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What Am I Doing Here?

May 9, 2009 | by Cliff Alsberg

It's a question that many of us, unfortunately, ask ourselves about our working environments each and every day.

In my particular case, it just didn't make any sense at all. After all the things in my life I had worked so hard to change, what on earth, pray tell, was a nice Jewish boy like me doing in a place like that?!? What prompted me last May to accept a job at the National Lampoon as a development exec in “creative affairs”…?

The real world, long and short of it was, of course, I needed a job. The bills had been piling up for far too long - L.A. mortgages and private school tuitions are not exactly chump change - and the unemployment payments had long since run out. That's when a close friend suggested a meeting between the new CEO of the Lampoon and me, and I gratefully accepted. The brief series of interviews went well enough, and I ended up dutifully (and dubiously) rolling up my sleeves and plunging in.

There were other Jews working at the Lampoon, of course, as there are in every other creative environment here in Los Angles, and they quickly got used to the kippah, the diligent (read, “fanatic”) avoidance of all non-kosher foods and my cutting out early on Friday afternoons. Hopefully my presence there was a positive influence on people. I tried to be nice to everyone, regardless of the circumstances. No negative talk (Lashon Hara), scrupulous honesty - the works.

Yet I was consistently exposed to the kinds of “creative” material I would have rather avoided…

Which always brought me back to the original question: What on earth am I doing here?

Since God was truly infinite and perfect, He must also possess an infinitely perfect sense of humor.

This occupied my thoughts on nearly a constant basis. My wife and I had nightly conversations about it, replete with endless speculation as to why the Almighty does certain things for us (and to us) at pivotal moments in our lives. All we could conclusively agree on was that since God was truly infinite and perfect, He must also possess an infinitely perfect sense of humor. (Not the Lampoon type, of course.)

Several months into my new position, I received a call from a producer who wanted to partner with the Lampoon on, of all things, a Christmas comedy. We were, after all, the illustrious source of that immortal classic, “National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.” I smiled to myself, “here we go again,” and launched into a full-blown development process involving two major talent agencies on both coasts, seven-figure offers to key talent and directors, tying up multi-million dollar book rights - the whole enchilada.

What a combination for a nice Jewish boy: the Lampoon and Xmas. The echo rang louder in my head:

What on earth am I doing here?

During this process, I became good friends with the producer, Kevin, and one day asked him to do me the personal favor of reading a very modestly budgeted screenplay I'd written with two leading actors and a director already attached. All I needed was financing. (Hey, doesn't everybody in this town?)

Kevin graciously agreed to read my script, and several days later I got a quiet call from him inviting me to lunch. He had read my script and loved it - would I meet with him? Would I?!? You bet! We found a tiny pizza place out on Ventura and sat down for lunch.

“So! You liked my script? That's terrific! What's the deal? When do we shoot?”

Kevin fidgeted for a bit then smiled. He actually did love my script, but that wasn't why he wanted to have lunch. He handed me a book that he and his partner had optioned and asked me to read it. It was called, “Little Bubble Gum Trooper” - the true story of a remarkable, courageous woman. I agreed to read it immediately, and that night I did.

Linda Bergendahl-Pauling lost her only child, Chris, to Leukemia some 23 years ago. He was seven and a half. Linda's life understandably fell apart at that point. She divorced her husband and came close to taking her own life. Dangerously close…

But she didn't. Instead, she somehow picked up the shattered pieces of her life and went on to start the Make-A-Wish Foundation. In helping desperately ill children and their families fulfill their lifelong dreams, she would honor her son's memory while giving her own life profound meaning. To date, this splendid organization has granted over 100,000 wishes to children all over the world through branches in 27 countries.

One of those wishes and one of those children was all too familiar to me.

Six years ago, my brother lost his little girl, Sonia, to Leukemia at that very same age, seven and a half. Our entire family agonized for three long years as Sonia slipped out of remission three times in a row. She was an amazing child throughout the course of her terrible illness. She constantly gave strength, hope and comfort to everyone she encountered. Right up to the very end she was the one who always expressed concern for others and made sure they were “all right” around her… Eventually, she went into a coma for six unbearable weeks and passed away.

A year before her death, while bald from all that horrific chemotherapy, Sonia and my brother were sent by the local Make-A-Wish chapter on an all-expenses paid trip to Disney World in Florida. It was the happiest vacation of her tragically brief life.

Kevin and his partner were struck by the irony of my family's eerily similar loss, and offered me the job of writing the screenplay of Linda's (and Chris') life story. Although I had feelings of dread at all the painful memories the writing process would inevitably bring up for me, I accepted on the spot, knowing it would be an important work and a once-in-a-lifetime labor of love.

I left for Phoenix a week later to meet Linda and to research her story - the subject of the screenplay I would then come home to write. Those three days were filled with moments of exhilarating inspiration as well as poignant, haunting feelings of grief and loss.

Everywhere I went I seemed to hear the faraway echoes of a little boy's laughter. I visited the apartment where they lived, interviewed the doctor that treated Chris, visited the tiny, neighborhood schools he briefly attended, and stood silently in the hospital room where he died.

On my return to L.A., I immediately quit my job at the Lampoon and locked myself up for the next six weeks. As I began to structure the scenes of my screenplay, all those feelings and memories surrounding my niece's death came flooding back to me in a flash - the same sights, same sounds and same smells! It made me realize how raw and open my wounds still were.

There's a much bigger picture out there, and each and every one of us is but a tiny fragment of it.

I have now turned in my third draft and offers are currently out to a director and an actress. Production is planned for this summer in Phoenix, and by everyone's reckoning this film is destined to win every award in the book.

Now all I have to deal with is getting kosher meals delivered three times a day to the set!

So why did God plant me at the Lampoon? I don't know, and it may have been my mistake in the first place. But of one thing I am certain - there's a much bigger picture out there, and each and every one of us is but a tiny fragment of it. All we can do is to keep our eye on the ball, and constantly ask ourselves the right questions.

The Almighty will see to everything else.

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