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My Friendship and Journey With Albert Maysles

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Fifteen years ago I decided to make a film with my dog, a black and white Shih Tzu named Chelsea. She entered my life when my maternal instincts were at an all time high as was my career as a television producer. I was traveling constantly and as much I wanted a dog, I resisted — I was away so much I couldn’t keep my plants alive, I wondered how I could keep a dog alive. Then fate stepped in. Chelsea was in a home that had too many dogs and too many children and she was no longer welcomed. I was warned that if I did not take her she would not have a bright future. The minute Chelsea looked at me it was love at first site. It is possible to be a human and relate to a dog? I knew the feeling of being in a family that did not want you. My heart and soul were so deeply touched by her; I knew I could not leave her there. I was out the door with Chelsea under my arm flying back to Los Angeles. Our relationship grew so tight that we were hardly apart. I took her almost everywhere with me hidden in a bag. She went on television shoots, to parties, on dates, to restaurants and to movies.

We moved back to New York and that was when I saw how people reacted to her on the streets, in the subways, wherever we went. She brought a smile and softened even the scariest people I had encountered. I watched her transform the mood of others. I knew then I had to make a movie with her and show the positive affects of the human/canine relationship. I also knew I needed to include life from her point of view. It was 2001 before 9/11. I had a special doggie cam built for her and we hit the streets of New York with a small crew.

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It was at this time I met Albert Maysles. One of my crewmembers knew someone who worked for him and decided it was would be great to shoot a meeting with the master documentarian. When we arrived, Chelsea was wearing her doggiecam and we were capturing the scene both from her camera and a camera shot by a human. Albert was amazed to see this little dog wearing a camera. He invited us into a private room where we sat and spoke. In the same way I was touched when I first saw Chelsea, I was touched when I first met Albert by his warmth and generosity. We gabbed about many things including the impact of animals on people. I brainstormed titles for the film. Asked him what he thought about the word “dogamentary” which I planned on using to describe the film as opposed to a documentary. He said it sounded contrived. I responded that it was and ended up using it.

It was time to say good-bye; we had been there an hour or two already. We packed our equipment and Albert came over and embraced me and kissed me on my cheeks with so much love and affection like we were old friends. I knew when I left I had made a life-long friend that I would treasure forever. Albert’s door remained open to me. When I left a message I would hear back from him within a days time.

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9/11 happened soon after and life changed in a split second; my film with Chelsea did too. Our studio was close on the westside of New York by the Hudson River. That morning I was in my studio finishing a TV proposal that I was going to have a meeting about with Lifetime TV at 11:00 when my phone rang. It was my mother telling me a small plane went into the World Trade Center and I should go out and check. I immediately turned on the television. Even though at that point they thought it was a small aircraft that accidentally crashed into the building my gut said it was terrorism. I had just finished developing a film and TV series called OST22, Operation Stop Terrorism 22 inspired by a childhood friend of mine, Steven Emerson. Steve had dedicated his life to preventing terrorism and I had picked his brain. I grabbed Chelsea and, with camera in hand, went out to the river. What I saw happen, I never imagined in my entire life I would ever see — people fleeing for their lives, mothers screaming for their children, firemen with no pants on walking with their jackets slung over their shoulder defeated, sharing with me they lost all their men.

From 30 blocks north I witnessed the Twin Towers collapse. It was unreal. I felt like I was watching the film Die Hard. As people escaped no one looked back. Among the crowd was a woman dressed in her Wall Street business suit. She stopped when she spotted Chelsea and asked if she could pick her up. I said of course. I knew then that life was not about us but about helping others.

Chelsea got certified immediately to be a therapy dog and we soon were regularly visiting the converted pier where survivors and family members of those lost went for help. I watched Chelsea bring her love and cheer to them and the rescue workers. When that pier closed, we volunteered in hospitals. That is when I spoke with Albert and asked him if he would shoot Chelsea’s work as a therapy dog. He was on board. Albert’s magic with capturing special moments can be seen in this film, A DOG’S LIFE: A DOGAMENTARY. The New York Times even showed up and did a feature story. It was time to put together the DVD and I wanted Albert to see the film and to do an exclusive interview. I was concerned that Albert might not like it because it was far from his style of cinema verité or as he and his brother coined “Direct Cinema.” It was not a true documentary. I narrated it and created scenes to tell a story.

