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My tribute to Harold Ramis and Mentoring

I feel compelled to share with you what Harold Ramis meant to me.  He was such a wonderful human being and such an inspiration to me I feel that to do anything less would dishonor his memory.  For those of you still unfamiliar with his life and work I commend you to this article.

People everywhere know his genius from the films he made. I was privileged to know the man - always generous, compassionate, supportive, inclusive, humble, wise... He was my mentor and friend - a pillar of strength and integrity, his voice a beacon for how to face a world of deceit and lies and hurt.  The sadness I feel at his passing is immense.

I first met Harold in his office in a northern Chicago suburb in the summer of 2003.  We were introduced by a friend of mine – an attorney who seems to know everyone in Chicago.  We had such a pleasant conversation that only afterwards did I realize how strange it was – Harold spent well over an hour chatting with my wife and me, simply getting to know us.  It’s hard to imagine many Hollywood celebrities spending that same kind of time making leisurely inquiries, serving tea and cookies, and being equally interested in my wife and her work as a writer and English professor as in mine. 

I don’t remember now whether it was that first conversation when I asked him to mentor me.  Given my usual chutzpah it’s entirely possible.  But most likely it was a year or two later.  I do remember his answer though.  Not a yes or a no, more “let’s just wait and see how things go.”  I think Harold preferred to leave things like that unsaid.  But the truth is from that first meeting forward he did whatever he could to make himself available to me and to be of service in whatever ways he could.  That willingness to benefit others, to put oneself at the service of another’s development and well-being is a fundamental pillar of mentorship.

Another pillar of mentorship is simply showing up - spending the time, making yourself available.  Not long after we met, I did a presentation for the Chicago branch of the Young Presidents Association on the importance of pro-social rites of passage for youth.  Harold came to the event in a private home in the same wealthy, north side Chicago suburb where he lived.  He publicly thanked me for coming to his community to bring the message, implicitly recognizing that this wasn’t an issue just for “them” – “at risk youth,” the low income folks of color in the city – but for white suburbanites too.  He had the courage to say, however sweetly, “Wake up folks.  It’s our kids too!” 

Harold demonstrated another fundamental principle of mentorship - open your contacts and integrate mentees into your professional network.  He went out of his way to introduce me to two of his old friends from college – George Zimmer, founder of Men’s Wearhouse, and Ben Zaricor, founder of the Good Earth Tea Company.  In time, both men came to be supporters of my work. 

Harold told me, as he’s publicly told many, he considered himself “Buddhish.”  Something like, but not quite a Jewish-Buddhist.  “Buddhish”… a term far superior to the more commonly used “Jew-Bu” or “Bu-Jew.”  No doubt because of the humor brought by the “ish” and its colloquial meaning from Jewish culture as “sort of” or “approximately.”  The truth is that many of his family members are practicing Buddhists and that Harold himself was deeply impacted by Buddhist thought.  I think he was one of those rare minds who could be introduced to the main principles of Buddhism and subsequently spend an entire lifetime observing them without, to my knowledge, ever formally practicing.  The man lived the Eight Fold Path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.  He embodied the principles that so many of my teachers emphasize: “Don’t talk about Buddhism.  Be a Buddha.”  Or, as the Dalai Lama has put it: “The world doesn’t need more Buddhists.  What the world needs is kindness.”  Harold embodied kindness. 

And generosity.  When he turned out with his wife at a Chicago fundraiser to support my Buddhist film Journey from Zanskar it wasn’t enough for him to show up and be the celebrity co-host – to pose for pictures and sign autographs.  He circulated and made sure everyone had a chance to say hello.  He and his wife donated their own money too. 

The connection he had to my Boys to Men? film and its sequel, now in production, called Rites Of Passage: Mentoring The Future, was even more personal.  He had sat in regular men’s circles in LA in the 80s and 90s.  He knew first-hand there was something that men needed from each other in order to become the men they always wanted to be.  He also implicitly understood the importance of pro-social rites of passage for youth to help them transition into young adulthood.  He was proud of the fact that both his sons had been Bar Mitzvah’d.    

