In Times of Trouble

empathyWHEN WE WERE LITTLE THERE WERE MONSTERS UNDER OUR BEDS.

Now the monsters are out. The Brett Kavanaugh hearings were just the latest escape, our basest fears running free through once reverent halls.

The events of Sept. 27 will go down in history as one of the most divisive and darkest moments of our ever-fragile democracy. Not because of Kavanaugh per se, but rather our reaction to him. We ripped the scab off our collective festering wound and exposed the worst of ourselves.

But what we lost was bigger than any perceived moral authority. We lost our empathy.

We’ve embraced an every person for themselves, every country for themselves mentality. Our enemies aren’t Democrats or Republicans, Red States or Blue States, the Russians or the Chinese. Our enemy is the “other” — an abstract. The individual replaced by the hive mind.

This country, this experiment gone sideways, was founded on empathy. We put ourselves in others’ shoes — whether immigrants, or asylum seekers, or civil rights activists, or yes, even victims of sexual assault — and we made a nation. We manifested something unique in the world, something to be envied.

We built a society held together by empathy. And then in less than a decade, we broke it. Whether we can rebuild it now becomes the biggest question and greatest challenge of this very young 21st Century.

Yes, when we were little, there were monsters under our beds. Now the monsters are out, and there is nothing we can do to change that.

But this doesn’t mean we can’t defeat them.

Our monsters used to make us stronger. So get stronger.

Our monsters forced us to be be brave. So be brave.

In times of trouble you need to tear off the covers and hurl your light into the darkness.

Destroy the monsters once and for all – not with violence, but with hope. Not with anger, but with action. Not with with selfishness, but with empathy.

Monsters are always looking for a fight. But the monsters also have a weakness, one thing they never expect.

Someone to fight back.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A Brief Tribute to a “Super Intelligence”

stevieSEVERAL YEARS AGO, I wrote about my high school friend — not the already famous “Anchorman” one who powned SNL for years, but another less well-known but just as funny and talented one.

Steve Mallory to the world, “Stevie” to me. A hurricane of wit and wisdom who worked hard, so fucking hard, for every crumb of praise he ever got, for every success he’s achieved. Where others would have given up, Stevie pressed on, pushing against the tide with all the force of his affable yet determined human nature.

In 2015, Stevie shot a movie called “The Boss” that he co-wrote with his friends, Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy (I’ve tried several times to get Ben and Melissa to call Steve “Stevie,” but they prefer to use his Hollywood name instead. Whatever man, show business people are weird.) Now Stevie is heading back to Atlanta — which is how you pronounce “Hollywood” these days — to shoot another movie with the Falcarthys.

But this time it’s different. This time the script is his, all his, from the germ of idea to the blessed torture of rewrites and studio notes. I joked during “The Boss” that it was a Stevie Mallory movie and not Melissa McCarthy, but now it’s no joke. All kidding aside (not what you want to do when referring to a comedy, but stay with me), “Super Intelligence” is 100 percent Mallory.

You can read a bit about the film here, but this is what you really need to know — Stevie Mallory has arrived. “Super Intelligence” is just one of his many projects that you will see on screens small and large in the coming years. And it’s all because he believed in himself.

So think about that the next time you say the word “can’t.” Put away the doubt, the fear, and change your life so you can then change others.

Stevie Mallory changed his life, and in doing so changed mine. My high school friend is now my life-long brother. Every time I want to stop writing, want to put away the next novel draft and delete the email from the agent or publisher without opening it first, I think of Stevie and realize I’m being an idiot. This stuff, this creative thing, is supposed to be hard — the best just make it look easy.

In 2015 I told people to remember Stevie’s name. In 2018 and beyond, there’s no way anyone will ever forget it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Out of Thin Air: The Broken Beauty of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain

180610-teeman-bourdain-spade-hero_fe6ao6THE MOMENT WILL COME when you know more people who are dead than who are alive.

