

And laughter is always better than sorrow. Imagination is always more inspirational than any fact we know. Hope is more potent than hopelessness, and dreams are always better than reality. And love? Love – intangible and invisible – rips off our masks and demands we bare our souls. It is powerful enough to transform us into anything we hope for, anything we dream of, and offers us more joy and more laughter than any material possession. It is the greatest happiness of life.

Slow Down

I spend a lot of time looking through the lens, and when I stare at a flower, and really take a lot of time to look at it, it becomes my world for that time. I sit amazed at its intricacies and beauty, and want to share that world with others.

 

Most of us are so busy, rushing around with work, with kids, paying bills, and watching way too much TV, so we have no silence, and no time to look at the flower.

 

I want you to take some time to see how amazing and beautiful this flower is, then look around you at how amazing and beautiful your world is, no matter how grey it might appear at times.

Someone To Believe
In Us

Martin lied to his mom, or so she said, and so, because her 15 year old son lied to her, she threw him out of the house. Told him to go live with his Dad. To teach him a lesson.

 

It taught him a lesson alright – that his mother didn’t love him enough to forgive him for something that 15 years do all the time. So he lived with his Dad, and he started to drink, and to stay our late at night, and then to not wash his clothes and eventually to not wash himself.

His Dad would sneak into the room of his teenage son who had now dropped out of school so angry was he about authority, and like the most skilled Seal Team member, the father would crawl in on his belly to surreptitiously snatch the filthy clothes off the floor and whisk them to the awaiting washing machine, only to return them to their original place with such stealth and guile that no one was ever the wiser.

Except one day, when Dad was in a meeting, he heard Martin get up early, and go into the laundry room. He heard the machine stop, and then seconds later, he was surprised to see his son outside in the pouring rain. As Dad pretended to listen to his client in the meeting, he was actually watching his son, standing in the downpour in his underwear, dragging the clean clothes through the mud of the garden. The boy then turned and held the once again filthy clothes up over his head, shaking them violently in defiance to his father.

After the client had left, Dad went into his son’s room. Martin had gone out, but across the white walls the boy had dragged the muddy and wet clothes and sludge now dripped slowly down like tears, pooling on the floor at Dad’s feet.

 

The father worried all day. He didn’t know what to do – this was way beyond his pay scale and training. He had been reading every teenage self-help book available and indeed had a stack of them by his bedside. In an earlier argument, his boy had yelled at him once how embarrassing it was his Dad needed a book to raise his own children, and the Dad had shot back, "I don’t need a book, I need a LIBRARY!”

When his boy came home late that night, his father was up and waiting for him. Dad asked him to come into the living room to talk. The boy, petulant and defiant, sat there as the father searched for what to say.

He rambled for a bit, but then, quite literally, stumbled into this: “You can burn the house down. I’ll just rebuild the house because…I will never stop loving you, and I will never, ever throw you out.”

That’s all the boy needed to hear. That his parent would never throw him out and that nothing was more important than him. Martin started to change almost the next day. He had hit bottom and was coming back now, turning into that sweet child that he had always been, just like all the books said he would. He just needed someone to tell him that they believed in him, and that no matter what they did, they would love him.

 

And Martin forgave his mother, and in doing so, taught her what real love is.

 

We all need someone to believe in us. We all need someone who knows our mistakes, and believes in us anyway. This is the true nature of love: always there, always forgiving, and always giving. No matter what.

https://www.yahoo.com/tv/v/gainesville-tornadoes-thank-unexpected-fans-152235239-cbs.html