Saturday, October 27, 2007

Wind beneath my wings

I must admit that I've always been easily impressed. But the qualities that impress me have changed dramatically over the years. Of course, I've always loved to meet people who were famous and powerful. Then that took second place to people with integrity. Now, although I still 'gush' over movie stars and royalty, and integrity holds more weight for me than wealth, the people on the top of my list, get there by their acts of kindness and decency. People don't necessarily get on the list by kindness towards me, but of course, it doesn't hurt.

Living in Florence, and having my position at the newspaper has given me access to more than my share of magnificent people. I'm easily moved by others, and I prefer to trust people's intentions. Maybe I'm naive, but it's a condition of choice.

So I have decided to randomly share in my postings my experiences of 'acts of kindness', and about my 'heroes'.

I get most of the credit for starting The Florentine. My name is on the masthead as editor in chief. People are amazed at what I have done, my guts, courage, determination, etc. And though, I was the 'instigator', the execution was achieved by a magical and wondrous synchronicity. My partners in crime: Marco is the magician, Giovanni is the rock, Leonardo is the genius, Antonio, the master, and Giacomo, my angel in 'grouch' clothing.

Today I need to talk about Marco.
Though no one in Florence infuriates me more often than Marco, it is because of him that I am still here. Not because of his inexhaustible enthusiasm, not because of his ability to dream of the possibilities of the paper, not because of his inspiration, not because of his millions of 'ganzo' ideas, not because he will do anything to make things work financially, diplomatically, and organizationally, not because of his intelligence, knowledge and humor, nor because of his amazing handsomeness, or having the best laugh I've ever heard. I'm still here because Marco loves me.

Living in Florence and working on the paper, is the farthest thing from a hardship. At least once a day, I am stunned with amazement that this is my life. Yet, if I didn't have my foundation in my marriage and family, if I wasn't in touch with Tony, Montana and Jordan all the time, I wouldn't be the adventurous spirit that I am. I'm willing to risk, try new things, make mistakes, only because I am 'grounded' by them.

Marco is the one in Italy. He is the one who knows if I'm frustrated, knows if I'm sad, knows if I don't answer my emails, that he needs to come into town to see me. He doesn't wait for me to call him if I need a friend, he calls me. And Marco isn't just this way with me, it's how he is with everyone he loves and cares about. This is why Marco is my hero.

If you're one of 'his' people, whether you like it or not, you're going to get 'Marco'ed' to death. You'll be challenged to be your best, to learn more, do more, feel more, see more. Your success and joy will be his joy, and your pain will stab him in his heart. I get most of the glory and 'perks' from The Florentine, but not once has he shown jealousy or resentment, but the opposite, because my thrill and happiness is a success for him.

Like all human beings, Marco is a package deal, so if he loves you, he feels free to to lash out at you also, and I have been profoundly hurt by him at times. I don't like this part of the deal, but so far I haven't met a perfect person, so I'll take an imperfect Marco any day (almost any day).

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Bad News Scares

In the last month, I have received 2 pieces of shocking news. My 18 year old daughter got married, and my son's girlfriend is pregnant. Now both of these pieces of news, in another context (if they were both older!!!), would be the most delightful news a mother could receive. I, however, did not take the 'news' in such a context. In fact, I took it in probably the worse possible context, I made it all about me. Both of these events made me 'look bad' and I have been profoundly embarrassed. Besides what others think about me, I personally feel defeated and a failure as a mother. But as I said, it's 'all about me', which I am conscious of, know it's inappropriate and so further feeds and justifies my self-condemnation.

I have a lot of negative qualities, but fortunately self-pity, self-flagellation and self-indulgence are not some of them. So I have put the 'events' into perspective. First of all, my children are alive, healthy and still wonderful. I still talk to them both almost every day, so our relationships are strong and loving. They haven't destroyed their lives with these choices, they have changed their lives. And I know, in a very profound way, that these will be potent and meaningful lessons for them...even if they some day have regrets, the growth and lessons will be blessings on their lives. And so what that I can't brag that my son is in medical school or that my daughter goes to Julliard, I'll get over it.

In the last two weeks, I accepted two invitations from different U.S. friends to visit them while they were in Europe. One friend was in Paris, had use of a luxurious apartment and I said, 'why not'. I put myself in her hands, and spent 3 days going out to lunch and dinner with her Parisien friends (most of which were ex-pats). My friend is a very 'big' Hollywood publicist and her Paris 'crowd' consisted of mostly very, very wealthy people in the design industry (for example, CEO of the company which owns Louis Vuitton, Pucci, etc). All of the people I met were very lovely, very generous and included me in all the invites to the wonderful restaurants.
Usually, I can hold my own in any group of people. In Florence I socialize with diplomats, politicians, teachers, nobility and the major designers. But I realized after a couple of days, that no one among this group was really interested in me. And probably for the first time in my life, I felt that the reason for this was that I wasn't rich or successful enough to be 'one of them.' My reaction was more of surprise than rejection. I certainly didn't feel like I was 'less or lower' than them. Still I had fun, and filed this away as an interesting experience.

The following weekend couldn't have been further from the experience in Paris. My friend, Debra McGuire, who I have known for more than 30 years, had work in Munich and suggested I meet her there for the weekend. Debra is a costume designer for TV and movies, famous for 'Friends' and 'Heroes' as well as the movies, Anchorman, 30 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and is now working on a film with Robert DiNiro and Al Pacino. She comes to Munich on a regular basis to sell a line of her clothing designs on Home Shopping Europa (the European version of HSN).