It will happen fast. It will be unexpected, like being in room that’s slowly leaking oxygen. You won’t sense anything strange is happening until suddenly you’re no longer able to breathe.

This has been a year for catching our breath. This week alone – Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain – has reminded us not only of our fragile mortality but of our overwhelming power over it. Suicide rates in the US are up 30 percent since 1999. Americans may lag behind other countries in other areas, but we are getting really good at killing ourselves.

Suicide is the last bastion of control when you feel your life has anything but. Some might call it selfish – taking your own life and leaving your family to deal with the grief. In some ways suicide is  the ultimate selfish act.

But that’s not for me or anyone else to say. We can’t petition the dead and know for sure. So instead we mourn, we pray, we publish suicide prevention hotline numbers and we post treatises on social media (yes, like this one) and we cry and we wonder why.

And we never notice the air leaving the room.

The world doesn’t need more mourners, it needs more ministers. It needs more people who give a shit than who shit all over others. It needs more understanding and demystification about mental illness.

I admit, I’ve always had a philosophical problem with the term “mental illness.” I get it on a medical and health level, but in the grander scheme, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t a little broken in some way or another. Failure, tragedy, disappointment – these are the qualities that make humanity better. They are what make us human in the first place. Our brokenness is what keeps us going.

Being broken doesn’t mean we should give up. It doesn’t mean we have nothing to live for, no matter how many parts we may think we’re in.

I’m as broken as anyone else. Without getting into the gory details, I’m driven near madness daily by the noisy remnants of a tumor that won’t let me go. I can’t stay in a hotel room unless it’s an even number. I can’t start a meal until I rearrange the silverware and plate a couple times. It makes no fucking sense yet this behavior is the only thing that keeps me sane.

I’m broken, we’re broken. But being broken isn’t the same as being beaten. Being broken means we need each other. It means we are messy and unpredictable and strange and lost and centered and crazy and alive, alive, so very much alive.

Suicide isn’t an answer. It doesn’t fix what’s broken. It just leaves more pieces for others to pick up and try to put back together.

Nevertheless, I know that someday, the moment will come when I know more people who are dead than who are alive.

But I’m not ready for that moment, Not yet. I’m not in a hurry. Yes I’m broken, and the air is getting thin, but I’m still breathing.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Why Mars Matters: Elon Musk and Finding Your One Great Thing

HUCvbYfiKWQa3ghZMuqdH-480-80NOT SURE WHETHER YOU NOTICED, but while you were struggling to find a new word for “innovation” and finishing that PowerPoint slide explaining Facebook’s algorithm changes for the umpteenth time, a dude from California shot a car into space.

Granted, that “dude” was Elon Musk, and the car he sent into orbit was a Telsa hitching a ride on his own rocket. Not something most humans can do. But what we forget is that at one point Elon Musk really was just “a dude from California” who had as much ability to create the first space car as you did.

The only difference between you and Elon Musk (okay, besides the billions of dollars) is that Musk found and then never lost sight of his One Great Thing. Not the “next big thing,” which has destroyed more startups and starry-eyed entrepreneurs than you can count, but the One Great Thing that looks failure in the eye and says, “you’re not a roadblock, you’re the road, the one that will get me to where I’m going.”

For Musk, his One Great Thing is Mars. Everything he does, from cars to rockets to boring holes in the Earth, is entirely focused on reaching and then colonizing the Red Planet. The tech in a Tesla will one day get you to the Martian Whole Foods, as you drive along underground roads made possible by Boring Company engineering.

Musk is all Mars, all the time. He has achieved many “big things” on his journey, but they are nothing compared to the One Great Thing that pushes him to the outer limits of imagination and compels him to make it real.

So maybe it’s time you asked yourself: Do you want to do the next big thing, or One Great Thing?

All of us have this ability to be and do something great. It doesn’t need to be Mars, doesn’t even need to leave the atmosphere – it just needs to be yours.

I’m not talking about kids and family, that goes without saying. I’m not even talking about businesses or brands or that new technology thingy (though those are all legit.)

