Archive for March, 2011

There Was an Old Addict

There was an old addict who swallowed some shame.

It fueled the self-hatred which burned like a flame.

I don’t know why he swallowed the shame-

Perhaps he’s in pain.

There was an old addict who drank down some liquor.

It pickled his liver and made him much sicker.

He drank down the liquor to hide the shame.

I don’t know why he swallowed the shame-

Perhaps he’s in pain.

There was an old addict who gobbled some pills.

His body responded with sweating and chills.

He gobbled the pills to balance the liquor.

He drank down the liquor to hide the shame.

I don’t know why he swallowed the shame-

Perhaps he’s in pain.

There was an old addict who shot up some dope.

He numbed himself out ‘cuz he just couldn’t cope.

He shot up the dope cuz he ran out of pills.

He gobbled the pills to balance the liquor.

He drank down the liquor to hide the shame.

I don’t know why he swallowed the shame-

Perhaps he’s in pain.

There was an old addict who sucked a crack pipe.

To buy it he used all the money he’d swipe.

He sucked at the pipe to wake up from the dope

He shot up the dope cuz he ran out of pills.

He gobbled the pills to balance the liquor.

He drank down the liquor to hide the shame.

I don’t know why he swallowed the shame-

Perhaps he’s in pain.

There was an old addict who jerked off to porn.

He’d pull ’til it throbbed in the bright early morn.

He jerked off to calm down after sucking the pipe.

He sucked at the pipe to wake up from the dope

He shot up the dope cuz he ran out of pills.

He gobbled the pills to balance the liquor.

He drank down the liquor to hide the shame.

I don’t know why he swallowed the shame-

Perhaps he’s in pain.

There was an old addict who binged ’til he purged.

Through his system the sugar and greasy food surged.

He binged and he purged once he stopped jerking off.

He jerked off to calm down after sucking the pipe.

He sucked at the pipe to wake up from the dope

He shot up the dope cuz he ran out of pills.

He gobbled the pills to balance the liquor.

He drank down the liquor to hide the shame.

I don’t know why he swallowed the shame-

Perhaps he’s in pain.

There was an old addict who gambled his savings.

His rent went unpaid as he fostered the cravings.

He gambled his savings with guilt from the purge.

He binged and he purged once he stopped jerking off.

He jerked off to calm down after sucking the pipe.

He sucked at the pipe to wake up from the dope

He shot up the dope cuz he ran out of pills.

He gobbled the pills to balance the liquor.

He drank down the liquor to hide the shame.

I don’t know why he swallowed the shame-

Perhaps he’s in pain.

There was an old addict smoked four packs a day.

He’d cough up black phlegm with each word that he’d say.

He’d smoke like a fiend while he gambled his savings.

He gambled his savings with guilt from the purge.

He binged and he purged once he stopped jerking off.

He jerked off to calm down after sucking the pipe.

He sucked at the pipe to wake up from the dope

He shot up the dope cuz he ran out of pills.

He gobbled the pills to balance the liquor.

He drank down the liquor to hide the shame.

I don’t know why he swallowed the shame-

Perhaps he’s in pain.

There was an old addict who purchased a gun.

He loaded it knowing his suffering was done.

He loaded the gun as he smoked like a fiend.

He’d smoke like a fiend while he gambled his savings.

He gambled his savings with guilt from the purge.

He binged and he purged once he stopped jerking off.

He jerked off to calm down after sucking the pipe.

He sucked at the pipe to wake up from the dope

He shot up the dope cuz he ran out of pills.

He gobbled the pills to balance the liquor.

He drank down the liquor to hide the shame.

I don’t know why he swallowed the shame-

Perhaps he’s in pain.

There was an old addict who blew off his head.

And now he is dead.



Once You Go Black…

Did you ever hear someone say that they are color blind?  In terms of people, I mean.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  That feigned liberal bullshit.  “I don’t even see people’s color!” they will proclaim.  “We’re all just part of the human rainbow.  I don’t see a color.  All I see is a person.”  Really?  That’s what you are selling?  You don’t see color?  So if I put a black person and a white person in front of you and told you I’d give you fifty bucks if you can pick out the black person, you think you might lose the bet?  Jesus!  It drives me crazy.  It feels like the worst kind of denial.  The idea that the most efficient way to deal with racial tension in this country is to pretend that it doesn’t exist.  How does a person tell themselves that they can be part of the solution by trying to teach people to ignore what is right in front of them?  Of course you see color.  Unless you are a blind person, you see color.  And you respond to it.  You may think that your experience of looking at a white person or a black person are identical, but they aren’t.  Neither is your experience of looking at a man or a woman or a tall person or a short person or a fat person or a thin person.  What we see is always part of the equation.  And we all have an endless array of experiences leading us to make certain prejudicial determinations based on initial observances.  That is not a problem.  That is as normal a part of humanity as breathing and blinking.  The problem is when someone refuses to look beyond those initial reactions.  Or when they respond to their fear around those initial reactions by pretending that they never happened in the first place.  Color blind, indeed.

I’m so damned careful when I am around black people.  I don’t like it.  It really bothers me.  It feels like a balancing act and I’m never entirely sure why this is.  No doubt, there are multiple factors both individual and psychosocial.  There are parts both overt and covert.  It’s a fascinating subject and one that I have every intention of continuing to investigate in the most transparent way possible.  So, in spite of the fact that I have no shot at sounding even minimally professorial and may once again get myself into hot water, I’m gonna take a shot at it anyway.

I wish to tell you about my own experience.  And, as I said, my interactions with people of color (this includes Latinos but shows up far more prominently for me with black people) feel far less authentic, and require a far greater expenditure of energy, that my interactions with white folks.  I am not, and have never been, even minimally racist (although I guess the definition of that word is understood in the eyes and ears of the beholder)- yet, when I’m around a black friend or acquaintance, I find myself watching and reviewing my word choices somewhat obsessively for fear that I’ll say or do the wrong thing.  Of course, that opens up the door to fall headlong into the trap of white guilt.  I understand this to be a far more pervasive issue than racism as it’s so much easier to fall victim to.  What I mean is, nobody runs around saying nigger or porch monkey without realizing that they are doing it.  It’s a very conscious choice.  And, quite frankly, from my vantage point, the more overt the better.  If I am talking with a person and they say, “The blacks are ruining this country,” they have given me a gift.  I am entirely clear that I want no part of this individual and I can make a swift and clean break.  The covert racist is a little trickier.  I have often gotten to know people who I find quite fun and interesting and all of a sudden they say, “I’m not sure I like them bussing in all these black kids to the grammar school.”  Oh shit.  Really?  Damn.  Do I want to address this?  Should I just stop talking to them?  It’s so unnerving and disappointing.  It’s like finding out someone is a covert Republican.  If they’re blowing up abortion clinics it becomes simple.  But what if they just think that George W. Bush is an American hero?  Is that a deal breaker?  Can I really keep knowing this person?

And this brings me back to white guilt.  This refers to the ways in which I respond to racism “on behalf” of black people rather than on behalf of my own beliefs and code of morals.  And, if I’m being honest, I’m not always sure of the difference.  When someone makes a racist comment, my disgust certainly feels genuine, but I often wonder if some of the disgust revolves around what a black person would think if they were standing next to me and, perhaps more importantly, to what extent this white person speaks on behalf of me in that I, myself, am a white person.