On Friday, I went directly from the Munich airport to meet her at the television studio and watch her shoot 2 shows. It was a gas, Debra spoke in English, her host in German, and they were both adorable. Then we went back to the hotel room, to cry about our children. laugh about our children, comparing their escapades to our own and the wonderment of the different stages and facets of our lives.

When she knew I was coming to Munich, Debra wrote me that she had been wanting to visit Dachau (the concentration camp) but didn't have the strength to go there alone. So on Friday, we did HSN and Saturday, we did Dachau. From the most superficial and meaningless to the depths of incomprehension and darkness, quite an itinerary?

Debra and I are both Jewish and both are known to cry very easily. Both of our sons, when they heard where we were going, warned us to take enough Kleenex.
Neither of us shed a tear that day. Later, we looked for words to describe our experience. Numb, stunned, and scared. The most difficult part of being there was not knowing that this was done to people just like us.....that it could have been us. But that it was 'done' by people like us....normal, intelligent people. The realization that people can lose their humanity to such a degree that they can keep charts of the efficiency of killing people, or cost/benefit ratio of feeding a worker versus killing him.

Another realization of the day. When we entered the camp, there were two plaques thanking the US troops who had liberated the camp in 1945. Later, I related to Debra how moved I was by these simple statements, and I asked her, when was the last time you felt proud of the United States? Neither of us could come up with another time, when we felt the pride we did at the gates. Sad.

And so I come back to my personal drama and trauma as a mother. Somehow, after these two 'extreme weekends', I was left only with feelings of love, appreciation and gratefulness. My children are alive, they love and are loved, they look forward to tomorrow and they have the luxury of making choices, which is underlined by the freedom to make poor choices and powerful ones. Shame on me, that I would look at their lives and feel sorry for myself..

Saturday, October 6, 2007

One giant leap for mankind: Dynamo Camp

I think I witnessed history in the making last Saturday. It was the dedication of Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Camp (Dynamo) here in Italy. Paul Newman started the first camp 20 years ago in Connecticut for children with chronic or fatal diseases. His idea was that these kids, like all kids, just need to 'raise a little hell'. And the underlining principle of the camps is that 'fun is a great medicine'. All of the profits from 'Newman's Own' products (such as his popcorn, spaghetti sauces, salad dressings) go to these camps and other charities.
When I heard that there would be a camp here in Italy, I thought it would be perfect 'fit' for The Florentine. From the inception of the newspaper, I knew I wanted to take advantage of our ability to reach such a large audience, to do 'good' in Italy. We always give exposure to the different non-profits and services that are provide aid and benefit to this magnificent place.
Why I thought this project was so important was that it is such an understandable and credible endeavor for our readership. I'm not as familiar with other countries but I think they are similar to the United States, in that there is already a culture of giving, and most everyone has heard of Paul Newman and his charitable projects. He has earned a reputation as being reputable and honest. And, so many of us ex-pats want to contribute to this country that gives us so much. This camp is for Italian children, and thus the great 'fit', a way to help children here, in a manner that we feel confident about. And it's even a registered US charity, so American's can get the tax benefit.
Now the 'history making' part. Each of the Hole in the Wall Camps is 'owned' by a person, a philanthropist, who is part of the Hole in the Wall association, but who is responsible for coming up with the funds to buy and run the camp. The 'philanthropist' for the Dynamo Camp here in Tuscany, is Enzo Manes, an Italian.
When I first went to visit the camp last year, I went with an Italian girlfriend. We were blown away with the beauty of the camp and the enthusiasm of Enzo and the staff. Afterwards, my friend asked me, 'what's with Enzo? Who is he?' What she didn't understand was why he was doing all this. She wanted to know if somehow he was making money off of the camp.
To me it was obvious, and I answered that he was a very successful businessman, and that after a person makes so much money, you realize you don't need all this money for yourself, but you want to use it to help others. To her this was a strange concept, and she explained, that her family was 500 years old, and it's a responsible to them, not just to provide for their children and grandchildren, but that the money has to last for another 500 years!! And so there never is enough money to do that.
Since being in Italy, I have had many discussions with Italian and ex-pats about how come Italians 'don't give.' My conclusions are: 1) They come from a culture that human and cultural services were taken care of by the church and state, and since they gave at church and paid taxes, they shouldn't have to give more. 2) That there is a fear if they do give money to an organization there is corruption, and so they have a lack of trust that the money will be used for the right purposes. 3) There are little or no tax benefits to individuals who give money to non-profits. 4) The Italians are generous, they just haven't established 'giving' in an effective way in their culture.
What I witnessed at the Dynamo camp with Enzo Manes, I think, is the turning point that will shift the culture.

Enzo gave a speech at the opening of the camp, that moved the 500+ people at the event. He started his speech with the words, "Is it worth it?" (in Italian of course). And he went on to describe his journey from deciding to 'invest' in a non-profit, to choosing the one for him, to building the camp, the staff, finding the children who would attend, and of course, answering the question with an overwhelming 'yes!, it was worth it.'

After the talk, I spoke with many Italians, who came to the event out of 'duty'....the President of the region, Martini, James Ferragamo, Carmela Batacchi (who is director of Target's buying office in Europe) and others, who were all questioning themselves about how 'they' could give, make a difference, and how inspired they now were to 'act' rather than to complain or explain that the 'Italians don't give'. They agreed with me that something momentous had happened that Sunday...maybe it was a 'death' of the phrase, and birth to the next, which is 'Italian do like to give.'