"If you could have dinner with anyone alive, who would it be?" The stuff of movies, writing prompts and ice breakers, right? Few people get to fulfill that fantasy with someone in the top ten on their list. I did. I had an intimate dinner party with radio show host and author Diane Rehm. Watching this master story steward at work made memories I will always treasure, and helped me set the stage for my own launch into a more public career as an author.
Last November, hunkered down in northern Michigan, I worked on the preparatory tasks for the April launch of my novel, Even in Darkness. Blog posts, author newsletters, requests for endorsements, requests for reviews, all needed attention. Buoyed by the dramatic beauty of Lake Michigan on a wild autumn day, I dreamed of the way my life would change, had already changed, as my book made its way into the world. I'd been working on this novelization of a family story for more than 15 years, but now the work of final edits and proofreads, the publicity campaign, the booking of events, and the attendant social media was incessant and consuming.
Then an ad popped up in my email for the opportunity to make early bids in an upcoming auction. The event would honor Theodore Bikel, and proceeds would go to Moment Magazine, and the Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Fund, both of which I support. I marveled at the first items in the auction, so exotic and expensive, but as I scrolled down the list, one item stopped me cold. I could bid for dinner for eight with Diane Rehm of NPR, and Nadine Epstein, editor of Moment, at the home of Aviva Kempner, writer and documentary filmmaker.
Aviva Kempner is a close family friend in Washington D.C. who makes award winning films with Jewish themes that have broad interest and appeal. I deeply admire the direction Moment Magazine has taken under Nadine Epstein's editorial hand. And Diane Rehm has been an inspiration to me for her incisive intellect, the incredible depth and breadth of her curiosity, her grace and manners as an interviewer and the causes she has championed. Additionally, as a speech-language pathologist, I have been riveted by her battle with the voice disorder, spasmodic dysphonia.
Further, as I have worked in my new profession as a writer to bring my immigrant family's story to the page, I have read with fascination Diane's memoirs of her childhood as the daughter of immigrants, her trailblazing pursuit of a profession in midlife in radio, her extraordinary relationship with her husband, and most recently, with his death, her advocacy for the right to determine our end of life decisions.
Just imagine; a benefit for causes I deeply believe in, by way of a dinner at the home of a family friend, with honored guests that included two journalists who I admire. It felt like giving back and reaching forward at the same time, and so, within the time limit for the advanced bidding, my husband and I bought Dinner with Diane.
The final guest list included our son Nathan, our young friend David Carpman, Ellen Melzer who stepped in when Nadine Epstein fell ill, our friends Jonathan Kempner and Lise Van Susteren, and CBS news producer Jeff Goldman, a Kempner family friend.
Five steps made this a successful evening with an icon and personal hero
Step one- Be up to date on your hero's interests and activities.
I listen to Diane Rehm's show, and have read her books, including Finding My Voice (Knopf, 1999), in which she describes her childhood, marriage, career, and voice disorder and Toward Commitment: A Dialogue about Marriage (Knopf, 2002), a deeply personal book co-authored with her late husband, John. I also knew of her support of Compassion and Choices, (an organization devoted to promoting the right for individuals to die with dignity).
Step two - Set the tone and structure for the evening early and clearly so that everyone feels comfortable and engaged.
Enter, our friend (and brother to our hostess) Jonathan Kempner, who comfortably assumed the role of master of ceremonies. We introduced ourselves to Diane and each other. Everyone in the room (except Diane) knew someone, but no one knew everyone, so the introductions were interesting. When it was my turn, I told Diane how much I appreciated her as a journalist, a thinker, and a role model. I expressed my admiration for her conduct of civil, in-depth discourse on a wide range of topics and disciplines on her show, and her ability to turn both the victories and challenges of her life into valuable shared experiences through her books. I told her that my forthcoming book was my own version of "finding my voice."
Step three- Create a memorable meal.
It was a Friday evening and our host Aviva served a classic and delicious Sabbath dinner. We were a number of Jews of differing degrees of observance plus an Episcopalian and a non-denominational atheist. Channeling my departed father, who would have loved to be at this evening, I sang the Sabbath blessings, which he'd learned at his synagogue in Germany nearly a century ago.
Step four - Observe, contribute, enjoy.
The dinner conversation was the provenance of Diane Rehm. She jumped right in to a discussion of Middle Eastern politics and spirited opinions around the table were shared without stridency. We moved on to discuss Diane's advocacy around right-to-die issues and she was interested in the assembled groups' perspectives as physicians, lawyers, writers and media professionals. I noticed Diane's intentional solicitation of the views of the young people at the table, and her unerring capacity to make each guest feel as if we had her interest and respect.
Step five - Think about the takeaway.
As my 6'3" son escorted the elegant and diminutive Ms. Rehm down the steps to her car at the end of the evening, (each of them enchanted with the other,) I knew I'd had a truly remarkable experience that would stay with me for a long time. Around the dining room table, Diane had demonstrated the power of drawing out stories to highlight life lessons and work toward an understanding of the world we share, just as she regularly did in her books and on her radio show. On the eve of bringing my own book about another woman of courage, resilience and grace to the public, I got to watch a master story steward show how it's done.