NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Like a lot of us, Lee Kravitz led a busy life: a magazine editor with deadlines looming every week, a wife and kids. Then suddenly the self-described workaholic got fired. He felt disconnected. He'd allowed work to take over his life, which left little room for his family and friends, for the people and things he once loved, for the person he used to be, a person he realized he liked a lot better than the one he saw in the mirror.
Rather than rush out to find a new job, Lee Kravitz decided to spend a year to go back and fulfill old promises, pay back old debts, literal and emotional, and take care of some of the things he'd let slip over the years. He also wrote a book about his experiences, "Unfinished Business," and we want to hear from you about that.
Tell us your unfinished business, what promises you have left by the wayside. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join our conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the hour, the blown call that stuck a knife through the perfect game. Actually, that's not what we're going to be talking about. We're going to be talking about Amy Dickinson, about her effort to write a commencement speech. So join us for that.
Anyway, let's first welcome Lee Kravitz from our member station in Fairfield, Connecticut, WSHU. Nice to have you with us on the program today.
Mr. LEE KRAVITZ (Author, "Unfinished Business: One Man's Extraordinary Year Of Trying To Do The Right Things"): Well, thank you, Neal, it's a pleasure being here.
CONAN: And help us define unfinished business. Tell us, for example, about your Aunt Fern, your favorite aunt when you were growing up.
Mr. KRAVITZ: She was my favorite aunt, the person who loved me unconditionally. We had a special relationship and shared secrets. She was also a paranoid schizophrenic, and at a certain point in her adulthood she lived with my grandmother. And they beat each other up.
My grandmother had Alzheimer's, and my Aunt Fern was sent off somewhere, to some special care facility. But no one in my family knew where she was or cared to know. They had their various reasons, and I was too busy to care. And then once I got fired, once she loomed large in my gut, you know, I really missed her, and I really felt this deep, deep need to find her, to show her that I cared.
CONAN: So you fly back to Cleveland and you find out from a cousin with whom your last conversations had been somewhat strained where she was. And I wonder what you - you worried a lot about how she would greet you. You were the first member of the family who had gone to see her in, what, 13 years.
Mr. KRAVITZ: In 14 years, and yeah, I was worried. First of all, the doctors had apparently told my cousin that Fern couldn't see anyone because she might get depressed. She might try to commit suicide. So I had that burden hanging over me.
I just wanted to even show up and ask if she was okay. And if I saw her, that would be wonderful. Well, as it turned out, when I asked the social worker if it would be okay for me to see her, she said: I don't see why not.
And then there was this moment where the nurse went into the dining room, and I waited. I didn't see anyone who even remotely looked like my Aunt Fern, and then the wheelchair began to be wheeled out, and I saw, sitting in a wheelchair, someone I vaguely recognized.
I didn't think she would remember me. I thought the dementia had taken over. And then as she approaches me, she says: Lee Richard Kravitz, my brilliant nephew. My brilliant nephew is here to see me. And she said: Hug me.
And I hugged her, and I'll tell you, it was the longest hug I've ever had. We hugged, and I felt the weight of the world fall off my shoulders. It's just an extraordinary feeling.
CONAN: And you, through that meeting, eventually got many more members of your family involved with your Aunt Fern's life again, and as important as all of that was to her, to have presents at a birthday party, to have you again visit her at her birthday party, you say by far and away it meant more to you.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Oh, it meant a tremendous amount to me to see her surrounded by relatives again, to see her - she had been trained to be a concert pianist when she was young, but of course over the years she had stopped playing.
But that day, when we gathered for her birthday and blew out the candles, she wanted to be wheeled over to the piano in the special care facility, and she sat down, and she played some of the music that she had played when I was young, including old Yiddish songs and old songs from musicals. And it just brought me back to some of the happiest moments of my life.
CONAN: We learn a lot about your family in this book, the strained relations that you had with your father, a very demanding man who thought that you should be a great athlete and who seemed to - well, one of those fathers who went to the baseball games and yelled out at you what your next pitch should be.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Exactly, exactly. He used to stand behind the backstop and say: Throw the big one, throw the big one. Which meant the curve ball. But of course everybody in the stadium knew what I was going to throw. So the coach banned him to the parking lot.
