Honestly I didn't want to go. Panel discussions are not my bag. I had to fly all the way across the country from Boston to LA. And it so happened that I would miss my daughter's first prom, one son's first date and another son's first t-ball game in the process. But I had made a commitment to speak at Los Angeles Book Festival many months ago and couldn't very well back out after the panel--featuring Antwone Fisher of Denzel Washington fame, nationally syndicated manners columnist Amy Alkon, and me; moderated by LA Times columnist Sandy Banks--had been set and publicized everywhere.
The weekend did not start well. There was some confusion about whether or not we had a booth at the festival. We didn't think so but the organizers put one up anyhow with a big banner, "THE GOOD MEN PROJECT." Since we didn't know it existed, the booth stood utterly empty, which passing women found quite amusing and began to twitter wildly, commenting on the irony. My grand entrance was undercut before even making it onto the UCLA campus.
I did make my way, finally, to the green room on Sunday morning, well in advance of our 10:30 panel. The name authors wandering around were, well, intimidating. Seb Junger, whom I went to school with and been blown off by for confirmed coffee dates more times than any woman I ever pursued, wondered around in his Perfect-Storm-meets-Afghan war-reporter-chiseled-good looks.
I decided not to say hello, to Seb or anyone else. I got my fresh fruit and gourmet coffee and hid in the corner, writing a forthcoming Huffington Post on how feeding your baby son can force you to unplug and relax.Finally, my name was called and I had to wander out on the patio to meet Antwone, Amy and Sandy. They were nice enough, but again I hung back before being escorted to our auditorium. We were led in and I was quite surprised that pretty much every seat in the 500-seat theater was filled.
Antwone sat next to me. He explained to me how his foster father had never taught him how to tie a tie. How that inspired him to write a how-to book for boys about the little things in life you need to understand to succeed, whether you have a father or not, along with the inside stuff that had allowed him to overcome low self-esteem.
Sandy kicked off the session talking about how she had raised her girls as a single mom. She was intensely interested in teaching them to do the right thing, and equally interested in how they would be treated by boys. Amy picked up the theme by talking about her book I See Rude People in her own hyper-active, highly amusing storytelling style. But when she concluded that what she was really talking about was the loss of empathy in America, both Antwone and I were nodding vigorously.
Antwone shared his amazing story, with his girls and wife in the front row, culminating in how he didn't know how to tie a tie when he got to the Navy and had to learn while locked under a cold shower as punishment.
By the time it got to me I was finally ready, and inspired. I talked about how I had been CFO of a large media conglomerate by the time I was 30, had taken that company public and sold it for $2 billion 90 days later, only to be kicked out the house the very next day by my wife for being a drunk and a cheat. How I had sat in a church parking lot, 14 years ago now, and called my mom to explain how I had gone from the front page of the Wall Street Journal to having no place to go and worrying that I would never see my two baby children again. I told the audience how it was during that conversation that I realized how little I understood about doing the right thing, and about being a man or a husband or a father.
What ensued was a fascinating discussion among two men and two women, two Caucasians and two African-Americans about what it means to do the right thing in 2010, and about the warning signs of Tiger and Jesse James and all the rest. And just how much we each need to reach out to the next generation of boys and girls to have that conversation with them.
I realized as I sat with Antwone afterwards that just showing up had been the right thing. I got a thousand times more than I gave by participating, even though my natural instinct was to hide rather than speak out.