Thanks For All the Sugar

batSO AN ELDERLY CHRISTIAN GRANDMA WALKS INTO A BAT MITZVAH.

I know, you’re thinking “what happens next?” Does she lead the Hora? Sing Hava Nagila at the top of her lungs? Do the Electric Slide?

Well yeah, sure, she pretty much did all that. But that’s not the joke. And neither was Elva Schubert. A comedian at times, perhaps, but never a joke, never a mean spirit, never anything but “Grandma Sugar.”

Because for Elva that was enough. For Grandma Sugar, that was everything.

Here’s how I like to remember Grandma Sugar. First, some context: The night prior to a Bat Mitzvah is the Shabbat or Sabbath service. The Bat Mitzvah girl has to go, and by default so do her parents and siblings. But that’s it.

Other relatives can and do attend, but it’s not required. And if you know anything about Jews, especially Southern California Jews, we don’t go to anything if it’s not required or if you can’t drink until the end. If the synagogue doubled as a club where every night was Totally ’80s Flashback Night, well then I’m calling an Uber right now.  But 75 minutes of praying and a sermon that would wake the dead, though only long enough for the deceased to beg the rabbi to shut-up and let the congregation eat already? No thanks, I’d rather stay home and watch Jimmy Fallon try (here’s a hint, Jimmy — if you laugh at your own jokes, they probably aren’t funny.)

Anyway, despite all this, Grandma Sugar wanted to go. Mind you, this was the night before an all-day event, and she had just flown in from Missouri, but it didn’t matter. She was going and that was that.

You might think she felt obligated, despite our assurances that attending wasn’t necessary. But then you didn’t know Grandma Sugar. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I saw it that night.

Grandma Sugar went because she wanted to experience something new. She wanted to be with her great-granddaughter and share in her accomplishment, to create as many memories as possible. Because a Bat Mitzvah is much more about family than it is about religion, and Elva Schubert was all about family.

I watched my daughter that night but I also watched Elva, beaming and praying and standing and sitting (and standing and sitting, and standing and sitting — Jews, you know what I’m talking about.) I watched her animated conversations with my very Jewish mom and how happy Elva was to meet our friends. I watched in awe as she absorbed every last line of the Shema prayer and swayed to every note of the Cantor’s voice. Grandma Sugar was a sponge that never got wrung out, a soul soaked with the singular pleasure of being in the moment with people you love.

I didn’t get it until recently. I didn’t truly realize it until her last few years, when standing became a chore and talking had turned into a task akin to Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill.

I didn’t understand until near the end, when she was still smiling, still engaged, still as happy to see you as she was when you first walked into her home on Christmas Eve — this odd Jewish kid from Orange County who was marrying her granddaughter, this fish out of water in a Midwest basement who felt all apprehension slip away with a warm embrace and chin snuggled against his neck.

Anyway, as I was saying, an elderly Christian grandma walks into a Bat Mitzvah.

What happens next?

Magic. Love. Joy.

A spirit so full of life you wonder how there could be any oxygen left in the room.

Thanks for all the sugar, Grandma. May your memory be a blessing.

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A Dollar In My Pocket

dollarIT HAPPENS MORE OFTEN THAN I CARE TO ADMIT.

I’ll put on a fresh pair of jeans and find a dollar in my pocket. I’ll smile, then sigh with the guilty resignation of a purpose unfulfilled.

I’m not upset that I didn’t spend it. Nor am I happy that I “found” some money. I’m just disappointed.

You see, that dollar wasn’t meant to be spent, at least not by me. It was meant to be given away.

I should explain. From 2007 to 2012 I traveled regularly to San Francisco and stayed at the Hilton Union Square, which is really in the Tenderloin area. The Tenderloin is known for some cool restaurants and clubs and culture and Union Square, but it also has a rather visible homeless population.

Seeing as how I always went to the same places for dinner, taking the same routes (my OCD traveled well), I would see the same homeless people every day. So one night, I decided to put a dollar in my pocket on the way to dinner and give it to a homeless person. I did the same thing on the way back, always trying to give it to someone new.

And I haven’t stopped since.

I mostly go to New York now, but the city doesn’t matter. Wherever I travel, whether for work or pleasure, I always keep a dollar in my pocket and give it away when walking to or from a destination. As you can imagine I’ve made a lot of friends over the years, from James, the war veteran in San Francisco who wore his VA card around his neck, to Leo Gnawa in Washington, D.C., who is always in front of my favorite restaurant ready with a handshake and a smile.

These aren’t faceless or nameless people to me. They are my friends, my reminders of what matters. Some get dollars, some also get meals, but they all get my attention and respect.

Leo got something else, too — a role in my upcoming novel. Homelessness is a sub-plot and thematic thread, and I needed someone like him to be an unlikely hero in the story.

The following excerpt — from a conversation between homeless man Leo Ebbitt and a shelter volunteer — was inspired by something the real Leo told me shortly after we met:

“You gave me a dollar once,” said Leo. “I’m sure you do that for other people too, and I get a lot of dollars and change from folks who I couldn’t pick out from a lineup if you asked me. But you…I remember you because you asked me my name.

“No one ever asks my name. People don’t say anything all. Most of the time they walk by like I’m not even there, like I’m just part of the landscape or background or something. Even when someone does see me and helps me out with some money, they don’t see a person, they just see pity — and then I blink out of existence again. Out of sight, out of mind.