CONAN: And that relationship gets - well, you understand him. You come to a much better understanding of him when you decide to coach your son's baseball team.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Yes. I had avoided coaching my son's baseball team. First of all, I didn't have time. I didn't think I had the time. And also, I was a little scared of being in that relationship with my own son. My father had been my coach.
But a friend of mine whose daughter had died in Iraq and had played on a baseball team with me, and he's part of my unfinished business, urged me to coach. He said you should really try this. You really need to do it.
And I did it, and my friend mentored me, and in the process I found myself getting much, much more compassionate to my father. I would, every time after a game, share what happened in the game, not only share the statistics of my son, who was a very good hitter, but share some of my coaching decisions and emotions, how badly I felt when the team lost, you know, how stupid I felt when I told a kid to run and he got thrown out.
And my father, you know, offered advice back, and along the way I just found my heart softening to him. It was a wonderful, wonderful feeling and an unexpected reward of going on this sort of journey to take care of my unfinished business.
CONAN: We're talking with Lee Kravitz about his book, "Unfinished Business: One Man's Extraordinary Year Of Trying To Do The Right Things." And we want to hear from you about your unfinished business, about promises that, well, were never kept or debts that remain to be paid. 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's start with Cesar(ph), Cesar with us from Los Gatos in California.
CESAR (Caller): Good afternoon. Thanks for picking up the call. Well, to comment, I was previously in the real estate business for about 13 years, and come 2007, 2008, when the market took a turn, I was faced with the prospect of having lost all my investments and selling homes and pretty much having to start over, being unemployed and whatnot.
And it kind of really puts you in the face of losing everything, and you really have to dig down deep and say wow, who was I, and where am I -where am I going? And I realized I wasn't very happy with the person I had become, and so I started changing physically, spiritually, and just decided to go back and say: I'm sorry, I love you, and, you know, let's be friends again or let's pick up where we left off kind of thing.
CONAN: Did you worry that it had been too late, that you'd left it too long?
CESAR: Luckily, I'm pretty young. I'm 34, and I guess I can say I have time on my side, for whatever that means.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CESAR: But if it's too late, probably late, but I guess better late than never.
CONAN: Lee Kravitz, it reminds me of the part in your book, you borrowed $600 from a friend when you were driving with him through India and Pakistan, retracing Alexander the Great's route, and this had lingered on your mind lo these many years.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Yeah, I had borrowed $600 from him, and for a variety of reasons - I didn't have the money, I needed it to pay for college, I was poor when I was young - I never paid it back. And in my mind this debt just grew and grew until it was $6 million that I owed him. As a result...
CONAN: All of that compound interest.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Compound interest, it really got high. And as a result, I didn't keep in touch with someone who had shared one of the great adventures of my life, and as I got older, and my memories of that time got less sharp, I really felt a need to get back in touch with him.
So I sent him the check for $600, and lo and behold, he didn't even remember that I had borrowed it from him. But what was wonderful was that he gave that $600 to his own son so that his son, who was the same age we were when we journeyed overland across Asia, could take a trip like we did and expand his horizons. It was wonderful.
CONAN: Cesar, thanks very much for the story, and the market will turn again. Hang in there.
CONAN: Thanks very much. And I wanted to ask you, Lee Kravitz, by revisiting those memories, you also revisited a part of yourself that, well, had really gotten lost in, I think I can call it the rat race.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Yeah, in the rat race. I had become, for example, a dad who didn't go on vacation with my kids, when they went skiing. When they went up a mountain, I stayed down below. You wouldn't have thought - in fact, my children didn't think of me as being very adventurous, but once I started revisiting that time in my life, I, you know, began to feel much more adventurous than my current life.
And I also saw that what I was doing by going on these journeys to complete my unfinished business was a form of adventure that meant taking risks and had great, great rewards that I could achieve.
CONAN: Great risks and great rewards, but it was perhaps worth it to remember crossing the Khyber Pass.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Yeah, the Khyber Pass with batons(ph) shooting off rifles. We passed through a civil war in Baluchistan. We had many, many, many adventures, and of course with Alexander the Great, the problem with trying to follow his route in the desert of southern Iran is that it's not marked. So we got terribly lost and had to drive down a dried river bed until some Baluchi nomads showed us the way to food, water and kept us alive.
CONAN: And yet on the brink of extinction, but shortly having a steak in a hotel the next night.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Oh, yeah, yeah, we had a steak in the hotel. Unfortunately, that steak, there was a big storm outside and it became almost like a monsoon, but it was delicious. I've never had a better steak.