Harold served for four years as an advisor and two years formally on my Warrior Films Board.  Even with his very full schedule he attended meetings regularly and offered everything he could.  I had the bad sense to schedule our yearly in person meetings in Chicago in December. Harold always drove downtown without complaint - during rush hour in the worst conceivable weather - to attend our dinner-time meetings.  Every year he offered to pay the bill and I always refused.  Finally, he took to surreptitiously paying the bill in advance.

One of his great gifts was turning public events into seemingly personal encounters.  He turned up yearly at a fundraiser in San Francisco to support the Zen Hospice Center.  The year I went, what he said from the dais magically seemed to address all the personal questions I had for him. His warmth and self-effacing openness never betrayed the fact that he must have made dozens of presentations at similar events.  He was so generous with his time and his self-effacing humor. 

One tremendous gift I received from him was his mentorship regarding my career.  I’ve long been troubled by wounds dating back to the making of Hoop Dreams. The pain recurs regularly, even to this day. Talk about Groundhog Day!  Sometimes I do feel stuck waking to the same circumstances in an endless loop.  Fortunately, not every day.  Harold helped me sort through a workable strategy toward reconciliation and acceptance.

Perhaps the greatest gift I received from him was when he sent me a script of his based on his personal life after college.  He’d worked on it off and on for many years.  It was a sweet story about a young man seeking to find himself - working through family and relationship issues - while working in a hospital mental ward.  I told him there was potential there – a small scale, coming of age drama – but it still needed a lot of work.  We talked about the difficulties of making effective drama when you’re still too identified with the primary character and his experiences.  A challenge I know from years of trying to make a script based on my family’s life reach its full potential.

But the gift was that he saw fit to send me the script and solicit my opinion.  Mentors understand that seeking a mentee’s honest feedback is one of the greatest ways they can honor them.  It’s a way of blessing them into a recognition and acceptance of their own greatness.  It’s a way of acknowledging them as a peer.  Harold did this time and time again for me.

He always welcomed me to visit him on set.  I visited the set for Ice Harvest north of Chicago and for Year One in the desert sands of New Mexico.  Like a documentary filmmaker, I think he was partially interested to see what might emerge from the chemistry of personalities interacting.  He introduced me to John Cusack and Randy Quaid from the former film and Jack Black and Michael Cera from the latter.  I also think that inviting friends to his sets were his way of normalizing the extraordinary process of filmmaking, of humanizing it. Over the years I too have sought ways to turn the some times brutalizing process of filmmaking into its own voyage of discovery, not sacrificing even the film’s smallest means to the film’s greater end.  Though we never discussed it I sensed that Harold shared this aim.  

He embodied another fundamental principle of mentorship – the mentor must be fed alongside the mentee.  The relationship has to be reciprocal.  Whether it was my comments on his script, my enthusiastic appreciation for his films, the satisfaction he took in my films, or the simple joy he got out of being helpful to me, I do believe our relationship fed him in some small way.

I think Harold sensed how disappointed I was in myself for not being a Hollywood success. When he was finishing Year One my wife and I visited him on the Sony lot.  He bought us lunch, brought us to the editing suite to show us some scenes he was working on, and then brought us to the mixing soundstage where they were adding and polishing sound effects. I believe he wanted me to feel comfortable and at home – to make me feel like I belonged.  For that gift alone I can weep with gratitude even now.

That was the last time I saw him.  He said that he was going to take some time off.  I didn’t know then that he already knew about his illness and that he’d spend the next four years fighting it.  

His example was the closest I've come in my life - in a literal, physical proximity sense - to a single human being who seemed the complete realization of both his artistic goals and his personal behavior.  He was successful both in what he did and who he was.  Both the artist and the man were all they could be.  A true Laughing Buddha.  I miss him already and the grief that I feel is real.  But the gratitude for having had him in my life as a mentor and friend is real too and is boundless.