No, I’m talking about art, about culture, about making something so powerful that it connects you to perfect strangers with such intense force that it knocks them over. I’m talking about your retirement party, when people asks about your proudest achievement.

Will you tell them about that marketing plan you wrote, that tweet you sent or the Instagram story you posted? Will you talk about the money you made? Or will you just smile because no words will be necessary, because you did your One Great Thing and everyone knows it.

I admit, I’ve been around for a while – fine, a long while – and I feel like I’ve seen it all. Every new idea feels like just another old idea with a different logo. It gets harder and harder to believe that there are any dreamers left.

And then I watched a dude from California shoot a car into space.

I believe, I hope with all my being, that each of us will, at some point in our lives, create One Great Thing.

A work of art. A piece of magic. A story for the ages.

What will yours be?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I Remember Blaze Bernstein

bernI REMEMBER BLAZE BERNSTEIN.

I remember countless synagogue services, Sundays at religious school drop-offs and pick-ups, various special events over the past decade and a half. I remember him at my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, his smile and his enviable ability to both be an unforgettable part of the crowd as well as blend into it virtually unnoticed.

I remember his parents – we were always friendly if not close friends – at synagogue galas and other gatherings. I remember Gideon’s disarming calmness and Jeanne’s outgoing good nature. I remember how enriched they were by our Jewish community, and how they enriched our community in return.

I remember their son, Blaze Bernstein. But I never knew him. Not really.

I never knew about his passion for writing, or how scary good he was at it. I’ve written three books, been a writer all my life, and I can’t form a single sentence as well as Blaze. He wielded words like a master craftsman, doing things with the English language that should have been impossible. His writing didn’t just jump off the page, it leaped into your heart.

I remember Blaze Bernstein – the child, the young adult, the mensch who hung out with my daughter and all the other synagogue kids. Yes, he was always part of the crowd, but I didn’t take the time to get to know him apart from it.

I never talked to him beyond an aloof and impersonal “Hey, Blaze.” I never took the time to ask about his life, what he cared about, how he liked high school. He was just Blaze, Gideon and Jeanne’s son, one of the gang.

But now I know he was so much more – a writer, sure, but also a poet, an intellectual, a scientist, a chef, a dreamer, a doer, a loving son and sibling. He lived more life in 19 years that most people could live in 100. Blaze was all these things, yet I never once considered that this familiar face would have anything to offer a self-absorbed, middle-aged man who he probably only knew as Alex Goldhammer’s dad, if he knew me at all.

And now? Now I would give up 1,000 heartbeats for one conversation. I would hold the Earth still for just one more smile. I would tell him to change the world as only someone like him could.

I remember Blaze Bernstein. But I wish I knew him – because for the past two weeks I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep, haven’t gone a day without crying, haven’t been able to process his murder as reality, haven’t come to terms with the fact that I had every opportunity to get to know this wonderful human being and now I never will and it’s my own damn fault.

All I know is I miss him. My family misses him. Our synagogue and the world miss him.

And while I can’t make up for not knowing him as well as I should have, I can promise this: By performing daily acts of kindness, by rejecting hate and prejudice, and by never again taking a precious human soul for granted, I will never, ever forget him.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

One Year Later

Washington, D.C. – Nov. 8, 2017

IT HAPPENED ONE YEAR AGO.

I was here in Washington, D.C., when I found out. This was the epicenter of the earthquake, the unexpected tremor that sent me reeling.

I remember the shouting and confusion. The looks on people’s faces. I remember the tears that seemingly came from nowhere but must have been bubbling just below the surface.

I can’t say it was entirely a surprise. I saw it coming; we all did. The signs were there, hiding in plain sight — but like most painful things, we refuse to accept the truth until it’s too late.

It doesn’t feel like a year; it feels like yesterday. It feels like a blink. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it really happened.

