Sometimes at Thanksgiving it's not so obvious what goes on the "I-am-thankful-for" list. For me, this year there was no question. This year I am thankful for the life of my late son-in-law Michael McLaughlin. Michael had an enormous impact on everyone whose lives he touched. He left us suddenly this summer, drowning in a tragic accident on our family vacation on the coast of Mexico.
Michael was a filmmaker, screen-writer and editor. His death could have been one of those completely unexpected turns in one of his movie scripts. He was there with us -- bigger than life one moment -- then suddenly, out of the blue, he was gone.
There are many things that make me thankful for Michael's life. As a father, I was most thankful for what a wonderful husband and partner he was to my daughter Lauren -- how they helped each other be all they could be. Michael was an empowerer. He encouraged Lauren to tackle projects that seemed too daunting, inspired her to dream big dreams -- to believe in her ability to shape the future.
But what particularly struck me as I thought about Thanksgiving this year, was how Michael's life exemplified the power of laughter and wonder.
When you think about it, laughter is an extraordinary thing. It's a universal connector. Hard to hate someone with whom you've just shared a good laugh. People of every ethnic group, culture or nationality laugh.
In 1976, the former editor of Saturday Review, Norman Cousins, inspired a new "humor therapy" movement with his book Anatomy of an Illness that described the positive impact of laughter on his own illness. We know for sure that laughter has physical effects -- lowering blood pressure, reducing physical stress, boosting immune function, relaxing muscles, and releasing endorphins that give you a sense of well-being.
One person's laugh ignites laughter in others. Michael's laughter was particularly contagious.
Michael McLaughlin loved to make people laugh. His web site was called "McLaughter.com." He saw humor and joy in every corner of life. Whether it was in film or video -- or rapid fire repartee -- he was a very funny man.
As a brief example, here is an excerpt from the eulogy that his good friend David Goldstein (also a great writer and very funny man) gave at Michael's memorial service:
Talking with Michael was kind of like trying to conduct an interstellar race while hugging. I could never expect when the contest would begin. For a while this past year, we sent each other weird spam emails, the kind that advertise the dramatic and permanent elongation of the male genitalia, but that add strings of nonsense words to elude the spam program. Once -- this was about a year ago -- he sent me just the title of one of these emails, which was -- please forgive the profanity, but I must tell it like it is--
I wrote back something that I no doubt thought was quite witty. He apparently sensed that the race was on. I quote here, in its entirety, his almost instant response to my feeble joke:
"Sounds like a character from a post-modern Dickens pastiche, the transgendered madame of a robotic bordello. She longs for the beautiful hermaphrodite child that was taken into space by its biological father. The child returns late in the story, a sort of religious figure now, and several years older than his/her parent, due to the complications of relativistic travel. They have a tearful, if grammatically awkward, reunion. Its name is FiberLightMitreFire and it has returned to Earth bearing a vision of what it believes is the true path for humanity. While watching one star collapse into another FLMF has realized that we have the technology to erase gender, and thus, a whole raft of complications, from the earth.
MCF tearfully disagrees. The condition of being transgendered stems from the existence of gender. He/she sees her/his hard-fought gender identity threatened. Thus begins a 25-volume exploration of gender, robotics, and body manipulation entitled 'I think, therefore I have two mommies.'"
A very funny man.
Then there is wonder. Michael was 38 when he died, but he was possessed of an almost childlike wonder that made life into a feast of experiences -- all imbued with unlimited possibility.
About a week before his death, he left a message on my daughter's cell phone asking her to look up at the moon that had just come up over Manhattan and -- he said -- appeared to be a shining copper penny hanging in the sky. No other message -- just the shining copper penny moon.
Michael was always ready to say "wow!" He was never jaded, never cynical, never blasé or "worldly wise." He shared one of the things I love about our two Golden Retrievers: he was always excited about whatever was next -- ready to explore every nook and cranny of the world.
Michael wasn't that way because he was naïve. He was that way because he was sophisticated and cosmopolitan in the real sense. He felt at home outside of the boundaries of the familiar, and was always ready to be surprised by what he found there. And, just as important, he was always ready to re-examine familiar things to discover new aspects of them that he had never noticed before.
It's pretty easy for our sense of wonder to become anesthetized by the routines of everyday life, much less by the all-absorbing dynamics of economic struggle or political combat. One of the reasons I love politics is that it is goal-oriented. Whether it is an election or a legislative battle, politics requires focus. It requires that you focus on the goal to the exclusion of all else and do whatever is necessary to win. But that very goal-orientation can prevent you from paying attention. It can dull your sense of wonder at all the many people and things you come upon along that road to victory.
I am thankful this holiday that I will always have Michael McLaughlin's memory riding along with me, to remind me to take a moment to gaze up at the beauty of the shinning copper penny moon.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.