Perhaps my favorite example of white guilt shows up in the first season of the television show, Maude, starring the great Bea Arthur.  Maude likes to proclaim herself as an enlightened liberal … this despite the fact she has a black housekeeper. The episode where Maude hires Florida Evans (eventually to spin off as the matriarch on “Good Times,” which, ironically, I referenced two posts ago) is particularly brutal and cringe-worthy as Maude suffers greatly from what can be charitably be described as white guilt, condescending to Florida to an almost offensive degree. And when Florida has had enough, Maude has the utter audacity to slam her for not having a very high opinion of herself – after all, if she had a high opinion of herself as a strong black woman, then why would she be a maid – even one that Maude herself has hired?

Every time I see that episode, or any behavior reflective of the same issue, I find it utterly nauseating.  I can’t even imagine how it would feel if I myself were black.  And, there it is.  Right there in what my fingers just typed.  That very sentence was my own white guilt.  It was not enough to tell you that the observation of white guilt made me feel nauseous.  I needed to follow it up by saying that my own opinion could not be an informed one by virtue of my whiteness.  I typed the period after the word “nauseating” and was immediately struck by the fantasy of a black person saying, “What do you know about being offended by white guilt, WHITEY?!  Unless you know what it is to be abused or condescended to because of the color of your skin, keep your pale mouth shut!”  What’s really interesting is that, other than in bad movies, I’ve never heard a black person say anything like that.  Ever.  So why is that shaming voice in my head?  Where does it come from?  And I think that is the insidiousness of white guilt.  It is societal.  It is covert.  It’s the polar opposite of racism and yet somehow equally as offensive.  Blacks were treated like animals for so long by white American men that it becomes really difficult to not continually attempt to balance it out.

I have experienced this often as a Jewish person.  I don’t think I have ever had an entirely comfortable conversation with someone of German descent.  Not because I hold resentment toward the nation of Germany (at least none that I am aware of) but because the German person with which I am speaking, once finding out that I am a Jew, clearly begins manifesting a level of caution that makes me feel like something of an invalid.  Interestingly, I have a very similar experience with actual invalids.  I don’t know how to treat them like regular people, which certainly seems to be what they want.  But where’s the line?  If I see someone in a wheel chair in the parking lot of Target attempting to unload their groceries into their car and I ask if I can be of some help, am I being offensive.  I think the message that I am trying to send is, “I can see that unloading your groceries into the car might be a bit of a difficult task and I would like to lend a hand if that feels useful.”  It’s the same message I would attempt to send to a little old lady or a pregnant woman in the same parking lot.  But does the person in the wheelchair somehow hear me say, “Clearly you are a cripple and cannot successfully do what normal people do, so please let me take my perfectly working legs and come to your rescue?”

And it’s far worse for me with the black population.  Because, while I am certainly not adverse to having disabled friends, I am not actively seeking them.  But, to an extent, I do actively seek black friends.  I really like black people.  Not all black people, of course.  You’d need to bring a little more to the table than dark skin for me to want to spend social time with you.  Still, though, blackness carries a lot of weight with me.  When I find myself in the midst of a black person that I do not know (especially at a work or social function), my first instinct is the mental calculation of how I can win them over.

Some of it I can understand.  The surface stuff I get.  Black culture, black expressions, black humor, black music- it all appeals to me.  The Urban Dictionary would tell you that I am best described as a Whigger or a Negreaux or as Faux Ghetto.  I am a wannabe.

Quite frankly, I have the same relationship with women and gay men.  But it feels far trickier, if not treacherous with black people.  I always find that once I befriend a black person, the first thing I want to do is give voice to this issue.  I want to be able to say, “So, here’s the thing.  I think one of the main reasons I want to be your friend is because you are black.  I don’t entirely understand that.  But I want to be genuine with you and, to do that, I feel like I need to be able to process my attraction t your skin color.”  And I have said that.  A few times.  But mostly it feels far too dangerous.  Race is such a hotbed of fear and rage and shame that I both want to flee from it and scream from the rooftops at the top of my lungs, “Black people!  Hear me now!  I love you and I fear you!  I don’t understand this!  Help me!  How do I get you on my side!?  I want to part of the solution!  What do you need from me?!”

And that is really the more difficult side of the equation.  Yes, I really like them.  But, more than that, I desperately want them to like me.  No, that’s not it.  I want more than that.  I want them to accept me.  I want them to take me in as one of their own.  I want this very much.  And I tell myself that one of the key roadways toward accomplishing that goal is the disclosure of my Judaism.  It’s sort of like the Discrimination Olympics.  I figure that even if the blacks win gold, I don’t see how the Jews don’t get silver.  The Holocaust vs. slavery.  Tight race, right?  Surely we are brothers in arms.  Take me in.  Let me play.  C’mon, throw me the ball, black people.  After all, Jews aren’t really white.

But we kind of are.  And this presents yet another issue.  The issue of “passing.”  Most people generally hear this word used in reference to those black people who are lighter skinned or from racially mixed relationships.  This is to say that they often find themselves resented by darker skinned blacks because they have an opportunity that those with darker skin do not have.  They can pass.  Pass as white people, that is.  Or, at least pass as something other than black, be it Dominican or Indian or Mexican.  Whether or not the illusion of begin one of those nationalities might feel preferable to a black person I do not know, but that is hardly the point- especially considering that, in my experience, very few of the lighter skinned blacks accused of “passing,” actually have any interest in passing.  The resentment, I believe, stems not from what they “do” so much as what they have the opportunity to do should they so choose.  And this is true of me as well.  I am a Jew.  I am a proud Jew.  I have no shame about my Judaism.  I have never, in my life, tried to pass as something else.  But I could.  Easily.  In fact, I am generally perceived as being something other than Jewish.  More often than not, I get Italian- sometimes even Latino.  Whether or not, I choose to pass, the opportunity to do so is there.  This is an undeniable difference between me and a dark-skinned black person.  Someone with dark brown skin, gets up every single day of their lives, and has absolutely no choice in going out into the world and being understood by society as a black person.  I’m not saying that they wish to be perceived as something else or that they ought to be.  Either way, though, they can’t.  I can.  I can “pass.”  This produces a strange sense of “in-betweenness” in me.  I don’t understand myself as a white man and I am clearly not a black man.

Again, this sense of not fitting shows up for me in other ways.  I am very female.  Not girly, but quite female.  I understand women better than I do men.  I like women better than I do men.  With men (white heterosexual men anyway) my initial instincts tends to veer toward antagonism.  With women, it is an immediate desire to be loved and accepted.  So I have the experience of being less than male while clearly not being a female.  Don’t worry, I have no desire to dress up in woman’s clothes or exchange my junk.  It’s just the sense of not having a compartment.

My sexuality is the same.  In terms of my sexual preference, I have no history of anything other than heterosexuality.  I have never felt flushed or shaky or erect in response to an attractive man.  Sexually, I am all about women.  And for the last fourteen years and for the rest of my days, one woman in particular.  Other than that, though, I feel far more gay than straight.  I love gay men and gay men love me.  As with black people, I love gay culture and gay humor.  The way gay men tend to live in the world almost always makes more sense to me than the way most straight men live in the world.  So, yet again, I don’t feel straight, but I am certainly not gay.

I can openly express that in many ways I feel like a woman, and people both understand and accept that.  Similarly, I can say that in many ways I feel like a gay man, and people (well, some people) will understand and accept that.  But if I were to say that in many ways I feel like a member of the black community, how does that sound?  It sounds bizarre to me, so I can’t imagine it would be digested well by others, especially black others.