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When he finished watching it he looked up at me and told me he loved it. I was shocked. I was convinced he was just being kind to me. Then we did our interview and he kept saying I had to get it to HBO. So much that he decided to shepherd it there. I have Albert to thank for making our HBO premiere happen.

Our relationship continued on for years. He joined my advisory board of my current film, LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER! I remember last year one cold winter night; I was having a meeting in my studio when my doorbell rang. It was Albert standing there with my neighbor who had helped him find our studio. He was lost roaming the halls. Our building is one city block long and easy to get lost in. I had no idea Albert was coming. Albert was always there for me whenever he could be no matter the obstacles. The last time I saw him was when his film IRIS premiered at the New York Festival in the fall. I spoke with him at length before the film started. I noticed he was limping and asked him what was happening and he told me they wanted him to have knee replacement surgery. He was not keen on doing it because it would take him out of commission for a month. Albert did not want to miss anything.

I got quite busy with launching my film. It was three days before his death that I received the shocking news of the sudden turn in his health. Albert was fatally ill and barely conscious. Albert, my friend whom I loved very much, was dying. I wanted to see him, to hug him, to tell him I loved him and thank him for all he had done for me. My friend, my supporter, my colleague — whom I shared so many deeply personal stories with, as he shared stories of his life with me — was leaving this world. I would no longer be able to call him, to see him or speak with him. I sent a message to Albert through his friend who shared the news with me, and waited to see if it was possible to visit him. The next word I received a couple days later was of his passing. I am lucky and blessed to have had Albert in my life for several years. He was truly a legend in his time and one of the most humble people I knew. RIP Albert. I love you and thank you for all!

View Original Article via Huffington Post HERE

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My Journey Back to Health

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I have spent the last three years working intensely on a deeply personal film, a story I felt compelled to tell. Many people joined me in this effort in various capacities. Some came on board to help with organizing the massive amount of footage, others with editing, research, web development, social media and many other tasks. Our team ranged from top professionals to interns who were in school or recent graduates.

To launch the project we ran a Kickstarter campaign and raised our first funds from 200 backers. Over the next couple of years we raised additional funds through grants and private backers. We now had many people who supported the film and were eager to see the results.

When I started this film I had already made several documentaries, many for television and a few independent films, and had created and produced many non-fiction TV shows. I moved ahead in my career with passion and confidence, earning awards along the way. My years in television taught me how to work quickly and efficiently and turn around a compelling story in a matter of days.

Something had happened to me. My current film was not moving fast. Granted it was feature length with much more source material but there was something else slowing me down.

As I dug into my past, dug into my childhood diaries, I started to relive it. And all of sudden, I was no longer funny, outgoing, or sociable. Eventually, all of those who were working with me in my studio were done with their jobs. As I sunk emotionally, I welcomed my privacy. I was now the wounded girl from my childhood who was seething with anger. My fuse was short and I had lost my patience. I found myself in war almost everyday — it didn’t matter with whom. It could be the person who accidentally stepped on my heels walking up the stairs in the subway, or the taxi driver who cut me off on the streets, or AT&T over my bills or my mother for another critical comment (which I use to let roll off of me). I was always healthy but soon was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. I knew in my heart that this was brought on by my emotional state. I found myself in the hands of western doctors trying to treat it without success.

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My sweet dog, who brought me so much love that I even made a film with her, had already passed away. My boyfriend and I often found ourselves at odds and decided to go our separate ways. And a dear girlfriend of mine for many years dumped me. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that my sweet friend who I always laughed with and loved traveling with was going to end our long relationship over something I said in a moment of pain. I reached out to her with letters and gifts but got no response. I realized she had made her decision and I was now out of her life. What was happening? What happened to the person people used to gravitate to, who they wanted to hang around, who brought people together, and was filled with love and good cheer? I was now so vulnerable that it took little for me to cry. I often found myself walking the streets and crying, hiding behind my dark sunglasses.