This year has been a cancer. A festering tumor that grew unbated, barely held in check with alcohol and professional distractions. Many times I felt it was getting better, or that it at least couldn’t get any worse — but then there it was again, rearing its ugly head and filling me with anger, remorse, and melancholy resignation.

How do you move on? How do you pick up the pieces and start over? How do you, as the prayer says, accept the things you cannot change?

I know now. One year later, one year to the day, here in the place where it happened, I finally understand how to move forward.

It’s what she would have wanted me to do.

So for her, I will always remember that one year ago, I was here, right here in Washington, D.C., when I found out.

I will remember the text from my sister telling me that our mom had died. I will remember getting in an Uber and finding my daughter on F Street, on her way from her freshman dorm to the White House to protest, and telling her the tragic news.

I will remember the shouting and confusion as we both tried to make sense of it. I will remember the looks on people’s faces around us, the images of my daughter’s college friends holding and consoling her. I will remember the tears and the restless night making funeral plans across three time zones, and my daughter finally getting to sleep at my hotel as I left before dawn to fly back home.

Yes, there was an election that night too. Yes, it was a pretty big deal. But that’s not what I think about when I think about Nov. 8, 2016.

I think about my mom. I will always think about my mom.

But I will no longer dwell on it. I will not let the cancer grow. I will move forward for my family’s sake and for mine.

One year later, I’m ready to move on. But never will I forget.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Peek Into “Mercy”

HERE’S HOW THE WRITING PROCESS GOES FOR ME:

  1. Come up with a vague idea in the middle of the night.
  2. Spend three years taking that vague idea and making it something real that someone would want to read (and do so while having a full-time job and sneaking in writing time while waiting for PPT decks to download or when the in-flight wifi doesn’t work.)
  3. Once that book is ready to go to market, forget all about it and start writing the next one, based on a vague idea from the middle of the night but this time the result is going to be so much better than that piece of crap I just finished.

Okay, sure, it’s not exactly the Stephen King method, but it works for me.

Because of Zaria’s Gate, I’ve been asked whether I now plan to turn it into series. The answer is no, but not just because I’d rather get a broader publishing deal for the first one before entertaining a sequel.

The real reason is because I’ve got Defcon 1 level OCD combined with the attention span of a gopher — and therefore I’ve already moved on from Zaria and the world of Karshen to A.J. Mercer, a Death Row inmate in Alabama who does something impossible on the night of his execution.

He survives.

“Mercy,” my next novel, is loosely based on my experiences on Death Row as a reporter and the people I met while writing my first book, a non-fiction exploration of the death penalty, in the early ’90s. A.J. was real (I changed his last name for the book) and so are some of the other characters, but the premise has just enough fiction to tell a story about the human capacity for forgiveness — and the consequences of our limitations.

Below a short excerpt from early in the book. With any luck, you’ll be able to read the rest in less than three years.

 

Holman Correctional Facility, Atmore, AL – May 19, 2017

7 PM

“GOOD TO SEE YOU JAKE, UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES AND ALL.”

“You too, Jimmy,” Jake replied as he emptied the pockets of his black suit for the visiting area prison guard. “How are you holding up?”

Warden Fry let out a laugh, one of those deep hearty types that start at the toes and build until your lungs almost burst.

“What’s so funny?”

“Reverend, you never cease to amaze me. We’re a few hours away from executing a human being, a man you’ve come to know and care about, and your first concern is how I’m holding up? Well let me see if I can spell it out for you any: I got twice as many officers posted inside and out of this building as normal. I got news media camped out in tents all over the road, TV crews from Atlanta and New York and even New Zealand – and damned if I know where the hell Zealand is, much less the new one – and dozens of protesters and counter-protesters everywhere the hell else.

“It’s a damn near party out there Jake – they even got donuts and coffee. We’re the biggest show in town and I’m the goddamn ringmaster.”

Jake allowed himself a quick smile. “Okay, I see your point.”