Further, when I am amongst women, I am prone to acting kind of female.  Not that I raise the pitch of my voice and swing my hips back and forth.  I just mean that my softer, female side feels far more liberated to emerge when I am amongst females.  Same with gay men.  When hanging out with a gay friend, I tend to become a lot more- well, it’s the mostly the same side that comes out with the girls, but you get the point.  It’s no different with black people, but I feel a lot less comfortable as a result of it.  In most cases, when hanging out with black people, I become far more prone to use language reminiscent of certain black culture.  I have always sensed that I do this in a way that doesn’t register as inauthentic or needy, and, for the most part, I don’t think that it is.  But, unlike, with the women and the gay men, I almost always fear being called on it.  I inevitably have the fear that a black person will tell me to stop acting black.  I think the shame of that imagined moment would be absolutely crippling.

And I suppose the fear of that moment is, in its own right, a bit crippling.

I am recalling a seminar I gave about five years ago.  My sister lives in Rhode Island and we discussed my coming up there to put on a workshop as it would serve the dual purpose of allowing us to see each other and allowing her to see the kind of work I do.  She helped me get word out and the turnout was pretty solid.  The workshop was called “Building Boundaries” and was to involve a Power Point presentation and workshopping with the membership.  There were exactly (near as I could tell) three non-white people in the room.  One of them was my good friend Jonathan who is Puerto Rican, and the other two were a black father and son who were friends of my sister.  At some point during the workshop, I was speaking about boundaries and limits when it comes to encountering racism.  I said something along the lines of, “Let’s say for example one finds themselves being called a Kike or a Spic or a Ni…..”

And then I stopped cold.  I felt the eyes of two black men boring into me from the their seats in the back and I halted.  I asked them directly, “I feel like I want to ask if your are comfortable with me using the ‘N’ word.”  Even as I am writing this, I feel nauseous about it.  The father said that he had no problem with it but followed the permission with a question: “I’m curious.  Why did you ask my son and I if you could say nigger but did not ask permission to say Kike or Spic?”  I was horrified.  The truth was that I felt okay with Kike because I am a Jew and I tell myself that I therefore have innate permission.  And I believed that the only Hispanic person in the room was Jonathan and our friendship was such that I knew that he would have room for me to process using that word.  I told the man in the back as such.  He responded, “Are you not aware that there could be other people of color in this room that just don’t appear to you as such?”  Fuck.  Of course I knew that.  But my white guilt got the best of me.  This gaffe led to a wonderful conversation among the membership and the workshop was quite successful.  But that moment impacted me enormously.  I’ll never forget it.

I grew up in a family that regularly used the word “Schvartze.”  The term technically means “black” in Yiddish, but is undoubtedly used by almost all as a racial epithet.  I hated when I would hear my parents or grandparents use it.  I had plenty of friends in my youth who would regularly use the word nigger.  What’s worse, they would claim innocence using the psychotic excuse that there are black people and there are niggers.  Wow.  It’s like saying that there are woman and there are cunts; or there are gay men and there are faggots; or there are Italians and there are wops.  And then I heard Chris Rock say that there are black people and there are niggers.  And it was funny as hell.  And I know that comedy was his main purpose.  But what do I glean from that?  Do most black people believe that there are black people and there are niggers?  If they do, are white people now licensed to get on board with that notion?  How can we know?

After all, we are not supposed to talk about such things.  They are too hot.  Too dangerous.  They are unspeakable.

Well, now I’ve spoken them.


Bobby D

I was reading one of my very favorite blogs the other day and came across something which really drew my attention.  Joe Posnanski is, by far, the best sportswriter in the country.  I promise you, you need not be a sports fan to revel in his infectious writing style.  Don’t take my word for it.  Go check it out:

So, anyway, I was perusing a post he wrote called “Inspiration and Perspiration.”  Interestingly, the part of that piece I will share with you has very little to do with the central point of the piece itself.  Joe is actually speaking at length about some newfangled baseball stats and a few perceived idiosyncrasies.  As a sort of introduction to his musings, he uses an example concerning the recent plight of Tiger Woods.  Well, more to the point, the plight of being a fan of Tiger Woods.  He writes:

“Every realistic instinct in my being tells me Tiger Woods is done as the best golfer in the world. Done. I really don’t think he will ever get back up to the top. I’ve been over my reasons a dozen times at least — he’s 35 years old (and probably even older in golf years since he has been playing, since he was 3), he’s had major knee surgery, he can’t find a swing that fits his current body, he has been trampled by the culture he created, and there are many very talented young golfers who grew up with Tiger Woods as their standard of excellence and are not intimidated or unfamiliar with his greatness. I am now at the point where I would be thoroughly surprised if Tiger Woods reached the top again. To tell the truth, I would be less surprised if Tiger Woods fell off the world golf map entirely.

I THINK that … but every time Tiger Woods plays, I again hold my breath. This past week, he’s playing at Doral and I held my breath. And here’s why: Part of me so respects Tiger Woods’ competitive nature that I cannot help think if he WANTS it bad enough, if he GETS ANGRY enough, if he FOCUSES HARD ENOUGH, then he can will himself back into the greatest golfer on earth. I may believe logically that such thoughts are silly or naive or flat misguided, but I still have those thoughts. I can’t help it.”

This is the exact experience I have with Robert Deniro.

I’ve been desirous of giving voice to this for some time now but haven’t found the way in until now.

Just the other day, I saw the preview for Deniro’s latest offering, a film called “Limitless.”  It co-stars Bradley Cooper (of The Hangover) who plays an author who stumbles across a top-secret drug bestowing him with superhuman powers.  Deniro plays a character named Carl Van Loon, a tycoon, who believes he can use the newly powerful Cooper to make a fortune.  The preview itself only had a fraction of my focus until Deniro’s face hit the screen.  And, for a moment, I held my breath.  For a moment I thought, “Maybe this is the one.  Maybe this is the beginning of his ascension back to his rightful throne as the greatest actor in the world.”  Now, if you’ve seen the preview for this particular movie, than you already know that this thought was utterly absurd.  Everything about this movie looks painfully random.  In just the sixty seconds of footage they reveal, it is clear that the movie ought to be called, “Yet Another Shlocky Thriller With an Ordinary Man Thrown Into An Extraordinary Situation Shifting Frantically From Pillar to Post as He Slowly Comes to the Horrifying Realization That There is No One He Can Trust.”  It’s like watching an advertisement for a paint by numbers set.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of a Bob Ross painting.  The director is a hack and the cast is a hodgepodge of B level poseurs.

And yet, I hope.

What is abundantly clear to my eyes is, at least to a degree, offset by the hope I hold in my heart.  That hope, once a raging fire now diminished to a flickering flame, still lives in me.  It continues to seem impossible that Deniro’s brilliance is gone; that the seemingly effortless genius he manifested for a quarter century, is no more.  And yet, the last fifteen years have provided some very compelling evidence that this is very much the case.

But I continue to believe.  It’s in there.  It’s in him.  It has to be.  Talent doesn’t go away.  He just needs to find it again.  Hell, Brando’s talent went underground for nearly two decades.  After “On the Waterfront” in ’54, he produced predominantly dogshit previous to The Godfather in ’72.  If Marlon can do it, Bobby can do it.  But then I watch yet another trailer for some treacly piece of crap which he is clearly participating in for no other reason than to bank a paycheck and the hope dims all the more.

