Books and Writing

Letter 3: Live a Life of Relevance

September  1987

As I was pursuing my new acting ambitions after I graduated from Michigan, I could not help but desire a taste of greatness. I surely had much to prove to the world and myself, as any graduate might with bright hopes for their future. The idea of being a great actor, when I chose acting, superceded the idea of being a “good actor” or a “good anything” for that fact. Who wants to be good when they can be great?

My father had instilled that desire for greatness, not by beating it into my head, but by imbuing it through rewarding good actions. A winning touchdown pass that I threw as an 8th grade football player in the last moments of a football game was a defining moment that said to me such feelings were worth pursuing. How wonderful were the rewards that came from winning and/or receiving that special something from Dad, even if it was just a pat on the back and encouraging words like “Great job.”

After that ecstatic junior high school football victory, my father rewarded me with a twenty dollar bill and treated me and my friends to pizza. Extrinsic rewards worked well for me as I found that pleasing my father always worked to my benefit like following the law pleases our justice system.

When I received a trophy for Most Valuable Player on the high school football team several years later in 1981, I realized the road was few and far between those fleeting moments of great, heroic acts like throwing winning touchdown passes in the last seconds of a game. Unfortunately, there weren’t too many moments like that day. Dad reminded me that the rewards of glory are few and far between and not to count on them for the fulfillment of one’s destiny, pointing to a few former high school star athletes from his hometown who graduated and were still hanging out on a park bench reminiscing about their glory days.

My glory was a different kind of glory, but more sustaining.  I learned it was through steady discipline, consistent action and riding the ups and downs of the rocky road ahead, for better or worse, over a long period of time, that was the way to greatness, if it were to be achieved at all. Sticking to it, like my father had done to become a doctor, was the way to a more successful future. Over the years Dad would point to that trophy, encouraging me that I could do anything if I set my mind to it.

This “greatness” thing was hanging over me like a huge cloud that defined my being. That I had to be something was culturally rooted in such films like On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando’s character telling his brother about his desire to be a contender or Rocky Balboa waking up one day to realize he’s not lived up to his potential;  in sports with role models like Michael Jordan winning championship games for the Chicago Bulls and John Elway winning two Super Bowls in the twilight of his career; or maybe it came from just being an American where we are instilled with the idea that we are the greatest nation on earth. Wherever this idea of greatness took root, from great civilizations of World History to our great forefathers of America or in the great characters of the plays of William Shakespeare, the bug bit me hard and I wanted something more out of my life than mediocrity. 

My father must have picked up on my anxiety when I told him about this desire for greatness.

Dear George,

To say  “I want to be great” (at what I do with my life) is an admiral character trait. Great for what? Glory? What will be the relevance of such greatness? How can one’s life be relevant? Relevance is the oft forgotten attribute missing in many so-called greats, in the tragic heroes and their flaws.

Greatness is too broad a term. All Ruth’s homeruns, the many movies of a Woody Allen. So many famous people, so many accolades. Yet, each must ask despite his so called greatness, what is it that makes my life relevant.

Each of us has a capacity for relevance because relevance relates usually to the society, friends and family around us.

So after one becomes great, it is also important that such a life is indeed relevant. And should it fail to be relevant, such a life will be like a very beautiful but empty cup. It is great for its beauty, and empty of relevance. So if you do not have enough to strive for, I have reminded you of this other burden of relevance. This, however, is an easier more natural one because it is an easy habit to get into and measure everyday.

If a thing is irrelevant to you, then it must be avoided. Everyone’s life can be relevant and therefore great.

My father, as much as he talked about “greatness,” through his heroes like Winston Churchill and other political leaders, contemporary and historical, reiterated the necessity of relevance over the course of my life. When I got my first teaching position as a social studies teacher at a high school in Newark, NJ from 1990 to 1992, I realized that the way to my students’ hearts and minds was in making subject matter relevant. Textbooks that were dry coupled with tasks that were boring had very little relevance to the lives of black Americans, forcing me to find other ways to reach them. Spending extra hours at the library to learn African-American history and their key role models throughout history would bring greater esteem upon me than almost anything I had done in my life, including winning a football trophy.

I would become a much better teacher when I worked on the attribute of becoming relevant rather than focusing on greatness.

At the end of my father’s letter he advised me to keep writing and to keep a diary, which he had first encouraged when I went to Japan. It was an affirmation that he asserted throughout my life and he really did help me become a better writer, first through the confidence I gained in letters I wrote him and the several daily journals I kept for myself over several years and then later when I became a graduate student of writing, an English teacher and practicing writer myself.

 I would not make the connection until much later in life about the influence of those letters - that through them, I was preparing myself for something I could not foresee. Where it was all leading, I would not know. But writing was my way of discovering my place in the world and my father gave me this confidence. Later, my knowledge of writing, both through the daily habit of doing it and the formal education I would receive would become the basis for more relevant acts in and out of the classroom.

Our lives are governed much more by positive influences than we may realize. It takes time to discover the thread of our existence and the reason why we are here on this planet and how it is shaped by very special role models such as people like my father or teachers in our schools and the great people who serve, in all walks of life, to inspire us through their presence.

The lesson of living a life of relevance would continue to play out over the next 25 years of my life until my father’s death. Nor would that lesson diminish with his passing but rather grow stronger like an orchestra band beating a steady drum to the Stars and Stripes Forever.