I related to every underdog I saw. I wanted to embrace every homeless person and did on occasion. My power drained out and I was now filled with fear and angst. What I never thought would happen, happened — I lost my way, I lost my voice, I lost my confidence and all that was left was a bitter, supersensitive, depressed, raw version of myself. I wondered how I would climb out of the hole I fell in. I had a film to finish and many people were waiting for it.

I hired story consultants and editors. They often challenged my ideas and I was soon convinced they must be right.

I finally had a rough cut, but it still was not feeling right to me. I decided to host a feedback screening and filled the room with 20 top editors, directors and writers. Everyone had an opinion and my head was spinning. The film needed work and I searched for an editor who I hoped would be my savior. With no luck and time passing, I had no one else to turn to but myself. I sat alone for some weeks and worked on the film. I needed to get it done. I was feeling like such a failure. “Finish the goddamn film!” I would hear from my mother. “How is the film coming?” others would often ask. Granted, in my world of documentary filmmaking, two to three years is not a long time to complete a feature documentary. One has to stop and raise money and do many other things to move it ahead. But for the layman it sounded like an outrageous amount of time.

With the encouragement of an advisor, I put aside my anxiety delaying the completion of the film as best I could. And then something happened while working alone and not influenced by others. I allowed my voice to come out — my voice, which I had silenced. I knew then that I had to change the tone of the film, lighten it up and restructure it. It all became clear to me. In a matter of three weeks, with the help of a fellow TV producer, my film had finally reached the place I wanted it to be. There was now humor and a strong message.

I did all it takes to finish the film including the sound mix and was now ready to show it to others. I arranged a couple private screenings. The reaction gave me confidence to go forward. I was most worried about the reactions from my mother and brother, and arranged another screening for nearly 100 people including them. That evening could not have gone better – there was even a standing ovation. It was a huge relief for me to have their blessings. Now I could release the film widely knowing I would not be offending them.

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I am getting my power and humor back, and know I will be stronger than I was before. I can feel the anger leaving and being replaced by love and gratitude. After being treated for my autoimmune disease by many western and eastern doctors and healers with no success, I have learned how to heal myself and my illness is nearly gone. This, to me, is the greatest gift I have received. I am convinced when we fall down and lose our way there is a reason. It is an opportunity for us to grow.

I am now ready to embrace the world and shepherd this film out and turn my attention away from me to others and give all that I have learned. Life is an exciting journey I am so grateful to be on.

Read the original article published on Huffington Post POST50 HERE

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The Importance of All Relationships

Relationships, one of the many things that’s highlighted in Look At Us Now, Mother.  As we all know, relationships play a major role in our lives.  I read blogs, articles, books, and seen movies about all different kinds of relationships that humans have.  There’s the relationship you have with your friends, families, pets, significant others, bosses, co-workers, etc.  You name it, you have a relationship with it.  What I want to know is why each relationship we have with someone or somebody is significant or important?  (Mind you, as you read this , this is all based on what I’ve seen, read, and experienced from personal events of life).

To answer my own question, I started looking at the various types of relationships I have, and picked three to highlight.  I’ll start with Friends, because that’s always a good place to start.  Friends are nowhere near as annoying as your family members.  They help enhance your social life, by going to dinner with you in a new environment, or even introducing you to new people.  If you don’t want to talk about something with a family member, you most likely turn to your best friend, or closest friends.  Friends have been by your side for either a short period of time, or since you were both in diapers practically.  This type of relationship is important because you can classify some family, significant others, and even co-workers into this category.  You can have a lot of friends, whether it’s an acquaintance, close friend, best friend…the term “friend” is broad.  A friend will most likely always be there for you when you want to get away from everything, that’s what I’ve learned.

Significant others.  Either a lovely subject that makes your heart smile, or a hateful subject that fuels the fire for your hatred towards the person.  Whatever it may be, this relationship normally plays an important role in how you feel and what your mood is on a daily basis.  You wake up and fall asleep next to them, and if not, you always hear from them first thing in the morning and last thing at night.  To be corny, they “mean the world to you,” you “love and care about them so much,” and you “have never been made happier by anyone else.”  Your heart melts when you think of this person, and you would do just about anything for them.  So why is this relationship significant?  In my opinion, you want to share the most precious moments with who you claim to be your “other half.”  You will experience the most beautiful things in life with this person, and cherish them forever.  However, if things fail or succeed with this person, you grow and learn from the experience.  Trust me on this one.  This person will become part of who you are and who you become, and that’s one reason why this type of relationship is important.

