After losing his job, Lee Kravitz took stock of his life and realized just how disconnected he had become from the people who mattered most to him. Instead of rushing out to find a new job, he committed an entire year to attending to the most important things in his life — to reconnecting with those dear to him and to making amends. In “Unfinished Business,” Kravitz goes on 10 transformational journeys, among them repaying a 30-year-old debt, making a long-overdue condolence call and fulfilling a forgotten promise. An excerpt.
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 with each other 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 badly 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 10 or 11 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 duffle 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 Caribbean.
At first I felt silly, flailing 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 hard wood 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 6 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.
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I wasn’t your typical, garden-variety, 9-to-5, 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 11 and beginning to pull away. Noah, who was nearing 8, 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 3 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 60s, 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 20 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 54-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 re-enter 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 13 years in a closet there, and they contained everything I had saved from the previous four decades 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 7, 11, 19, and 26, 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 repelled but also compelled me, and so I kept them all. There was also 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 decades 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.
Excerpted from "Unfinished Business," by Lee Kravitz. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Bloomsbury.
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