“You do now? That’s good, Jake, that’s real good. Glad to hear it. But since you asked I’ll tell ya – I’m holdin’ up somethin’ awful. I feel dirty, like a stick of gum stuck on the bottom of a shoe. I feel like I’m killin’ the poor sum bitch myself, no different as if I was gonna put my hands around his throat and squeeze out his last breath. That’s how I’m holdin’ up.

“Now don’t go thinkin’ I’ve had a change of heart or any damn thing. I support the law and intend to abide by it. It’s my job, Jake, and most days I like my job. Jus not today is all. Jus not on my watch.”

Jake understood. He and Fry had become as close to friends as anyone else Jake had met since leaving St. Louis. And he knew that Fry’s heart was as hard as a throw pillow.

Coddling was not the same as compassion – and Fry was nothing if not a compassionate man. He believed in rules but he also believed in relaxing those rules if it made his inmates less likely to beat the living hell out of each other or the guards.

He let the men on Death Row have TVs in their cells (no cable, the last thing he needed was for someone to find a porn channel.) They could make phone calls as often as they wanted and had extended visiting privileges. But it wasn’t just about a few extra creature comforts – he also let inmates go to college.

One class per quarter – there were classes in history, math, science, literature, and a host of other subjects, enough for them to earn an Associate’s Degree. Fry caught holy hell for that move from the governor’s office all the way on down to the local boys at the Atmore Diner, who accused Fry of wasting tax dollars on “a bunch of killers.”

Not that Fry cared about the backlash.

“What people have to understand is that’s a community down there,” Fry often said to anyone who’d challenge his methods. “It’s a town with 85 residents and I’m the goddamn mayor whether I like it or not. If I can get them doing something constructive, well then they’ll take better care of their surroundings and stop hassling the officers. That’s worth a hell of a lot more than a few dollars in my book.

“When you take a person away from all the people he knows by confining him in a five-by-eight foot cell – and I don’t give a damn what you give him – you’ve done some damage. He’s allowed out of that cell 45 minutes a day. He can shower every other day. He eats prison food, which ain’t bad but it’s also not what momma used to make, and he’s far from living in a lap of luxury. Hell, it ain’t even close to a Super 8.

“You’ve got to give Death Row inmates something extra, so you can have something to take away. You really wanna hurt someone on Death Row? I mean really cut ‘em to the bone? Take the TV out of his cell. It’s just hell on Earth when you do that. Within a few hours they’re beggin’ to get strapped into Yellow Mama.”

In the end, very few tax dollars were involved in Fry’s unconventional approach. Most everything was funding through a local non-profit and individual donations, including a few pennies from Jake’s own Lazarus Church congregation (and a more substantial check from Jake himself.)

Jake’s parishioners, as poor as they were, did what they could to support their pastor’s good works in Atmore; they were good people and had a special capacity to turn the other cheek. Most were just grateful that they had a strong local church again and a pastor who supported and cared about them, but Jake liked to believe that his flock wasn’t any more special than the rest of humanity; that given the chance to do the right thing, people would do so, regardless of their station.

Fry was a case in point. He had no obligation to provide anything more to his inmates than three meals day, a rusty bed and a pot to piss in. He could have been bitter and unconcerned about people who were just going to die anyway.

“Doesn’t do any good to treat people less than you would want to be treated,” Fry once told him. “Doesn’t hurt them half as much as it diminishes you…and I’ll be damned if I let some killer take my humanity away from me.”

Jake walked silently beside Fry as they made their way through the series of cold steel doors and checkpoints staffed by officers with vacant eyes. Everyone knew what tonight was – you could feel it more than anything, smell it in the still musty air. Men’s heartbeats mimicked the ticking of a clock, solid and steady, yet creeping ever forward.

Jake had taken this walk countless times – but this time, he counted each step. He felt the hard cement floor seep into his soles, examined the cracks in the tired walls. He tried to slow the clock down, to tame it, to push it aside so he could have this final walk all to himself. But the more he tried the more he found himself closer to his destination.

Time waits for no one. Death always comes.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment