Excerpts for Unfinished Business : One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to do the Right Things


UNFINISHED BUSINESS

ONE MAN'S EXTRAORDINARY YEAR OF TRYING TO DO THE RIGHT THINGS
By Lee Kravitz

BLOOMSBURY

Copyright © 2010 Lee Kravitz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-675-3

Contents

PROLOGUE  Compiling the List  Ten Things That Truly Matter..............................................................1
CHAPTER ONE  Searching for Sorrow's Daughter  Finding a Long-Lost Relative..............................................17
CHAPTER TWO  I'm So Sorry for Your Loss  Making a Condolence Call.......................................................40
CHAPTER THREE  The Check Is in the Mail  Repaying a Long-Overdue Debt...................................................63
CHAPTER FOUR  I've Been Thinking of You Since the Planes Struck  Reaching Out to a Distant Friend.......................83
CHAPTER FIVE  Forgive Me the Harm I Wished on You  Letting Go of a Grudge...............................................104
CHAPTER SIX  Thank You, Mr. Jarvis  Seeking Spiritual Guidance from a Mentor............................................114
CHAPTER SEVEN  On the Road to Mount Athos  Taking the Road Not Taken....................................................140
CHAPTER EIGHT  The Day Eliot Ness Set My Grandfather Straight-Or Did He?  Healing a Family's Wounds.....................169
CHAPTER NINE  I Remember Nana  Eulogizing a Loved One...................................................................188
CHAPTER TEN  The Circle Grows Wider  Keeping a Promise..................................................................194
EPILOGUE  Moving Ahead  The Journey of a Lifetime.......................................................................203


Prologue

Compiling the List Ten Things That Truly Matter

FOR OVER a year, things had been going downhill at work. A growing rift had opened up between me and my boss. It was hard to pinpoint what had gone wrong, but the affection and trust we once shared had steadily diminished. Unless things changed, either he would fire me or I would need to quit.

It was a tough admission to make, because I loved my job and I had assumed that I would be working there the rest of my life.

As the months wore on, my boss shunned me and I felt increasingly marginalized. I made attempts to change our dynamic, but nothing seemed to work. I kept my game face on around my colleagues and got done what needed to be done. At home, however, I sulked and felt sorry for myself and was irritable around the kids. On the last Sunday in September, Elizabeth and I were looking out across the lake, watching a flock of Canada geese lift from the water and set their sights south.

"I wouldn't mind joining them," I said.

"You'd take your computer along and spend the whole flight working," she said.

"I wouldn't," I said. "I'm dreading going to work tomorrow."

"I know," she said, putting her hand over mine. "Maybe it's time to leave."

I felt ready to move on, something I had never seen myself doing before.

* * *

THE NEXT MORNING, when I arrived at the office, an executive of the company told me that I no longer had a job. Because the conversation lasted less than a minute and took place in a hallway, I thought he was joking. But it wasn't a joke; I had been fired.

I called Elizabeth. In the few minutes it took for her to call me back, I went through a gamut of emotions: I was numb, then angry. I felt manipulated and betrayed. I had been tried, sentenced, and banished from the kingdom without a trial. Part of me expected my boss's boss to overturn the decision-a fantasy, of course. But mostly I felt humiliated. My father had lost his job when I was a teenager and nothing good ever came of it. No one in our family got any closer, wiser, or more giving as a result of his being unemployed. Instead, the loss of his job ushered in years of worry and fear. Now I was the one who had failed my family. How could I explain to my three young children that their father who worked all the time didn't work anymore? How could I protect them from everything that had confused and scared me when my own dad lost his job?

By the time Elizabeth reached me, I was too exhausted to talk. "I know how bad you're feeling," she said. "But in a few days you'll realize that this is the best thing that could have happened to you." I hoped she was right.

AT FIRST I tried to make up for lost time. I took the kids to school, saw all of their ball games, and helped them with their homework. I made plans to work out, lose weight, and lower my blood pressure. It was fun to go to museums with Elizabeth again; we hadn't done that in years.

Within weeks, though, I began feeling nervous and self-conscious about not working. Instead of seeing friends again, I stopped taking their phone calls. Instead of playing with the kids, I took naps. Instead of going on dates with Elizabeth, I stayed home to watch episodes of Law & Order I had already seen.

I'd stay in bed until ten or eleven in the morning, thinking about the moment I was fired and the people who had been responsible for firing me. I'd make a pot of coffee and drink cup after cup, until I was so wired that I couldn't stay focused on reading the paper or watching the news. Not having work preoccupied me as much as work had, and I thought about it constantly: when I took out the garbage, waved to a neighbor, or walked Pip, our dog. Because I had never anticipated being in this position, I had given no thought to what I might do next in my life. The realization unnerved me, to the point that I avoided the possibility of any conversation that might lead to another person asking me about my plans.

ELIZABETH SUGGESTED THAT I spend a few days at Kripalu, a yoga retreat in the Berkshires. She said that I might be able to relax there and gather my thoughts. When I shrugged her off, she handed me the phone.

On a rainy afternoon in late October, I set off from our home in Upstate New York and drove north on the Taconic and east on Interstate 90 into western Massachusetts. Most of the leaves had changed color and fallen by then, and I strained through the rain and my windshield wipers to make out Exit 2, which would take me to Routes 7 and 20 and the winding road to the town of Lenox. Somehow I got there and a little beyond-to the huge building that had once housed a Roman Catholic monastery.

Most of the people wandering through Kripalu's lobby were in their early to mid-fifties and looked a lot like I suppose I did-stressed out and clueless. I registered at the desk and dropped my duff el bag off at the room I was sharing with three other middle-aged men.

After a dinner of lentil soup, kale, and sweet potatoes, I had a choice of attending a movement class or a lecture on the Bhagavad Gita. Along with a dozen or so other people, I decided to spend my evening moving free-form to the rhythms of two drummers from the Ca rib be an.

At first I felt silly, fl ailing my arms back and forth like the Hindu goddess Durga. I felt even sillier when a man with a graying ponytail pulled me into a circle of other mainly middle-aged men and women. But gradually I started to relax and enjoy myself, moving faster and faster over the hardwood floor in my bare feet. When our circle broke in two, we slithered around the room like a giant undulating snake. As the drumming reached its climax, we shed each other one by one and collapsed into a pile of sweat-soaked gigglers.

Proud of the progress I was making toward becoming the chilled-out father my kids wanted me to be, I retired to my dorm room and fell fast asleep.

The next morning I went to a six a.m. yoga class and had a breakfast of rolled oats, pumpkin seeds, and green tea. When I returned to the dorm room to shower, there was a note on my bed summoning me to the front office. An attractive young woman confided to me that two of my dorm mates had complained about my snoring, Kripalu's cardinal sin. She directed me to the snorers-only floor, Kripalu's Siberia.

The rejection by my dorm mates felt as piercing and punitive as losing my job. Less than a month earlier, I had been an important man, with an office and a secretary. Now I was just another snorer.

I WASN'T YOUR typical garden-variety, nine-to-five, you-can-invite-him-over-for-a-drink snorer. I was a workaholic snorer. And it had taken a huge toll on my family.

For years Elizabeth had been telling me, "You're never there for me." And I wasn't. Even when I was home, I was thinking about work. Did I appreciate the fact that Elizabeth did 80 percent of the child rearing and even more of the chores? Of course not. I had too much work to do. Did I make even the smallest effort to lessen her load? Sometimes, but mainly because I wanted to get ahead of the curve so she would let me work in peace.

The worst part of being so focused on my work was the relationship it kept me from having with my children. Benjamin said he was afraid to approach me, and his twin sister, Caroline, told the babysitter, "Daddy never smiles." They were almost eleven and beginning to pull away. Noah, who was nearing eight, still liked to crawl into bed with Elizabeth and me and cuddle. But to enjoy his affection, I needed to be in our bed and not in my study, working on my computer.

Easier said than done.

Being a workaholic was in my genes. My father was a workaholic, and so were my grandfather and great-grandfather, a Lithuanian peasant who got up at three a.m. to plow his fields.

In a world that valued hard work, no one worked harder than a Kravitz. Of course most of the Kravitz men died of heart attacks in their early sixties, and most of them had only a handful of friends, but you could never accuse a Kravitz of slacking off: We lived to work and worked until it killed us.

And society fed our disease. In my twenty years in corporate America, I was seldom told to work less, and when I was, the boss saying it didn't mean it, unless he was under strict orders from his own boss to cut overtime. You did not get promoted for being a good husband, father, or friend, or for volunteering for the local school board, or for taking time off , even when you had earned it. You got ahead by being perceived as an employee who worked day and night and put your job first. You didn't get a raise by attending your child's teacher conferences or by leaving your BlackBerry off . You got it by beating your boss to the office each morning and working through lunch. By working weekends and holidays and on vacations. And by always being in touch.

All of these thoughts came to me during my week at Kripalu. I didn't reach nirvana there, but I did gain perspective on what my dedication to work had cost me, and it made me less eager to find another job. Not that I could have found one: I was a fifty-four-year-old magazine editor in an industry that was hemorrhaging jobs and going through a period of fundamental change. With Elizabeth's income and my severance pay, we could get by for maybe a year. I could spend that year learning new skills with which to reenter the job market. Or I could spend it making myself a happier and more appreciative person, with richer friendships and a far better sense of who I was and what genuinely mattered to me. That's what I really wanted to do, but how and where would I begin?

THE ANSWER CAME by accident in the form of ten cardboard boxes that had been sent to our country house from my old workplace. The boxes had spent the last thirteen years in a closet there, and they contained everything I had saved from the previous four de cades of my life.

Why had I kept the boxes at work? Because there was no room for them in our tiny Manhattan apartment. Why hadn't I moved them to our country house before? Because I was always working and didn't have time to think about them or the distracting memories they might contain.

But now I did. I gave myself a week in the country to sort through the boxes and organize the accumulated stuff of my life. Elizabeth and the kids were in the city, so I had the run of the house and room to spread things out. It would be one of those big, messy projects that I both loved and hated to do. I would need to make piles of what to keep in the country, what to keep in the city, and what to throw away. I would need to make decisions I dreaded and create a lot more chaos before I saw even a semblance of order.

It would be a considerable undertaking but not without its own pleasures. So I poured myself a glass of wine and raised it in a toast to the project ahead. Because I wanted anything I did to help me become a better father to my kids, I queued up one of my son Noah's favorite songs, the Beatles' "Eight Days a Week." Then I went to work.

After opening the first few boxes, I realized how impatient I must have been when I packed them: Files of notes and essays from college shared the same box as a giant map of Central America and my bronzed baby shoes. My letter jacket from high school covered memorabilia I had collected at the 1992 Republican and Democratic Conventions.

One box contained my report cards since kindergarten, carefully stapled by my mother into two piles, the good and the bad. There was a list of friends and later girlfriends at ages seven, eleven, nineteen, and twenty-six, and eulogies I had written for family pets, my maternal grandmother, and a friend who died of cancer.

In another box there were more than a thousand letters from my father, one per week since college, featuring his distinctive use of brackets, quotation marks, and red type for emphasis. My roommates and I had spent hours trying to decode my father's letters for secret messages. We never found any. But we did find plenty of Knute Rockne-type advice and coaching. My father's letters baffled but also compelled me, so I kept them all. There was a collection of my old baseball caps in the box, along with an Indonesian shadow puppet I had purchased in Bali.

The boxes were full of strange and wonderful juxtapositions, but what struck me most was how the different objects reflected parts of myself I had suppressed or forgotten. The machete I used when I harvested bananas on a kibbutz in Israel reminded me of the thirst I once had for adventure. A barely decipherable dream journal brought back a year when I was so poor and scared for my future that I couldn't sleep at night but got by with a little help from my friends.

There was a box containing the notebooks and memorabilia that my grandfather gave me two weeks before he died. He spent the last two de cades of his life creating businesses that gave jobs and dignity to the survivors of the Holocaust. He was my biggest hero at a time when I still believed in them.

That same box contained a copy of my high school yearbook. Flipping through it, I experienced dozens of where-is-he-now, why-didn't-I-keep-up-with-him feelings of curiosity and regret. I noticed, for example, that the photo of my childhood bully was directly across from mine, reinforcing my sense that he had been born to torment me. There was also a photo of my favorite teacher, a young Episcopal priest who inspired me to think and write and believe in my obligation to do good in the world. I had fallen out of touch with him, just as I had with my soul mate in high school, a boy who had opened my eyes to the possibility of experiencing God and who later became a monk.

Life goes fast. Click. You are fifteen. Click, click. You are fifty-five. Click, click. You are gone. And so are the people who loved and nurtured you.

In one box there was a doctor's report confirming that my mother's mother, my beloved Nana Bertie, could no longer live on her own. When I was six, she taught me how to play Fish. When I was eight, she accused me of cheating. When I was twelve, fifteen, seventeen, and twenty-one, she came to my graduations and told everyone how proud she was of me, even though I cheated at Fish.

I found a photo of one of the few times in twenty-five years that my brothers and I gathered in the same place at the same time with our wives and children. One of those times was at my wedding, when Elizabeth was six months pregnant with our twins. Why didn't we get together more often? Busy working, the family disease.

How quickly it all goes: There were photos of me with and without a beard and in various stages of baldness over thirty years, a jar that contained the ashes of our poodle Buster, a letter from a friend in London who had been waiting for me to travel to Paris with him to visit the grave of Jim Morrison of the Doors, photos of Joyce and me at my high school prom. She was my first love and we were still friends fifteen years later when she was killed in an automobile accident as she was driving home from her wedding shower. She was buried two days later, on the same afternoon that she was supposed to get married. Joyce and I had always said that we'd be friends until we were eighty. That dreary September day she died was one of the saddest of my life.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from UNFINISHED BUSINESS by Lee Kravitz Copyright © 2010 by Lee Kravitz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.



----------------------