When workaholics are laid off or fired from their jobs, usually they scramble to find another mountain of work under which to live.
But not Lee Kravitz.
In 2008, when Kravitz was laid off as editor-in-chief of Parade magazine, the then-55-year-old journalist and father of three decided to fight the urge to find another job right away.
Instead, he ruminated on what to do with his life, and he began to focus on some things he’d promised to make happen over the years — but never did.
These things nagged at him, so he decided to devote a year of his life to taking care of what he called “unfinished business”: supplying a Kenyan refugee camp with books for its library, paying back a travel companion for a loan from 33 years ago, writing the eulogy he never delivered because he skipped out on the funeral.
After he completed 10 tasks, he wrote a book about his experiences — and also discovered a renewed sense of self.
“My sense of Jewishness has never been stronger than after completing my unfinished business,” Kravitz said in an interview. He credited “the Jewish part of me” as “the engine that made [the project] possible.”
“Unfinished Business: One Man’s Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things” was published last month. It is a candid account of how a person takes all the things he always meant to do and transforms them into meaningful learning experiences.
In writing the book, “I had to be honest from the point of view of my emotions,” he said. “Because you have to really open yourself up to yourself and expose yourself before you can successfully address your unfinished business.”
Since the book was published, Kravitz has been getting plenty of feedback from relatives, friends and even strangers touched by how he goes about making amends.
He also has found an unexpected audience: young adults.
“I’ve heard from many young people … that my book is a cautionary tale to not make your career all of your life, to achieve some balance in all that you do, and to not drown in your career and cut yourself off from people who matter to you,” Kravitz said.
In addition to promoting the book — his national tour will bring him to San Francisco and Alameda next week — he also has been preparing for the b’nai mitzvah of his twins, Caroline and Ben, which was slated for June 5 in upstate New York.
“It will be the most Jewish ceremony in the history of Dutchess County,” Kravitz said, laughing, a few days before the ceremony. “It’s pretty amazing when you think of the history of religious worship, that my daughter will stand shoulder to shoulder with my son as they both assert their Jewish identity amidst friends and family and cows. It’s going to be wonderful.”
The Lee Kravitz from two years ago may not have been so enthusiastic about a weekend of shmoozing and celebrating.
Before he set out to complete his unfinished business, he was working so many hours and with such intensity that even when he was home with his children, his mind was at work.
“I just was not present in their presence,” Kravitz recalled. “Now, whether I’m watching ‘American Idol’ or going to baseball games or even being in the car with them, I’m listening to them more. And they feel heard more.”
Kravitz, soon to be 57, began his first round of unfinished business where he grew up, in Cleveland. He flew there to see if he could find his Aunt Fern, who “disappeared” after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Kravitz hadn’t seen or heard from her in 14 years.
“The notion of writing a book didn’t come to me until I actually found my aunt,” he said. “The deep love and joy I experienced led me to want to take other journeys, and to write a book, which would give me the opportunity to reflect upon my experiences and share those with other people.”
After finding Aunt Fern in a long-term care facility southeast of Cleveland, Kravitz set out to make a long-overdue condolence call to a high school buddy whose daughter was killed in Iraq, thank a high school mentor, and let go of a 45-year-old grudge.
“I could never have predicted exactly how my encounters would turn out,” he said. “If you go into it like I did, sincerely, with an open mind and heart, the result is usually pretty good.”
Lee Kravitz will speak and sign books at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 16 at Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, S.F.; and at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 17 at Books Inc., 1344 Park St., Alameda. Share your own stories of unfinished business at www.myunfinishedbusiness.com.
“Unfinished Business: One Man’s Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things” by Lee Kravitz (224 pages, Bloomsbury USA, $25)