I also feel complete, with no regrets.  The last few years, as I knew he was sick and dying, I emailed him occasionally when I thought of him – to thank him for all he did for me, to acknowledge what a profound impact he’d made, and to bless him on his own journey.  Which brings me to an essential lesson for the mentee – remember the teacher!

Now with him gone, I’ve already started asking myself, “What would Harold do?”  I wish I could channel him to help solve a thorny problem I’m facing right now.  Or maybe it is his voice I can hear telling me not to react.  “Let it be.”  Maybe.  All I know is when I grow up, I want to be like Harold.



My mother, Miriam Marx... RIP

Just wanted to share a brief life summary with you for my Mom who died 9 days ago.  I was holding her hand and looking into her eyes as she passed.  My brother and sister were there with her too.  Her painless and rapid passing were a gift to all of us - modeling a happy transition, in gratitude for the fullness of her life, at peace with everything.

By sharing her obituary with you, I celebrate her life. 

Miriam Marx, 87, passed at 4:45 pm on Friday, March 7 at the Highlands at Brighton Hospice in Rochester, NY, surrounded by her loving family. 

With the soul of an artist who always treasured learning, Miriam was many things throughout her life: published poet, ministerial candidate, political activist, scholar, feminist and women’s community builder… a lover of song, art, and life in all its forms. 

Miriam was born in 1926 in Philadelphia, PA, the child of Russian immigrant garment workers, and was raised during the Depression.  She went to work immediately following high school and was married in 1945 to Werner Marx, a German-Jewish refugee.

She arrived in Champaign-Urbana, IL in 1959 when her husband took a job at the University of Illinois as a Professor of German.  Following his sudden death in Feb. 1965, she earned her BA and then MA in Comparative Literature, all while raising three children on her own. She earned her livelihood as a U of I teaching assistant and secretary.

Fulfilling her husband's and her own wishes she took her children to Freiburg, Germany for a year of travel and study in 1970-1971.  In 1972, she joined the Urbana Unitarian Church.  Its offshoot the Red Herring Press published her poetry chapbook Armor and Ashes in 1982.  She moved to Beijing, China in 1985 and served for two years as a foreign language instructor. 

Ever thirsting for meaning and fulfillment in life, in 1991 she began study to become a U-U Minister, culminating in her graduation in 1997 at the age of 70 with a Masters of Divinity.  After nearly 50 years in the Champaign-Urbana, IL area she moved to Rochester, NY in Dec. 2010 to be near family.

She is survived by her children Ellen, Frederick, and Larry, daughters-in-law Deb Rosen and Tracy Seeley, son-in-law Bill Sherman, and granddaughters Emma, Natalie, and Naomi. 

Memorial services will be held 1 pm, Sunday, April 13 at Quaker Friends Meeting House, 1904 East Main Street, Urbana, IL. 



Our victory for youth and Rites of Passage work

Our mission: Insuring that every child on the planet receives a rite of passage and mentorship into adulthood.
I want to share our recent victory with you.

Last weekend we had 26 of the leading lights of Teen Rites of Passage work gather in Oakland to share common challenges and victories, and to probe for ways forward as a collaborative community. Many of the hugely varied modalities of ROP practice were represented, from indigenous traditions 1000s of years old to the latest innovations in public school programs. It was a rich weekend of sharing, a deep exchange of bold visions from a collective 500+ years of experience, a sustained opening of fearless hearts. The list of our illustrious attendees is below. If you're interested, let me know and I'll send you the entire meeting agenda, co-created by many, reflecting the depth, breadth, and soulful wonder of this work. 

Thank you for supporting me so I can support these soul warriors.

Attendees (not necessarily in picture)

1. Craig McClaine, Boys to Men, San Diego

2. Rick Phillips, Community Matters, Santa Rosa, CA

3. Sohrab Nabatian, Kalliopeia Foundation, San Francisco, CA

4. Kate Shela, Dolphin Connection, UK and LA

5. Arne Rubinstein, Australia Rites of Passage Institute

6. Mark Schillinger, Young Men’s Ultimate Weekend, San Rafael, CA

7. Jim Kooler, Challenge Days, Be the Change, Lifeplan Institute, Marin, CA

8. Chike Nwoffiah, Orike Theater, Mountain View, CA

9. Gigi Coyle, School of Lost Borders, Big Pine, CA

10. Jonny Nadleman, LA based school ROP co-creator, facilitator, LA, CA

11. Craig Glass, Peregrine Ministries/Passage to Manhood, Colorado Springs, CO

12. Jason Geoffrion, Men’s Leadership Alliance, Boulder, CO

13. Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Reform Bar/Bat Mitzvah practice, Philadelphia, PA.

14. Albino Garcia, La Plazita Institute, Albuquerque, NM

15. Joshua Gorman, Generation Waking Up, San Francisco, CA

16. Tony LoRe, Youth Mentoring Connection, LA, CA

17. Juliana Wells, Youth Mentoring Connection, LA, CA

18. Rich Robinson, MFT, Counseling families, teenagers, and adults, Berkeley, CA

19. Namonyah Soipan, West Indian/African/European ROP specialist, Oakland, CA

20. Darcy Ottey, formerly of Rites of Passage Journeys, Seattle

21. Mayra Zaragoza, Young Warriors, Tia Chucha, LA

22. Bret Stephenson, author of From Boys to Men: Spiritual Rites of Passage in an Indulgent Age

23. Jared Seide, Ojai Foundation, Council in Schools Initiative

24. Judy Piazza, Ojai Foundation, Land Institute

25. Sharon BearComesOut, Buffalo Visions Healing Center, Lame Deer School, Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Montana.

26. John McCluskey, PassageWorks, Jeffco Open School, Boulder, CO.

Support Staff: Donna Lee, Gerald Charles, Ajakari Mark Angelo, Ashanti Branch, Aries Jordan, Ben M.H., Marlene Shigekawa.



Frederick Marx on national radio Australia

Talking about the ManKind Project, rites of passage, teen boys, and mature masculinity.


New American Heroes

(Editor's note: This article focuses on men and boys.  But the film RITES OF PASSAGE: MENTORING THE FUTURE, now in production, will focus on both genders, in equal measure.)

Some of the great heroes in our world today are the men who are mentoring and initiating teen boys. 

This is no small challenge, given that most adult men living today were not themselves initiated or mentored.  They have no idea what to do, how to do it, or why it’s essential.

The chain of generativity going back at least 50,000 years in the lives of Homo Sapiens is now broken.  The wisdom passed from individual to individual, from generation to generation, has largely been lost.  In indigenous cultures across the world it used to be that young men were initiated into adulthood by the elders as a matter of course.  In fact, most indigenous cultures don’t even recognize what we in the West call “adolescence.”  You’re either a child or you’re a man.  There’s no in-between.  The rite of passage, universally applied, is designed as a mechanism to usher all children across that threshold into adulthood. 

This was largely true even in Western society until the Industrial Age.  Boys raised on farms or learning crafts were apprenticed by their fathers and other men.  While they were taught practical and professional skills they were also taught by men what it is to be a man, what civilized behavior is – the rights and responsibilities of adulthood.   Once men started moving off their farms and out of their shops and studios to work in factories that ancient system broke down.  Couple that with the destruction of indigenous cultures across the planet by colonialism and imperialism and there now remain few organic links through the chain of time to the practices and wisdom of the past.

The byproducts are everywhere to behold.  By not initiating and mentoring our young people we are paying a steep economic and social price: teenage pregnancy, school dropouts, drug and alcohol use, depression, ADD, ADHD, youth crime and violence… some estimate the cost to U.S. society at $1 trillion a year.  The irony is that doing these “dysfunctional” things – getting pregnant, testing limits with alcohol or drugs, committing crimes, joining gangs, dropping out of school… young people, especially boys, are only asking, crying out really, for initiation.  

Initiation is a biological, cellular level need.  It accounts for most of where the pushback against parents and other authority figures comes from.  Teens need to individuate.  They push back to learn the limits of their own bodies, the reach of their critical judgment, their connection to nature and to spirit or god.  This is how they learn who they are, what is unique about them.  It’s also how they become validated.  To be initiated is a fulfillment of their genetic inheritance – to be brought into the community of adults, to take their seat at the village table, to be honored, accepted and treated as equals.  

Both men and women need initiation and mentorship.  But I believe men need it  more.  Especially today.   [Generalizing alert!  I will now be generalizing about men and women.  Please note that I am in no way saying all men or all women are like this.  Or that certain traits are purely male and others purely female.  It's important to recognize that traits generalized as "male" and "female" are part of a continuum; they manifest themselves to varying degrees in each unique individual. And if these distinctions don’t fit at all for you, dear reader, great.] 

It’s really important that men have a sense of mission or purpose in life.  I have written about this subject recently.  They have a built-in desire to want to serve someone or something, to know that their life has meaning and is of positive purpose.   There’s also a longing for them to feel part of a team or group, to work together to realize a common purpose.  A man’s gaze tends to be outward, toward making an impact, toward how he can effect change in the world.  This is a large part of how a man gauges his own power, by measuring his ability to effect change.   Obviously this drive can take very positive and very negative forms.  But this drive is much in the nature of men.  

Very few people understand this anymore.  Many men, in their own bitterness, depression, drug, alcohol, sex, work, food, and TV addictions, have given up on themselves.  At some deep unconscious level they know what they’re missing in life, how they themselves were never taught by other men how to be a man, how to reach for and find fulfillment in life, how to understand and utilize emotions effectively, what spiritual connection and contentment feels like, where meaning is to be found.  No one was there for them so why should they be there for someone else? 

This refusal finds expression in all sorts of directives older men often give to younger men: “Don’t follow your dream!” “Settle for less!” “Happiness is not important.”  “Take the money!” “Grow up; resign yourself to reality.” “Get a real job.” “Don’t take risks!”  The truth is many older men are simply threatened by the exuberance, vitality, dreams, love, innocence, and happiness of younger men because it reminds them of what they’ve lost, how they’ve settled for so much less.  Those older men still have a little boy in them who knows and remembers but those little boys are usually buried alive under mountains of passion-killing directives. 

Which reminds us that the flow of gifts in a properly functioning culture is not just from the eldest to the youngest.  The flow goes both ways.  The healthy functioning of adults is dependent on youthful energy, ideas, and input.  “Although, ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child;’ it takes the struggles of youth to raise a whole village."  “If the deep conflicts of youth are ignored and left unresolved, the new adults will be unable to solve deep conflicts in the culture.  If the adults feel they were not nourished, their elders will be ignored, and forgotten.”  -- Michael Meade.  So if there is no generativity there is no nourishing of life in both directions – for either the younger or the older.  And on and on it goes.

The men who have not buried their little boys, who still receive nurturing from their elders, who have kept the flame of innocence, passion, and love alive in the face of enormous challenges – not least of which is a dominant culture that stultifies humanity, demanding that all answers be found solely in consumerism – those men are heroes.  Yes, just being alive, truly alive to a world of possibility and adventure, and yes, to suffering and sorrow too, in a modern world that increasingly resembles THE MATRIX, that makes you a hero. 

But say you’re doing more than that.  Say you’re teaching yourself and others about what you missed out on, seeking and finding ways to initiate yourself, getting and giving mentorship, truly coming to be all you can be.  That’s even more impressive.

Let’s say you’re doing still more.  Let’s say you’re reaching down a generation or two and extending your hand to a younger man, to a group or groups of younger men.  Then you’re a Hero’s Hero.

There aren’t many.  But fortunately, there are some.  I'll list here shortly some of the amazing men and women doing heroic work today to bring back initiation and mentorship in our time.  I unhumbly include myself in this list because I’m now working on a film highlighting their heroic work, presently called Rites of Passage: Mentoring the Future.