I discovered Robert Deniro in 1988.  I was fifteen, and my dad took me to the movies one Saturday to see a film called “Midnight Run.”  It completely blew me out of the water.  It’s ultimately nothing more than a lightweight buddy movie, but it’s most certainly one of the best of its kind.  In the film, Charles Grodin plays a nebbishe accountant who robs his mobster clients for a fortune and Deniro plays the bounty hunter charged to get him back for his appointed court date.  Deniro’s performance hypnotized me.  It had been a year or so since I had gotten bitten by the acting bug and I had never seen anyone do it quite like this guy.  To cap it off, I would come to realize that I had already seen Deniro in two movies without any idea that it was the same guy.  The year before, Deniro had taken two supporting roles in major films, playing Al Capone in “The Untouchables” and the devil in “Angel Heart.”  I had adored both those movies and thought both performances to be of the highest order.  And yet, until doing a little research, I had not a clue that the same man gave both performances; or that the very same guy co-starred in this movie I saw with my pop.

I had a new hero.  I was completely obsessed with this man.  He was the actor I wanted to be.  And, unbeknownst to me,  I had yet to see any if his best work.

My dad told me I should rent “Raging Bull.”  I had seen the title before and was sure that it was a movie about a very pissed off male cow.  I rented the one beat up copy that my neighborhood video store kept in stock, went home, and pushed play.  I was both exhilarated and befuddled by what I was watching.  I had never seen anything like this.  Not even close.  It didn’t seem like a movie at all.  It was like watching some disturbing documentary bestrewn by a collection of deplorable human beings, doing and saying things as fucked up as they were enthralling.  When Jake (Deniro’s character) says to his wife, who is trying to cook him some meat for dinner, “Bring the steak now!  You overcook it, it defeats its own purpose!”- I thought, “I have no clue what that means, and yet it is the coolest thing I have ever heard anyone say.”  This man, my new acting God, was a true force of nature.  Explosive, terrified, wise, ambitious, and insane all at the same time.  The range of emotion he could convey with a single word or with a minor shift in his posture was the stuff of legend.  I had never seen a performance where there was no identifiable shred of the person playing the role.  Of course, there was also the pacing and the script and the cinematography and the art direction.  That is to say, my love affair with Deniro was, in large part, being orchestrated by the great Martin Scorsese.  But I wasn’t yet filmwise enough to see the distinctions.  All I saw was Deniro.  And I knew that my next task would be to get a hold of every single film the man had made and watch them.

And so I did.  Everything.  At the time, that meant a total of 23 more films than the three I had already viewed.  I blew through all of them in about two weeks.  I watched the experimental early stuff (Bloody Mama, Greetings, Sam’s Song), the ambitious misses (The Last Tycoon, New York New York, 1900), the very solid (Once Upon a Time in America, Band the Drum Slowly, The Mission), and, of course, the classics (Godfather II, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, The King of Comedy).  I read everything on Deniro that had ever been published.  I was determined to shift from being a fan to being an aficionado.

And by the time I reached the Bachelor of Fine Arts acting program at Ithaca College, I had become just that.  Quite frankly, I had become quite obnoxious when it came to this particular subject.  I remember quite vividly, sitting in a film discussion class, composed of both B.F.A. and B.A. acting students, when one of the female B.A.’s whom I had never met, during a discussion on the subject of our country’s greatest actors said, “I think Robert Deniro is overrated.”  The eyes of every B.F.A. student in that class shifted straight to me as a muffled, “Uh-oh” filled the room.  Within ten minutes or so, I had that girl welling up with tears after verbally shredding her with a rapid-fire critique of her ill-informed opinions.

No matter what environment I became a part of, those around me very quickly came to understand that I was a staunch Deniro protegé.  Actually, once, in the late nineties, I had a brief encounter with the man himself.

I was bartending at a restaurant on Madison Avenue.  I manned a small bar in the front of a posh bistro which regularly drew the creme of the creme of the Hollywood elite.  Sharon Stone, Susan Sarandon, Andy Garcia, and a whole host of others regularly showed up to chow down.  I’ve never been overly star struck and was perceived by the majority of the weight staff as something of a stick in the mud who thought he was sort of above it all.  They would all gather around the bar and “ooh” and “aah” and gossip about which stars said what to them and I would scoff and roll my eyes.  “C’mon, Michael.  There’s got to be someone who could walk in here and make you take notice.”  To which I would answer, “Only one, my friends, and you know exactly who that is.”

Lo and behold, one day, I was squatted down behind the bar getting a new can of pineapple juice out of the cooler when I hear, “I’ll show you to your table Mr. Deniro.”  I popped up like the clown in a jack-in-the-box to find the entire wait staff staring at me with shit eating grins.  He had already turned the corner when I rose and was quickly ushered to the back of the place.  Apparently, he had strolled in with recently divorced newscaster Joan Lunden on his arm and was nuzzled up next to her at one of the back booths.  I desired to play it cool, but to no avail.  I was shaking like a leaf, desperately trying to concoct some convenient excuse to go back there.  All of a sudden, Martina the waitress shows up barside with wide eyes declaring, “He asked if you make a good Gimlet.  Do you?  I told him that you did.”  Holy shit.  I was a nervous wreck.  A Gimlet is not a confusing drink, mind you.  But, all of a sudden, it felt like I had been asked to predict the quaternary structure of a protein from its amino acid sequence.

I did my best.  The waitress returned to tell me that he said it tasted kind of funny and asked what kind of vodka I was using.  I told her that a Gimlet is not made with vodka, it is made with gin.  What he was looking for was a Vodka Gimlet.  I was minorly devastated even though it was his mistake, not mine.  Apparently, he was very cool about it and switched over to vodka martinis after that.  I must have made them just fine as he knocked out three of them whilst his date blew through almost an entire bottle of Chardonnay.  The meal seemed to take an eternity.  All the while, I was twisted in a mental knot, obsessing on what I would do when he inevitably walked past the bar on his way out.  I couldn’t think of a single thing that would not me sound like a total douche, but I also realized I had a once in a lifetime opportunity here and might never forgive myself if I chose to do nothing.  I had looked at this conundrum in every possible way by the time he actually passed.  Joan was highly intoxicated, hanging on his arm and nibbling his neck.  I opened my mouth, but no sound would come out.  And then he was gone.  I watched the back of his head pass the by the outside cafe, reeling in self-hatred over my cowardice.

Just as I was mentally hammering the very last nail in my coffin of failure, he came back.  He jogged past the bar back toward his table.  He clearly had forgotten something.  This second chance would not be lost on me.  Even if I said something as treacly as, “Mr. Deniro, you are the most awesomest actor in the whole wide world” then so be it.  I would take douche over coward.  He passed again with what looked like a script under his arm, as I said:

“You sure you got everything?”

He stopped in his tracks, grinned and said, “I’m pretty sure I do.”

There was a second of silence between us.

He was looking at the small ramekin of nuts on the bar.  They were honey roasted and covered with some kind of evil brown sugar.  I spent most shifts trying desperately not to eat them.  He pointed at them and asked, “Are they good?”

I answered, “So good.”

He grabbed one, threw it back into his mouth, chewed, thought for a second and with a classic Deniro look straight out of Goodfellas, with downturned mouth and slight nod of the head, he proclaimed, “Good nuts.”

I smiled and said, “Take care.”

He said, “Thanks.  You too.”

It was perfect.  I couldn’t have scripted it better.

That was 1995.  Little did I realize that this was two years after he had already given his last great performance in 1993’s This Boy’s Life.  Since that movie, he had made “A Bronx Tale” (great movie, but not because of his acting), “Frankenstein” (godawful), “Casino” (Goodfellas poorer cousin) and “Heat” (nothing to write home about.)  None of this concerned me.  Bobby D had certainly had off years before.  There would be another classic any time now.  And there were some decent movies over the next few years.  “The Fan” was silly but fun.  “Wag the Dog” was somewhat interesting.  And then there were a whole bunch of good movies where had taken smaller roles (“Sleepers,” “Copland,” “Jackie Brown”).

And then… then it was over.  For some incomprehensible reason, Robert Deniro dropped off a cliff.  He began to pump out bag-of-shit movies as if he had been possessed by the spirit of Keanu Reeves or Andie Macdowell.  Over the next ten years, came the following Filmography of disgrace:

  • Great Expectations
  • Ronin
  • The Adventures of Ricky & Bullwinkle
  • Men of Honor
  • 15 Minutes
  • The Score
  • Showtime
  • City by the Sea
  • Godsend
  • Hide and Seek
  • What Just Happened
  • Righteous Kill
  • Everybody’s Fine
  • Stone

It’s not just that these are horrid movies.  He is horrid in them.  It’s more than just a great actor going through the motions.  It’s bad acting.  It’s as confusing as it is appalling.  I would offer that there has never been another case quite like it.  Yes, there have been great actors who seemed to shift into cruise control as they aged.  Dustin Hoffman comes to mind.  Dusty hasn’t been hit-it-out-of-the-park fabulous since 1988’s Rain Man.  Still, if you look at his choices, he always seems to be trying to pick interesting roles helmed by decent directors.  It seems that this is true for Deniro’s other two closest contemporaries in Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino.  They certainly both take a lot of roles that require no more than mugging and chewing on a bunch of scenery; but they weave those “picking up a paycheck” performances with a host of more personal, independent films with talented directors, suggesting that they continue to be committed to their craft.  Not Deniro.  He seems to be going out of his way to pick only directors who are either come from TV and do little more than point and shoot (John Polson, Nick Hamm) or washed up auteurs who have been relegated to Hollywood gun-for-hire status (Barry Levinson, Michael Caton-Jones).

Why does he do this?  What could the reason be?  Is it possible that no real directors with vision ask about him anymore?  That’s hard to believe.  If they’re calling on Nicholson and Pacino and Hoffman and Duvall and Caine and Hackman, than they’re calling on him.  Is he scared to try?  Has it been so long since he put his all into a role that he wonders whether he can pull it off again?  Remember, this is The Actor’s Studio valedictorian.  This is the guy who gained and lost 60 pounds to play Jake Lamotta.  This is guy who scared the shit out of stage hands refusing to break character between takes on the set of Taxi Driver.  Maybe the bar was set too high and he feels safer taking roles that require nothing of him.  You certainly can’t accuse him of selling out.  What would the sell out be?  I don’t sense that he is getting paid more to produce these lousy films than he would be if he was working with real directors.  It’s not like anyone offered him Nicholas Cage’s career.

I mean, Cage I can understand.  He’s turned himself into the biggest putz in Hollywood, but I understand it.  I would never have thought that the guy who ate a live cockroach in “Vampire’s Kiss” harbored a secret desire to be a laborious action star.  It’s tragic and I hate him for it.  But he made a clear decision.  Being kick-ass for single-digit millions in amazing films like “Wild at Heart” and “Leaving Las Vegas” was clearly not as important as double-digit millions in bags of garbage like “Gone in 60 Seconds” and “The Wicker Man.”  Fine.  Fuck you, Nicholas Cage.  You’re a joke and a sellout.  But I’m disappointed by him- not confused.

I don’t think Deniro sold out.  I just think that he doesn’t give a shit.  That’s the only option that makes a fraction of sense.  He clearly has other interests.  Over the last decade and a half, he has become a restaurateur (Nobu, Locanda Verde) and the founder and head of The Tribeca Film Center.  And my sense is that he shows up and half-heartedly performs in any ramshackle production that will pay his fee so he can funnel funds toward these other priorities.  And he’s entitled to make such decisions.  As a man, I understand.  As a fan, I am offended.  I want him to care more that he continues to chip away at his legend.  I want him to care more that he’s become a joke known to an entire generation through the idiots on Saturday Night Live who do impressions of him.  I want him to see that with every cinematic abortion he spews out, it becomes harder to remember how amazing he once was.  It’s like the Police Academy movies.  By the time part 7: Mission to Moscow was released, it was almost impossible to reflect back on the fact that at the base of the series was a really funny, well-made comedy.

And I may be remarkably naive, but it seems so damned resolvable.  Here’s my fantasy:

Deniro pens a letter to be sent to the following ten directors:

  1. Darron Arnofsky
  2. Christopher Nolan
  3. The Coen Brothers
  4. David O Russell
  5. Todd Haynes
  6. Paul Thomas Anderson
  7. Alexander Payne
  8. Spike Jonze
  9. Richard Linklater
  10. David Fincher

The letter reads:

Hello.  I thank you for reading this letter and hearing my request as this is a deeply personal venture I am undertaking.  I have seen your work and respect it immensely.  I believe you are currently responsible for some of the most remarkable art this country has to offer and a powerful part of reflecting back to the people of this nation who they are and where they are headed.  I understand myself to have once been part of a similar movement.  I can see that the trappings of fame and wealth have led me to a vastly different place.  I sense that my career has become stagnant and I wish to mobilize.  I deeply believe there are still many bravura performances within me and I sense that I need a director with true vision to inspire me to bring forth what I have lost along the way.  My request is simply a desire to open up a dialogue.  I would like to know what ideas and projects you are currently fostering and how I might become a part of the picture in your mind and heart.  Please let me know if you’d be willing for that conversation to move beyond this letter.  Either way, I thank you again for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.

All the best,

Robert Deniro

You know what the worst part of this is?  As I was researching a few details for this piece, I came upon the following:

It could be a dream come true. Robert De Niro confirmed to MTV that Al Pacino and Joe Pesci will indeed be joining the cast of ‘The Irishman,’ a drama based on the real-life story of a Mafia hit man, to be directed by Martin Scorsese. And Harvey Keitel may be along for the ride as well, according to Showbiz 411.

As we reported when the Pacino / Pesci rumors surfaced in September, De Niro and Scorsese have been developing the project for a couple of years. ‘The Irishman’ is based on ‘I Heard You Paint Houses,’ a best-selling book by Charles Brandt about the life of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who claimed that he killed legendary teamster Jimmy Hoffa in 1975. The film will mark the reunion of De Niro, Pesci and Scorsese for the first time since 1995’s ‘Casino.’ But it will also mark the first time that Pacino and Scorsese will work together, which is kind of amazing.

As I read it, my mouth began to water.

Damn.  The son of a bitch has got me hoping again.

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Her name is Ryan.  We mostly call her JJ.  There’s no particular reason for this.  It just suits her.  It fits.  I guess that’s the thing about nicknames.  You can’t force them.  They just kind of arise naturally and show themselves to be sticky.  Sort of like barnacles.  Sometimes they make sense; sometimes they don’t.  With Ryan, it doesn’t.  Not really.  The only material I could provide regarding her particular moniker would be that her middle name is Jordan.  So there’s a “J.”  Interestingly, when we decided to name her Ryan Jordan, we had every intention of referring to her as “R.J.”  Never happened.  Again, nicknames are an organic science.  I think we called her R.J. twice.  It was like Teflon.  Rolled right off.  But then I took a shine to using “Ryan JJ.”  Then the Ryan fell away.  And so, there was JJ.  My wife picked up on it.  Then my sister and my dad.  Her fate was set.  She was JJ.  And JJ bred a whole new world of off-shoot handles.  Jayjee.  Jojo.  Juju.  Jujubee.  Jujyfruit.  We still use Ryan quite liberally.  But she is JJ.  And while neither my wife nor myself have any specific passion for, nor affiliation with, the television show “Good Times,” our littlest girl is most certainly Dy-no-mite.

Dynamite in every sense of the word.  She is dynamite in the sense that she is impactful.  JJ leaves her mark.  She’s almost unfairly adorable.  Her face, when expressionless, looks more doll than human.  With that said, she is rarely expressionless.  Her expressions are as priceless as they are constant.  She’s funny.  Really funny.  There’s a natural performer inside of JJ.  She has timing.  She has rhythm.  She has an innate capacity to draw rapt attention from those around her.

JJ is also dynamite in that she is explosive.  Being her parent is akin to working on the bomb squad.  You never cross the wires cavalierly with JJ.  Because one wrong move and the explosion is immediate and all-consuming.  JJ’s fits are epic.  The most seemingly inconsequential moments can trigger her into a volcanic rant, raining down ash and hot lava on all who lie in her wake.

Even JJ’s physical presence brings to mind the idea of dynamite.  She’s skinny as a rail with a head full of rabid curls exploding out of the top of her her.  In fact, Ryan’s hair is as strong an indicator of who she is than almost anything else.  It’s wild and untamable.  It springs in a hundred different directions and the more you try to control it, the more haphazard it becomes.  The only sane option is to simply accept it as it is.  In fact, whenever we take JJ to KidSnips for a haircut and the nice girl asks what kind of cut we’d like, we simply tell her, “just less of what is there now, please.”  It’s sort of like trying to domesticate a wild jungle cat.  As if there is a puma living at the top of the stairs.  She’s just not meant to be restrained.

Interestingly, more often than not, I find myself undisturbed by Ryan’s rage.  Sometimes it can be a bit much, sure.  On a day where I am struggling emotionally or feeling particularly salty, it can be rough.  But mostly, it kind of fascinates me.  I’m blown away by the fearlessness of her volatility.  It’s liberating in a way.  To an extent, I’m a bit envious of it.

I have that kind of rage in me.  A hot fire desirous of disintegrating the boundary and blowing forth from its host.  She does it with no reservation or forethought; she just blows.  I’ve never really been like that.  Even in my early childhood, my people pleasing tendencies were far too intense for all out eruptions.

But the rage was in there.  It just that I was always trying to control it.  Trying to find a way around being overtaken by it.  I still do that.  I don’t yell and scream.  I growl and hiss.  I grit my teeth and gently vibrate in contempt.

That’s what Sydney does.  My older daughter is a carbon copy of me in this regard.  Unlike her sister, Sydney rarely goes of half cocked.  Her anger is measured and controlled.  And it is far more troubling to me than the route taken by her little sister.  In the grand tradition of “ya spot it, ya got it,” Sydney’s anger annoys me in a way that Ryan’s doesn’t.  Mainly because I identify so strongly with it.  Sydney grows angry and gets what I refer to as “the death stare.”  Her eyes go cold, her nostrils flare and she simmers in disgust.  It’s like looking into a mirror.  And the familiarity makes me cringe.

This is not to suggest that I prefer Ryan to Sydney.  I don’t I love them both for very different reasons.  Additionally, I like them both for very different reasons.  But I find my relationship with Ryan far simpler.  And this brings me to my current sense of sadness.  You see, JJ and I have been sharing something very special over the last four months or so.  A very particular opportunity brought about by a synchronistic set of circumstances- soon to end and never to occur again.

Back in August, just before the beginning of the school year, Lorri and I had decided that I would take a shot at home schooling the girls.  This experience has been detailed in past posts, so I’ll skim the particulars.  The decision to home school was a bigger deal in terms of Syd than it was with JJ.  Not sending Sydney back to Carl Sandburg Elementary for second grade had farther reaching implications, not to mention potential downfall, than the choice to not send Ryan back to a second year of pre-school- essentially glorified daycare.  Also, we knew that, regardless of the success of the venture, JJ would be assuredly be sent to Sandburg for Kindergarten for the basic purposes of socialization.

Suffices to say, while I believe myself to have been a remarkably competent teacher, at least for a four and seven-year-old, home school was not the right fit for my girls.  Within six weeks or so, this became clear to the entire family and, in short order, Sydney was back with her classmates in a proper classroom.

This, of course, left JJ and I at home.  There was no way we were going to drop a bundle to send her back to pre-school.  Much like her sister, she is smart as a whip, and we both knew that without another second of study previous to next September, she would enter Kindergarten toward the top of her class.

The original idea was that Ryan and I would continue along with the curriculum we had been using for the remainder of the school year.  But it also became clear fairly quickly that, without her Sister at the neighboring computer, her willingness to sit with me and concentrate for any decent period of time went straight to the dogs.  This didn’t overly concern me and I made a choice not to push it.  Again, I had no worries about JJ’s academic capabilities and I could see that she was quite despondent about Sydney having left the nest.  I decided that what I wanted to dedicate the majority of my attention toward was showing her a good time.  And since then, this is exactly what she and I have been doing.  Having an unbelievably good time.

Somehow, up until very recently, I had remained quite blind to how little alone time Ryan and I had ever really had.  When Sydney was Ryan’s age, Ryan was still a baby, so daddy-daughter dates and alone trips to the park or the movies were pretty commonplace.  There had been almost none of that with Ryan as almost all of her special times with me had also involved her big sis.  This was not really something she ever complained about, mind you, as JJ completely idolizes her sister and, of course, it is difficult to miss something you haven’t ever really had.  Still, though, Ryan and I, all of a sudden having full days together, just she and I, slowly began to shift the foundation of our relationship.

Somehow, when it was just the two of us, JJ’s anger became nearly non-existent.  I don’t know if was the absence of her sister or the absence of the school work or just some sort of special hidden chemistry between she and I, but we had clearly entered virgin territory.

It has been the best.  There are no words to express the unabashed merriment the two of us share.  From nine in the morning until three-thirty in the afternoon, we giggle like a couple of hyenas on Quaaludes.  It’s so easy.  It’s deliriously entertaining.

And it’s ending.  Very soon, it’s ending.

An average day for me and miss JJ generally begins a little past 9am, just after I get Sydney off to school.  I generally get Syd up at eight, giving us an hour to get breakfast in her belly, lunch in her lunchbox, toothpaste on her teeth and coat, mittens, scarf and gloves on her body.  Once she gets picked up, I generally prefer fifteen minutes or so to sip my coffee and peruse Facebook and email.  That process always comes to an abrupt conclusion upon hearing JJ’s morning siren call.  “Papa?  Papa.  Papa!  Papaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

Why she decided to make the switch from “Daddy” to “Papa,” I have no idea.  I fantasize a secret midnight viewing of “Yentl” or “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Either way, I absolutely love it.  It feels very old world Eastern European.  It melts my heart.  And she totally knows that it does.

I will generally ascend the stairs two at a time and open her door to find a small lump underneath her comforter.  She’s silently awaiting my presence.  Well, sort of silently.  She’s attempting silence but she’s failing miserably.  The small lump is vibrating with suppressed laughter choking back little snorts and snickers.  At this point, she wishes me to feign confusion about where she could be and I acquiesce.  “JJ?  JJ?  Hmm… where could she be?  Ah, well… I’m sure she’ll turn up sooner or later.  I’m kind of tired.  Maybe I’ll just lay down on this lumpy bed.”  As I drop down on top of her, holding back the majority of my weight, she explodes guffawing, “Here I am, Papa.”  I climb underneath the covers with her, holding the blanket up with my knees, creating a little tent where we can enjoy som morning loving.  Much like her daddy, Ryan is a physically demonstrative creature who loves affection.  I grasp her tightly in my arms and eat her up.  Literally.  JJ will take all the kisses I can dish out, but she likes being nibbled even better.  Usually, after smooching up her forehead, her cheeks, her nose, her chin, her lips and her neck, I begin to give her little bites on her armpits, her belly, her knees and her toes.  The toes are, by far, her favorite.  She squirms and squeals and titters until she has had her fill and says, “Okay Daddy, time to go downstairs.”

I get off the bed and bend forward so she can hop on for a piggy back ride down the stairs and over to the living room couch.  She snuggles in under my arm and waits while I bring up the options for our morning show.  Sometimes it’s The Fairly Odd Parents.  Sometimes it’s Spongebob.  And recently, it’s been reruns of The Magic School Bus, starring the incomparable Lily Tomlin, which her mommy turned her on to.  After our thirty minute respite, we adjourn to the kitchen that we may get some food inside her skinny tummy.  At her hungriest, it’s an oat bran waffle and turkey sausage, though it can be as little as some sliced strawberries with a touch of splenda sprinkled on top.

At about ten, we head down to my office for what JJ calls, “computer and computer.”  Essentially, I do a little bit of blog writing on the laptop sitting next to Ryan while she hits her favorite websites on the desk top.  These involve ClubPenguin, Poptropica and her recent favorite, Fantage.  These are all websites where she has her own little character who has her own little home and tromps around town amidst other little characters (other kids on-line) playing games and joining in activities in an effort to earn imaginary coins which can then be used to buy imaginary outfits, imaginary stickers and imaginary toys.  It’s sort of the kid version of all those ridiculous Facebook games like Farmville and the sort.  These sites are chock full of advertising and myriad opportunities to become “full members” and “preferred members” and endless other ways to get their hands on money and parental emails, but JJ understands and respect the limits that we set down.  So we sit together and occasionally poke each other and chortle while she plays and I write.

Around 11, we generally set off into the world for some kind of field trip.  Maybe The Children’s Museum.  Maybe the park.  Though our most favorite spot is the library.  JJ loves books.  And I love reading them to her.  She and I can easily sit for two straight hours and read twenty to thirty books at a clip.  And we do just that.  We hold hands and stroll the aisles collecting up Fancy Nancy and Dr. Seuss and The Bearenstain Bears.  She loves rhyming books and any book with a wide variety of characters enabling Daddy to do a variety of different voices and dialects.  We make our way over to the kid area, decorated with plush chairs and couches in the shape of fairy tale stories, snuggle up and start plowing through our pile until my baby tells me it’s lunchtime.

What she wants is a Jimmy Johns “Big John” sub with cheese, thinny chips  and a small root beer.  Our financial situation does not allow a yes to that request more than about once a week.  So, more often than not, I expertly elude a blow-up with a promise of some Wii play, and we head home for a peanut butter sandwich or some pizza rolls.  In between chow time and the Wii, we will head up to Ryan’s room for a bit of dancing.  We power up the little Disney Princess boom box and blast Justin Bieber, Miranda Cosgrove and Lady Gaga.  We boogie until sweat is dripping from both of our foreheads and collapse on her bed laughing our heads off and trying to catch our breath.

The Wii competition is next, and let me tell you, we are fierce competitors.  It’s quite the balancing act playing video games with JJ.  She demands that I go full throttle and watches me intently to see to it that I don’t take it easy.  At the same time, she is a terrible loser.  It demands quite a deft touch to look like I am giving it my all and still let her emerge the victor more often than not.

An hour or so later, it is time to drive over and get in The Sandburg pick-up line and await sweet Sydney to emerge into the parking lot.  JJ is always super pumped to see her only sibling.  To be honest, usually far more excited than her sis is to see her.  Sydney adores Ryan, but at the end of a school full day, she is usually less than thrilled to climb into a car to the tune of, “…and then we watched Kick Buttowski and then we went to the library and then we read the new Knuffle Bunny and then we played Boom Blox and then…”

Once we get home, and Syd downs a few goldfish crackers a glass of juice, they will find a rhythm and play nice.  But the simplicity of the day has come to a close.  From now until bedtime, they will alternate between being exhilarated and jacked up like a couple of meth heads and foaming at the mouths in a maelstrom of, “She pushed me,” and “That’s my lip gloss,” and “Daddeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

For me, it’s always a little bittersweet.  I miss Syd during the day and I am always excited to see her.  And Lorri’s arrival home a few hours later is usually the high point of my day.  But it also means that my day with Ryan is over.  Another day gone.  Another day closer to her first day of Kindergarten, signaling the end of this period.  This special time brought about by a perfect storm of particulars.

Part of it is that she is the last one.  At least as Syd was shedding the last fractions of her baby hood, there was another little one tailing behind her to hang my hat on.  But this is it.  Lorri and I are nearly forty and are clearly done producing offspring.  This is our last baby.  My last baby.

This is all as it should be.  Of course I know that is true.  Circle of life.  Part of me cannot wait until her first day at Sandburg.  Dressed up in her brand new Target outfit, backpack full of supplies, excitedly getting in line with new classmates.  There’s so much yet to be discovered, and I am so interested to see what becomes of this kid.

Again, Sydney too.  But Sydney is an easier bet.  At least it seems that way.  Sydney is classically brilliant, likes to play it safe and has more empathy than she knows what to do with.  I see Syd getting into an ivy league school and becoming a Pediatrician or a Veterinarian.

Ryan, on the other hand, is the ultimate wild card.  She is a true force of nature.  I foresee Ryan doing something like collecting platypus eggs in Tasmania or starting her own Kibbutz in Israel.

At the same time, I feel like I would gladly give one of my big toes to keep her this size for a while longer.

My heart hurts that I need to let her grow up.  That I need to let go.

For the moment, I’m desperately trying to stay in the moment.  It is eleven o’clock and Lorri and I are sitting and watching Law & Order: SVU.  JJ is asleep underneath my Yankee blanket sprawled across Lorri’s lap.  Her face is angelic.  She is softly snoring and her limp body holds everything I know to be true and right in this world.

I don’t imagine that will be different when she’s fourteen or tweny-five or forty-three.

But I know it will never be like this again.

In about about ten hours, Lorri will gone to work and Syd will be off to school.  In about ten hours, I will hear, “Papaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.”

In ten hours, I will desperately try to let go of ticking off the time and bathe in the warm tones of my little one beckoning me to come get her.

I will always be there to come get her.

But soon enough, she won’t call so much anymore.

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All Grows Up

I find “Grown-up” to be an interesting term.  Interesting in that, as a society, we use the term quite liberally to describe people.  Many people.  We do this, use this term on a daily basis, even though the term itself is entirely nebulous.  It doesn’t actually mean anything.  There is no definition for grown-up which will actually provide you any useful data on how to figure out if you are actually dealing with one.  Or if, in fact, your are one.  Look it up.  Here’s what you’ll find:




1. having reached the age of maturity.
2. characteristic of or suitable for adults: grown-up behavior

The age of maturity.  Is there an actual age of maturity?  What’s the age of maturity?  Is it thirteen, when the Jews acquiesce to throwing you a Bar/Bat Mitzvah?  Is it sixteen, when certain states allow you to legally get behind the wheel of an automobile?  Is it eighteen, when you are granted permission to cast a ballot in the presidential race?  Is it twenty-one, when you are given the opportunity to purchase and consume alcohol?  And since when does chanting Hebrew, driving, voting or drinking have anything to do with maturity?  I know hoards of folks who do, or have done, all of these things who you’d be hard pressed to describe as mature. Hell, there a few ten year-old’s I could introduce you to who are more mature than a few sixty year-old’s I have met.  What do you make of that?
Maybe if we look up the word “Maturity,” we will be able to find the “age of maturity.”