“But you stopped. You gave me dollar, you shook my hand, just like you did a few minutes ago, and you asked me my name. You said, ‘Bless you, Leo, take care of yourself.’ For that moment, and for a long while after, I didn’t feel invisible anymore.”

My track record isn’t perfect. Sometimes I forget the dollar. Sometimes it’s there but I’m on the phone or focused on work or there’s some other distraction and I walk by without stopping. But I still try to stop, look people in the eye and ask them their names. It’s a small dignity to most of us but, as Leo knows, to some it’s a gift. Recognition is the first step toward regaining your humanity.

It’s not about the dollar, the handout. It’s about the people and knowing that each of us, no matter how minor or fleeting the gesture, can make a difference.

Still, I hate finding a dollar in my pocket. A dollar in my pocket is a missed opportunity. It’s a failed attempt.

But it’s also a good reminder that a dollar in my pocket doesn’t do any good staying there.

 

 

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A Number in the Dark

phoneSOMETIMES YOU NEED TO LET GO.

The jacket from high school that no longer fits (and stop fooling yourself, it never will.) The “lucky shirt” that has more holes than memories. The empty wine bottle you kept for 20 years because you wanted to remember, but now have no clue what.

The concert ticket stub, the sunglasses you swear you might still use someday, the souvenirs that made perfect sense at the time but now collect dust on the shelf.

We hang onto these and so many other talismans because we believe they connect us to what was. As if the past were a tangible, physical thing — an object you could hold and feel.

We also hang on because we don’t want to forget. Because, deep down, we know we have already forgotten so much and that scares the crap out of us. Memories, once as vibrant as a bright watercolor painting, soon melt and drip off the canvas until our past is nothing more than a few muted streaks. We know there was once a painting but we can no longer see it, no longer touch it. So eventually we forget.

Still we must let go. It’s not healthy to cling to what was or pine for what can never be. The past does us no favors — worse, it can keep us from living in the present and planning for the future. So we need to purge those things that hold us down, keep us back, gather so much dust.

I repeat this to myself as my finger hovers over the glowing screen. Tap “edit,” then “delete contact.” That’s all, just two quick actions and it’s done.

It’s time, I say. It’s now been two years since I called that number. Two years since there was someone to answer. It’s time to stop picking up the phone in the middle of the night and filling the room with its ghosts.

Besides, it’s now 4 am and I’m tired and it’s the third time in a month I’ve done this yet all I do is stare and stare and stare until I turn the phone over again and let the room descend back into blackness.

Tap “edit,” then “delete contact.” Nothing to it.

It’s funny, I had the landline memorized but not the mobile. Didn’t need to, so why bother? I called by her name — we all do that now, call each other by name.

“Hey Siri, call Christine.” Call Thomas, call Kate. Call Home, call Work, call for reservations or for tickets or for appointments.  Give your phone a number once and then forget it.

But now the name is a useless, colorless, lifeless painting. All that’s left is a number in the dark.

Mom Cell.”

“Delete Contact?”

I turn the phone over and let the darkness return.

Sometimes you need to let go. But sometimes all you can do is hold on.

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We Don’t Want You to Know

sIt still happens to us, we just don’t want you to know.

We don’t want to bother you. We want you to think everything is fine, because overall it is fine, it’s just fine, and you don’t have to worry.

For us this is nothing. Just another day. Normal isn’t new, it isn’t special, it doesn’t require deep reflection.

We’re good, we promise. We watched the World Series (stayed up all night!) We cheered and we covered our eyes and we drank beer and we sang the anthem. We did all the things that all of us do — nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing worth getting upset about.

We do normal stuff like this all the time. We go to work and school, we have friends and go to parties; we Netflix and Hulu. We buy groceries and pay taxes.

We go to Synagogue. But we don’t go to be different, or to be separate.

We go to feel normal.

Because in elementary school we were called a Kike. Because we were yelled at for not revealing the horns on our heads.

Because the Jew Boy is rich and the Jew Girl is a stuck-up bitch.

Because despite doing everything to fit in, despite getting jobs and raising families, people still tell us that we control the media and run the banks and killed Jesus. We’re told we’re overreacting about a few swastikas spray painted on our walls (“probably just some kids.”) And enough with the Holocaust already! Sure it sounded awful and that movie was sad but why can’t you people move on?

So we don’t say anything. Instead we turn to our quiet communities and tell ourselves it will be okay, it’s gonna be fine, just act normal and pretend like nothing happened, like nothing ever happens.

Like the Muslim women who get spit on and have their headscarfs ripped from their skulls. Like the black men who get called N***** in front of their children. Like the homosexuals who get beat up or worse for the crime of minding their own business.

There are smaller moments too — the sideways stares and the person following us around the store. The “well I assumed since you were Jewish” or the “I thought all black people” or the “well I know you’re not a terrorist” comments. It happens to us so often it’s almost become…

Normal.

You see “A Star is Born” yet? I know, the Rams are undefeated, can you believe it? So glad to hear that your daughter is enjoying college. How fun! Ours is a Pi Phi.

Happy Halloween! Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Merry Christmas to you, too!

Oh, that. Sure, we heard, of course.

Right. Yeah, Pittsburgh. Yes, terrible. Holocaust survivor, heard that as well. Mm Hmm.

No, it’s okay, we’re fine. We just don’t want to bother you. To be honest, we don’t want you to know.

Besides — you really don’t want to know, do you?

But it was nice of you to ask.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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?

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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