CONAN: We're talking with Lee Kravitz. His book is titled "Unfinished Business." We'll get more of your calls in a moment. Tell us about your unfinished business. What promises have you left by the wayside? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
A lot of us talk about making amends, to get back to what's important in life. Few of us actually find the time to actually do it. We're talking today with Lee Kravitz about the year he spent righting past wrongs, keeping broken promises and repaying old debts.
One of his first matters of unfinished business: digging through piles of old boxes he'd neglected for years. You can read about some of the things he found in those boxes, from old report cards to the machete he once used to harvest bananas in Israel. That's in an excerpt from the book, "Unfinished Business," at our website. Just go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We also want to hear from you. Tell us about your unfinished business. What promises have you left by the wayside? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And let's go next to David, David with us from Phoenix.
DAVID (Caller): Yeah, hi. I'm really excited to be on. This is the first time I've ever called a radio show.
DAVID: I'm really excited that I was able to listen to this today. I'm a first-year teacher. I'm in a Masters program in an alternate certification, and as part of that kind of first-year zeal, you know, I kind of have bit off more than I could chew in a lot of ways.
But one of them was I had a student at the beginning of the year, an eighth-grader who had a really hard time reading, and he's been in foster care his whole life and actually ended up moving foster homes about a month after I came into the position.
And I said, you know, Gary, I'm going to stick with you. Let's keep working. And I went out and visited like two or three times in the first couple months, and we kept reading together, and then I got - just got swamped. You know, I had life going on and the Masters program and the work and everything.
And I stopped going, and it keeps coming up in my head every once in a while, but I was really glad I heard this today because, you know, I actually - I broke my ankle about a week ago and I'm now thinking, oh, well, now I can't get out over the summer because I've got this cast. And I'm going, you know, there are ways around any difficulty, and part of, I think, what's kept me from going is similar to that $600 thing, just the idea that - that kind of lingering guilt about the fact that I haven't been going.
You know, it was nice to listen to this today and get some of the stories because it kind of strengthens my resolve to actually get out and keep that promise, so...
CONAN: Hmm. Yeah. Lee?
Mr. KRAVITZ: I think that's wonderful. So often we, you know, fill ourselves with these kind of misperceptions, and we build, and we make problems much larger than they really are. And it keeps us from doing the simple things like - if your leg wasn't broken, going back and visiting that kid or helping another foster kid, or with me writing a condolence call - card - to my friend.
You know, I was afraid of his not remembering me. I was afraid of intruding on his grief. All that was ridiculous, and...
CONAN: Well, you actually said something interesting in your book. Yes, you were afraid of all those things. Every time you started to write it, it felt trite and, well, it didn't mean anything. But you also said his daughter had died. In a sense, you were blocked by your fears about your daughter and death.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Sure, I mean, even on a deeper level, the deepest fear of all was the one that something like that could come to my daughter. Even to let that into my consciousness was hard. And in the end, the funny thing was, when I saw my friend, we didn't talk about his daughter or my daughter. What we talked about was the baseball team we had played on 40 years before. And in that moment I kind of - I gave him a vacation from his grief.
And you know, it's so funny how we can give to each other in profound ways that might not even seem profound.
CONAN: David, we hope you find the opportunity to go visit your foster student.
CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the phone call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Katie(ph), Katie with us from Iowa City.
KATIE (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Katie.
KATIE: Hi. Years ago I recorded an album of my music with my band, and I realized I didn't really have enough money to finish production of the album, and so I put a call out to family and friends, and I said: Can you help me finish this and pre-order the album?
And all these folks stepped up and sent me checks, and then when I went back to finally finish the album, I discovered that one of the hard drives had been lost and I wasn't actually going to be able to finish the album.
And I kind of just left it there, and I didn't ever really let all these people know that they weren't going to get this album and that I wasn't going to finish it. It just, it felt like such a tragedy to me.
And I've since made another album, and I've been inspired by today to track down that list of people and send them this album instead and kind of tell them the story so they understand, after all these years, why it took me so long.
CONAN: Even the U.S. Post Office will deliver over that period of time. I'm sure they don't think it was lost in the mail.
KATIE: Right, exactly, yeah. So thanks for the inspiration to do that, and it's not the same music, but it's, you know, it's from the same source, and hopefully they'll understand.