Letter2: “Count your blessings and have faith in them”

August, 1985

The summer of 85' was a big turning point in my life. I was at the University of Michigan studying an intensive unit of Japanese language, during one of the hottest months on record. At least it seemed that way. I had just broken up with a girl I had been going out with in the springtime of 85’ and between the loss and lost feeling of what I was going to do with my life, I was feeling depressed. Not clinically. Just normal feelings of depression that accompany loneliness, when one is adrift, uncertain, hurt and filled with lingering sadness. 

My father wanted me to continue to pursue my studies in Japanese. In 1983 - 1984 I went to Japan as a foreign exchange student, spent another year at Michigan studying Japanese language and now was enrolled in a 3rd year intensive language class where the stakes were higher. Either you make it or you move on. And I was getting ready to move on. What I thought I knew about Japanese language was miniscule to what was expected of me, requiring more time studying in a solitary situation with books that were as dry as anatomy. I just couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel where my future was awaiting. I expressed those feelings to my father and he responded.

Dear George,

I was sitting in on a conversation in the doctors lounge where Dr. Rosin was expounding on the tremendous strides the Japanese are making in all walks of enterprises.

What he says makes sense and there is little doubt about the fact that they will and are the dominate factor in the world today. Let us not kid ourselves. There will be many places for you to do what you would like to do because of the sacrifices you make today. As an American you will belong to a very special minority that has the tools of language and culture that will be able to communicate with a culture that right now is giving this country a run for its money. We, fortunately, live in times of compromise rather than collision, and this requires mediators, whether in business or on the political scene.

Your assets in your chosen field of study will someday be of considerable use, but what that use will be can only be determined when you arrive at that someday, for it will be governed by those opportunities available then. When you would write from Japan you would emphasize the importance of doing what is necessary every day and that the future would take care of itself. This applies as much now. More so, because each one of us inevitably goes through periods of doubt, or just bad times, and these unfortunately work against our purposes, or goals. It’s usual to second guess, smell our armpits and have concern about our ultimate destiny. Unfortunately, destiny has its own plans for our future and they can never be foreseen. But preparation becomes the only tool we have to alter destiny and that you are doing.

Do you think you would ever be considered for admission to so esteemed institutions in Japan without the present background you have and have worked so hard at to earn? George, damn it, you have busted your ass and should feel proud of what you are achieving. You have not been standing still. God-willing you will graduate from one of the best universities in this country. Don’t’ dwell so much on being the best as being you. In the end you will win your struggle because you persevere. But look forward to a brightness in your future. You will eventually get the opportunity to do what you are destined to do. But each day you prepare, you alter ultimately and enlarge your destiny.

From a selfish standpoint of a parent maybe being a little wiser, or maybe not, though I feel for your suffering and ache for your misery, I think this love you’ve had may have arrived too early for what remains and can be done by only you, alone.  Love, Dad

P.S. Received both your letters. You sound much better. Keep it up.

In that letter my father had enclosed a NY Times article by Clyde Haberman entitled “Japan 40 Years After War: Rich, Powerful, Uneasy.” The article centered around Japan’s role as an emerging international player on the scene of foreign affairs against the backdrop of their national identity and my father envisioned a role somewhere in there for me. But I couldn’t see that future. Too much uncertainty clouded the path. It was one thing to pursue a life as a doctor, where at the end of medical school, you knew the outcome – you would be practicing medicine somewhere. But not so as a diplomat or person on the world scene, business, political or otherwise. Maybe Kissinger knew where he was directing his footsteps. I had no clue where I was directing mine. I couldn't see myself going to Washington like Mr. Smith.

My father’s letters consoled me, despite his nudging. I didn’t feel that he was telling me what to do, just trying to guide me and encourage me to stick to a path. As for responding to my depression at the time, particularly over the end of a relationship, he wrote:

Dear George

The old song, “Grab your coat and get your hat, leave your worries on the doorstep, just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street. I used to walk in the shade, with my blues on parade…….life could be so sweet, on the sunny side of the street.”

Let’s work on cheering up and doing the things we like to do. Most of us got troubles and to each of us these are the biggest things in the world. The idea is to pretend, lie about how we feel, but get going and press living. And if we hit bottom occasionally, look how much there is to look forward to climbing back up.

As a matter of fact most people hide their troubles for that reason. It doesn’t help. Most of the time dwelling on them holds you back from stepping out and enjoying yourself. If you think that Japanese is boring for eight hours a day, try anatomy for a lot longer, sometimes eighteen. You will find your proper niche in good time. In the meantime try to suffer as little as possible while you do your work….

By the fall of 1985, enrolled in my senior year at the University, I started to take control of “my destiny.” I took creative writing and acting classes and was filled with new hope. It wasn’t easy breaking the news to my father and I can only recall that he didn’t take it very well. To some extent his dreams were invested in me. But what was important were my dreams, not my father’s. And at the end of all of this he knew that and continued to stick with me, regardless. He came for the long ride and I was going to give him his money’s worth! One way or another it would all work out in the end. I knew that. My father’s road was long. Mine would probably be longer. The road is long when you are in the desert with only sand under your feet, a blistering sun above and a poor sense of direction to guide you out.

But I had faith in my dreams. My father had helped give me that. At the end of my father's letter, he said, "Your Uncle John always said, "Count your blessings and have faith in them too."" 

There were so many blessings. Like not being born in the desert. Or in poverty. I was a kid that was pretty well taken care of. Who was I really in the big scheme of everything?

Count your blessings. You're darn right. Above everything, count them and have faith in them. It's not so bad living in the land of plenty.