Family.  You have your mom, dad, sisters or brothers, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents…the list goes on.  These people are with you in your life the day you’re born, and nothing will change that.  Even if you’re adopted, that new family and extended family will always be in your life, and that’s one reason why this type of relationship is the most important of them all.  The love you have for one another will be unconditional.  Yes, you will have tough times and hate them for brief periods of time, but that’s life.  We also may have a great relationship with one parent and not the other.  Your bond with these people is unbreakable.  Here’s an example of a family relationship that was nowhere near great, but with hard work, it became powerful:

Look At Us Now, Mother! takes a look at Gayle’s very unique relationship with her mother.  Although their relationship wasn’t great when Gayle was growing up, she and her mother are now best friends because family is inseparable.  Gayle’s mother was not kind to Gayle while she was growing up, and once convinced her to get a nose job.  Now they’re best friends and are mending their once broken relationship.  There’s no way to describe it, but families work in weird, but wonderful ways.

The moral and message of this blog is to emphasize how important each relationship in your life is, and how important it is that you cherish each relationship you have.  You will never realize what you have until it’s gone, so cherish it like you would an unhatched bird egg.  Family, friends, significant others, co-workers, bosses, the list can go on and on, but these relationships will play a key role in how you live your life.  As humans, we thrive on relationships with people to learn, interact, and not go certifiably insane.  So here’s my advice: don’t isolate yourself from anyone.  Build up your existing relationships, and even start some new ones.  Get out there, be a social butterfly, and enjoy your life with the people that matter most to you.

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Garden State: A Film About Life

***This post contains spoilers***

The film Garden State in my opinion comes pretty close to life changing. I’ve watched it many times, and each time, I have realized something different. There are so many topics and issues this film touches upon: love, depression, anxiety, death, tragedy, relationships with parents and friends, finding who you are. I watched it again recently and focused more on the main character’s personality. He is quite a mystery in the beginning because he is so closed off from the rest of the world. I came to the conclusion that the reason that he is like this is because of his relationship with his parents. Then I realized that our own relationships with our parents can really influence our attitudes, our opinions, and our relationships with other people.

The movie focuses on Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) who seems to be merely floating through life, sort of in his own world and disconnected. His face shows a very absent expression, and his eyes are unemotional and vacant. When he finds out that his paraplegic mother has drowned in the bathtub, his blank facial expression does not change. This is because he has been heavily medicated with antidepressants and anti- anxiety drugs since he was a little boy, which his father, who is also his psychiatrist, prescribed to him. He decides to stop taking his drugs because he wants to “take a little vacation.” The film follows Andrew as he thinks back on all the relationships and experiences he’s ever had in his life. He reconnects with old friends, talks to his dad after a decade of not communicating with him, and falls in love. He decides that he needs to find who he really is because for most his life, he has been completely numb.

Andrew has been this way because his father has blamed him for his mother’s paralysis, and therefore, he has blamed himself. When he was little, he had pushed her. She fell over onto the dishwasher that had fallen open leaving her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. His father put him on the meds, and ever since then he has never known what it is like to really feel something. In one scene Andrew and his father try to fix their relationship. His father says that it’s possible for them to be OK if he can forgive himself for what he did. Andrew responds by saying that he was a little boy and “somebody made a shitty latch.” He finally realizes that what happened was a terrible accident and was never really his fault. All his life, his father tried to control his feelings. He tells his father that he will not take his meds anymore because he is sick of feeling numb to everything he experiences, and he finally sets himself free.

“What I want more than anything in the world is for it to be okay with you for me to feel something again. Even if it’s pain.”

Andrew goes through a transformation. At his mother’s funeral, he has that blank emotionless stare. By the end of the film, he has let a tear fall, laughed and smiled, said more than “yeah” or “no,” and fallen in love. In the past, he was never able to do these things because he punished himself for what happened to his mother. He finally accepts the fact that in order to find himself and who he is, he has to let himself feel something real, even if that feeling is pain.

Our relationships with our parents are one of our biggest influences, whether they are overbearing, barely there, or even never there. But despite the nature of these relationships, it truly shapes how we think of ourselves and of others, how we act towards others, and our relationships with other people whether it is romantic or friendly. Because Andrew’s father told him that it was his fault that his mother was paralyzed, he blamed himself for how sad and screwed up his life was. Even after he had moved away from home, his father still prescribed him these meds to control his emotions and anxieties. As children, we believe everything our parents tell us. But as we grow older, we must figure out certain things for ourselves. We need to feel happiness, pain, love, and sadness. Once we reach a certain age, our parents cannot control how we feel. They teach us certain ideas, lessons, and values, and once we are ready, they let us out into the world to explore who we really are as individuals.

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Are Your Parents Toxic?

Just as it is difficult to deal with an abusive boyfriend or girlfriend, it is horrible dealing with a toxic parent. One woman says that her mother left her a message on her birthday once wishing that she gets a disease. That’s horrible for anyone to say to someone else, let alone a mother to a daughter, let alone on a birthday. Her mother was then approaching death, and she was faced with the decision to forgive her or continue to ignore her. Unlike with an unhealthy relationship with a spouse, you can’t get a divorce from a toxic relationship with a parent, unless you choose to lose contact, but he or she will always be your parent.

One man in his mid-20s had come out as gay with his religious parents, who responded by disowning him. At a later family dinner, his father took him aside and told him that it would have been better if he, rather than his younger brother, had died in a car accident several years previously. This obviously was a very harsh and cruel statement, which could probably make the son depressed to know that his own father wants him dead. And the son did end up becoming depressed, with low self-esteem. It is powerful to know that words have such a dramatic effect. When the parents met with the therapist, the therapist could not convince the parents that the son’s sexual orientation was not his choice. The therapist decided that he should lose all contact with his parents. He still, however, thought of them because research on early attachment, in human and non-human primates, shows that we are hardwired for bonding, even with those who aren’t very nice to us.

Sometimes parents can be critical with their children as students, demanding phenomenal performance all the time, thus creating perfectionists who fear taking risks and fall short of their potential. If the child’s standards get in the way of being successful and happy, something is wrong. These children are terrified of making mistakes and it affects their performance. In a study, parents rated their gifted offspring as more prone to anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic complaints than children in the normal intelligence range. It seems as though gifted children have more of a burden or expectation to reach a high achievement and with critical parents it makes the situation difficult, making them perfectionists and worried about making mistakes. If they have someone constantly telling them that they’re not good enough, the gifted students are going to feel the pressure and stress because they feel that they have no choice but to do better. Parents should be supportive rather than critical, so that way the students feel confident rather than worried. When students are confident and relaxed, they perform better.

As you can see, parents can fall into the trap of being toxic. Whether you wish your daughter gets a disease or whether you are critical about your children’s school performance, both are abusive and should be avoided. Words are extremely powerful and should be used carefully, especially with your children. Sometimes it seems that altogether avoiding the toxic parent is the best measure if the abuse is too detrimental to handle. However, ignoring your parent is a big decision and if there is a way to make amends, it would be better.

References

Elias, Marilyn. “Critical, Demanding Parents Can Damage Gifted Children.” USATODAY.com. N.p., 21 Aug. 2005. Web. 06 Feb. 2013. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/2005-08-21-gifted-kids_x.htm>.

Friedman, Richard A., M.D. “When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerate.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2009. Web. 06 Feb. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/health/20mind.html?_r=1>.

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Abusive Parents or Disciplining a Troubled Child?

Well I must say, this headline certainly caught my attention. In Flagler County, Florida parents publicly humiliated their daughter for her unacceptable behavior. On a busy intersection the teenager, Jasmine, had to hold up a sign reading

Jasmine I sneak boys in at 3am and disrespect my parents and grandparents

This tactic has many divided, with some feeling the parents have gone overboard and this could cause more emotional harm to Jasmine. While others believe this is exactly what this disobedient child needs to stop her bad behavior. It’s a thin line between abuse and tough love. Personally, I agree with this tactic. If I had to put money on it, I would say Jasmine will no longer be bringing in boys at all hours of the night. Her mother listed a few other behaviors (partying, drinking, disrespectful language), and I’m sure the threat of having to be publicly humiliated will make her think twice before she chooses to engage in those activities.