CONAN: I think one of the things we learn from your book, Lee, is that people will understand, that as you were mentioning a moment ago, those are, you know, molehills we build into mountains in our minds, and they're in our minds.
Mr. KRAVITZ: I think that if you go in with a really sincere and open heart, and when you say I'm sorry or thank you with that spirit, people will be very, very receptive.
CONAN: They may have their friends order an album too, Katie, so...
(Soundbite of laughter)
KATIE: Yeah, thanks. That's good advice. That's a really good way of looking at it.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Good luck with it.
KATIE: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Jeff, Jeff with us from Bakersfield, California.
JEFF (Caller): Hi, Neal.
JEFF: Well, I have a story about my father. About 10 years ago, my brother died. He was murdered, and I guess somehow the murderers made it look like a suicide. So the police ruled it a suicide. But that caused my father to go into an alcoholic depression for many years.
And one of the consequences was that when my wife and I got married in 2002, we both went out to see him. We invited him to the wedding, and he didn't come. And so I haven't talked to him since.
And I found out through my mom that apparently he's got some health problems with his kidneys, and it looks like he has hepatitis, and he might not be alive in the next, I don't know, five years.
And I'm not really angry with him. It's just I'm more hurt and perplexed that why would he not want to connect with me. And so that's kind of been my barrier for why I haven't gone out of my way to connect with him.
CONAN: Well, family is - everybody's family is different, and family is real hard. And Lee, I know you had some experiences in your family. Your father and his brother were estranged. I'm not sure that it's analogous, but if you would relate some of your experiences, maybe Jeff can get some guidance.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Yeah. My father and his brother hadn't talked in 30 years. They'd held a grudge that long. And so one of my pieces of unfinished business was to move them closer to talking.
And I did it by fact-checking a famous family story. It was an indirect way of doing it. It wasn't by - I couldn't force them to talk to each other. But once I started asking them what they knew about that story -it involved Eliot Ness and my family's organized crime roots, so it was very spicy and interesting - they got interested in what the other was saying.
And I cc-ed them on the same emails, and after a while they were emailing each other directly. So after 30 years my father and his brother, at a time in their life where they're not going to have many years left, have really begun communicating again, and I feel very good about that.
So families, you're right, they're by far the hardest, hardest of our unfinished business. I think the caller, the best you can do is maybe reach out yourself and see if the willingness might be there...
CONAN: And maybe...
Mr. KRAVITZ: ...on your father's part.
CONAN: Well, on that same basis, approach him with a question about something completely different, not - the indirect approach, as...
Mr. KRAVITZ: Right, where there - where you kind of - yeah, use indirection. It's not as heavy when you don't put all the guilt on, lay all the guilt on the other person.
CONAN: I was trying to remember that vacation we took to Niagara Falls or wherever it was, and can you help me out here?
Mr. KRAVITZ: Exactly, exactly.
JEFF: Yeah, I think that would help. And I don't think there's much animosity, exactly. I think there's a lot of fear on his part and a lot of hurt on mine, and I think one of the best ways that I can reconnect with him is that I'm I'm his only son that has had any children, and I think he would really want to meet his granddaughter.
CONAN: Oh, email him a picture.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Yeah.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Absolutely.
CONAN: Good luck, Jeff.
JEFF: All right. Thank you very much, guys.
CONAN: Here's an email from Alex in Pace, Florida. I completely relate to Lee's stories about the $600 he owed his friend. A family friend lent me several thousand dollars to help pay for college. I never paid him back. I just haven't had the chance. That was over five years ago. Now, I'm about to go on to grad school, and I haven't spoken with him or his wife for several years. I don't know how to re-approach them, still without the money. Lee, do you wish you'd gotten in touch sooner? Would you have reconnected if you still couldn't have paid your friend back?
Mr. KRAVITZ: Well, I would hope that I would have. I think it's best that you do things as quickly as they enter your mind. Do you have an urge to pay back the money? Pay it back. And even if you don't have it, you know, express the intention to. You know, in so many cases, I felt that we wait too long. You know, we think we're always going to pay somebody back or reconnect with them.
I was just at my college - 35th college reunion last weekend, and 18 people in my class had died since the last reunion. We had a memorial service. And to the person, everyone who recollected these people said they wish they had reached out. They wish they had called the person who had died before they had died. They wished they had told them what they meant...
Mr. KRAVITZ: ...to them. You know, we wait and wait and wait. The time to do it is now.