The nay-sayers believe that there are other ways to get Jasmine to stop her bad behavior, and this could cause emotional damage. I’m not disagreeing. Yes, there is chance Jasmine might be scarred for life, hate her parents, and bring over more boys to defy her parents, but I don’t think so. The fear of being humiliated again, I believe, will gear her to make the “right” decisions.

I want to hear from you. Would you use this tactic to discipline your child after all else has failed? Are these parents going overboard and actually abusing their daughter? Is this right? And, if you were Jasmine would this type of punishment deter you from your unacceptable behavior?

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Chelsea

Chelsea has come back big time. For those who don’t know, she was near death a few weeks ago. I ran her to doctors, she had blood work, ultrasounds and we got a second opinion. They told me her liver and kidney were failing and that she had a mass inside. One doctor said it was in her liver and the other in her spleen. She wouldn’t eat anything. I tried a variety of foods and she was just not interested. It was an chore to get her to eat something, anything. She barely walked. I cried my heart out as you can imagine. She has been my longest companion and actually for those who are dog lovers you will understand when I say she is my “canine soulmate”. Fate brought Chelsea into my life over 13 years ago and it was a mutual rescue. I had the date when she would go to doggie heaven and then took a trip up to Hartsdale to visit the oldest pet cemetery in the country. Decided on the location, the box and made a decision I’d find someone to make a headstone with Chelsea’s image carved into it. Thinking about making the decision to put her to sleep and loosing her was excruciating. I wanted to do what she wanted and wished she could speak to me. I even went to a friend who help guides me through difficult times and she confirmed that the time was now for Chelsea. She even began crying saying she loved Chelsea, too. I was trying to prepare myself as best I could. I decided to take her off her meds. She didn’t like them anyway and if she was going to die why torment her with them. The doctors told me she should be on a reduced protein diet since she had liver disease. I decided since she wouldn’t eat anything, I would just try to get her to eat and I knew she loved animal protein.. After rejecting everything I had offered her for days, weeks, I defrosted some brisket I had made. I heated it up and hand fed her it. I didn’t have to trick her to get her to eat. She wanted the brisket all on her own. And couldn’t get enough. Chelsea has come back to life big time. Eating almost anything, running, jumping. Her limp is gone. Oh, she had developed that some months ago – arthritis. Not sure what’s going on inside her I only see what is going on outside and I feel like I have my dog-ter back in a big way. We have made three trips to the country. She is featured in the podcast which will start soon. And we just can’t get enough of each other. Perhaps she came back to help me out. I have to go in for surgery tomorrow. I believe it will be nothing. It’s outpatient and if the pathology is fine, I’m on my way.

Mom is flying in today. Yup, she is always there for her kids. My brothers have kept her busy the last few years with their health problems and I guess now it’s my time. We are going to get her up blogging (if she agrees.. how could she not, she loves attention. Yes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.) And perhaps she will teach me how to use the webcam she uses when speaking with her grandson. Mom is pretty high tech.
The staff here has grown and this is not just a working space but a living space. It is getting pretty cozy here. I’ve got to go. Love to all!

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The Little Kings show

We are in production on a new show I developed and sold to Discovery  about a wonderful dwarf family, The Kings, who are adopting a dwarf child in Albania.   They are there now and have gotten the final approval.  We are all incredibly excited.

Meet my new friends.   Will keep you all posted. I am hoping to get over to Albania to help them bring home their newly adopted son.  It’s been a long haul to get this far. Adoption is complicated enough never mind international adoption and adding on that the difficulties of being “little people” and just getting around, particularly in Albania. Let’s just say they haven’t passed the Albanian with Disabilities Act and improved conditions for the disabled.  As my grandmother would say, “Oy vay!”   I pray that their time there is a stressless as possible and filled with lots of love and joy.  What a great new family match!

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