CONAN: And you're right. Even if it doesn't go so well, that probably would not be worse than regretting the rest of your life. Well, it maybe too late...
Mr. KRAVITZ: If only I had. Yeah.
CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. KRAVITZ: I think you're absolutely right.
CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller on the line. Let's go to -this is Dawn, Dawn with us from Redmond in Oregon.
DAWN (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
DAWN: For many, many years, I was a single parent to a special-needs son. And I genuinely believe that it takes the help of so many kind-hearted people to raise someone on your own as a single parent, but even more so, as a special parent to a special-needs kid. And I have so many people that helped me out just from the goodness of their heart.
And I promised myself that if I ever had the time, I would do something to give back to people, just do an act of kindness. And a couple of years ago, I got married. And now, I'm - my son is grown up now, also, and in a wonderful facility. And I married a wonderful man who gives me the privilege of being able to stay at home.
And I told him I, you know, I wanted to volunteer, so he said, just do it. You can do it now. So every two weeks, I volunteer and I go and sing at an assisted living home. And it's the most rewarding thing in the world to be able to do that.
CONAN: And you feel, to some degree, like you're making up for lost time.
DAWN: Yes. I feel like, you know, someone extended themselves - many people extended themselves out of the kindness of their heart and helped me. And now, I get to bring some joy to some people that, you know, they're not able to leave this facility.
CONAN: Dawn, thank you very much for that.
DAWN: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. We're talking with Lee Kravitz about his book, "Unfinished Business: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And let's see if we can go next to - this is Sean(ph), Sean with us from San Francisco.
SEAN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on, Neal. Yeah. So, my father and - I grew up separately from my father. My mother took me, my father took my brother. And we didn't have much of a relationship for many years, probably 18 years, and probably at the point that I decided I didn't care about the relationship anymore than we were able to have one. And he's a jazz musician. His name is Chet Keith(ph). He lives in Portsmouth(ph), New Hampshire, and he loves your show, too.
SEAN: And I'm a musician. I'm living in San Francisco. I have a recording studio here. And he's been telling me, all these years, he -about this gig long ago at this place called the Mandolin(ph) Center. And he played a jazz gig every Sunday. And it's like the happiest moment in his life. And I've been thinking for the past 10 years that I would, you know, come there someday and see him play. And then, he called, you know, a couple of months ago and he said they're tearing that place down. So I booked a flight, and wasn't sure I was going to make it, you know?
SEAN: Wasn't sure he'd play that last show, which would be this coming up Sunday. But it turns out that he was able to make that last show, and that I'm going to be able to be there, and I'm - go there with my wife. And it just so happens that it's going to be his birthday, and my wife's birthday is the day before. And I'm going to bring some recording equipment and record him playing so I can have that. That's my story.
CONAN: That's great.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SEAN: Thank you.
CONAN: That sounds great.
SEAN: Thank you for the show. I'm just going to listen to the rest of it.
CONAN: All right, Sean. Thanks very much. Lee, stories like that have so much promise. And your stories, too - you ended up taking 10 trips.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Right, 10 trips. And, you know, stories - and hearing these stories, I'm very moved by all the caller stories today. And they inspired me to - for example, the last caller...
Mr. KRAVITZ: ...you know, we have such a - he's really creating a legacy for his own children by recording his dad.
Mr. KRAVITZ: He's bridging generations. He's creating such richness in his own life and in the life of other people. And we have that opportunity. And he's been so creative, that caller, about how he's doing it. I love hearing these stories, because they can - I can identify what every single person who's called in.
Mr. KRAVITZ: And, yeah.
CONAN: I was just going to ask: What about you? Are you going to get back into the rat race? You had enough money from your severance to pay for a year. I suspect it's up.
Mr. KRAVITZ: They gave me - the year is up. We'll see how the book goes, if - one thing in terms of my future. But I think the important thing for me is I've spent a year resetting my priorities. That's what I had to do. That's what I did. Now, whatever I do going forward, whether I write or get back into the rat race as an editor, I'm going to stay as true to those priorities of balancing my family and work better as I can. I'll bite off less than I did before. You know, I'm going to be a better husband, father, son as a result.
CONAN: Thanks so much, and we wish you the best of luck.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Lee Kravitz. His book is called "Unfinished Business: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things." You can read an excerpt on our website at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.
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