[muh-choor-i-tee, -toor-, -tyoor-, -chur-]


1. the state of being mature; ripeness.
2. full development; perfected condition.

So, maturity happens at the age at which you reach the state of being mature.  When you are fully developed.  When you are perfect.  Well, that’s not real helpful, is it?  Leaves me out.  How about you?
All right.  Let’s forget, for a moment, using maturity as the distinguishing factor for a grown-up.
Going back to our original “Grown-up” definition, we find that “Grown-up” is secondarily described as having “characteristics suitable for adults.”  What does that mean?  What characteristics are suitable for adults?  I guess they would have to be characteristics that are not suitable for children, right?  So which characteristics go with which?  And who is deeming certain characteristics suitable and others unsuitable?
Here is a list of characteristics and attributes.  Can you please tell me which are ones are suitable for children and which ones are suitable for adults?
accepts authority, loyal, devoted rebellious
accepts what’s given ignores, rejects what’s given
affectionate distant, cold, aloof
aspiring, ambitious, motivated self-satisfied, unmotivated
candid closed, guarded, secretive
caring uncaring, unfeeling, callous
change; accepts, embraces- rejects change
cheerful cheerless, gloomy, sour, grumpy
considerate, thoughtful inconsiderate, thoughtless
cooperative uncooperative, unhelpful, combative
courageous cowering, fearful
courteous rude, impolite
decisive indecisive
devoted uncommitted, uncaring, hostile
determined indecisive, unsure
does what is necessary, right does what is convenient
perseveres, endures relents, gives up
enthusiastic unenthusiastic, apathetic, indifferent
expansive kept back, tight, constricting
faith in life life can’t be trusted
faith in oneself lack of faith in self
faith in others others can’t be relied on
flexible inflexible, rigid, unbending, stubborn
forgiving unforgiving, resentful, spiteful
focused unfocused, scattered
freedom given to others authoritarian, controlling
friendly unfriendly, distant, aloof, hostile
frugal, thrifty wasteful, spendthrift
generous stingy, miserly, selfish
goodwill ill-will, malice, hatred
grateful ungrateful, unappreciative
hard-working lazy
honest dishonest, deceiving, lying
humble arrogant, conceited, ego-centric
interested indifferent, uncaring
involved complacent, indifferent
jealous, not jealous, envious, covetous
kind unkind, uncaring, cruel, mean
mature immature
modest vain
open-minded, tolerant narrow, close, small-minded, intolerant
optimistic pessimistic
perfects allows imperfection
persistent, sustaining flagging, fleeting, unsustaining
positive negative
practical impractical, not viable
punctual late, not on time
realistic naïve, impractical
reliable unreliable, undependable
respectful disrespectful, rude, impolite
responsibility; takes- blames others
responsible [ep to 9 levels] unreliable, undependable
responsive unresponsive, unreceptive
self-confident lack of self confidence, insecure
self-directed directed by externals
self-disciplined undisciplined, unrestrained, indulgent
self-esteem, high self-esteem, confidence – low
self-giving self-centered
self-reliant dependent
selfless selfish
sensitive Insensitive, indifferent
serious silly, trivial, petty
sincere insincere, dishonest
social independence social approval required
sympathetic unsympathetic, unfeeling
systematic unsystematic, disorganized, disorderly, random
takes others point of view insists on own view
thoughtful towards others thoughtless, inconsiderate, callous
trusting suspicious, mistrusting
unpretentious pretentious, affected, ostentatious
unselfish selfish
willing does, willingness unwilling, reluctant, recalcitrant
work-oriented convenience first
Maybe we just need to look up “adult?”


[uh-duhlt, ad-uhlt]


1. having attained full size and strength; grown up; mature: an adult person, animal, or plant.
2. of, pertaining to, or befitting adults.
3. intended for adults; not suitable for children: adult entertainment.


4. a person who is fully grown or developed or of age.
5. a full-grown animal or plant.
6. a person who has attained the age of maturity as specified by law.

Wow.  We are really spinning our wheels here, yes?  It seems to me that the overwhelming message is that we don’t really know what a grown-up is.  That there is no true definition.  We don’t know what one is, but we continually point at people and call them grown-ups.  But how do we know that they are, indeed, grown-ups?  I ask, because people regularly point at me and call me a grown-up.  And I wonder if they’re right.
By pretty much any physical indicator, I seem to qualify.  I am married.  I have a few children.  I have a mortgage and car payments.  My body doesn’t move the way is used to.  I wake up in the middle of the night to pee.  I have more salt than pepper on the old noggin.  I suspect if I was part of a debate club and my side of the debate was that I qualify as an adult, the empirical evidence would weigh heavily on my side.
On the other hand, if the opposing side were to do their research, I imagine they would find a whole host of actions, words and choices supporting the theory that I am not a grown-up at all.  If, additionally, they were somehow to gain access to my thoughts, instincts and desires, they might well guarantee themselves a landslide.
My kids seem to think I’m a grown-up.  The fourteen seven year-old’s in my Brownie troop seem fairly sure of it.  There’s a whole mess of people who pay me a pretty penny to assist them in their own processes of being grown-up.
But, still, if “grown-up” means “having maturity”, and “maturity” means “the state of having achieved maturation,” and “adult” means “having grown up,” how does anyone gauge what signifiers to clue in on in the hopes of reaching a decision?
As a consequence of all this confusion and indecision, I tend to keep a close eye on exterior input which might be of use in the answering of this cosmic question.
Which is why the arrival of my cousin Alex at O’hare airport was of particular significance.
Alex is the only son of my Uncle Bob (mom’s brother) and Aunt Andrea (the best thing Uncle Bob ever stumbled across).  Uncle Bob had left suburban New Jersey for Miami when I was four or five (by his own admission, to escape the rigid patriarchy of my grandfather), so cousin Alex was raised about 1500 miles south of where I spent my formative years.
I recall, quite vividly, spending the summer of my freshman year of high school staying with Bob and Andrea a few months after Alex had been born.  He was an astoundingly cute baby and I have always had something of an obesession with teeny ones; so I spent every night that summer watching television with Aunt Andrea waiting, with bated breath, for little Alex to be woken up for feeding time.  It was a wonderful feeling sitting in the corner of their plush, blue corduroy couch, holding Alex’s fragile, limp body, staring hypnotized as he sucked at the nipple, drawing sustenance into his new body.  I was only three when my sister was born.  I only have four first cousins and two of them are older than me.  When Alex’s big sister came into the world, I don’t recall meeting her, or at least spending an extended amount of time with her, until she reached toddlerhood.  That summer was really the first, and only, time I ever got to interact with, and take care of, a baby member of the clan.  Consequently, my summer with newborn Alex felt, then and now, quite significant.
With that said, over the next two decades of his life, I would guess that Alex and I spent significant face time together no more than thirty times.  And no more than twice since I moved to Illinois in 2003.  So Alex and I really had no relationship to speak of.  We loved each other, no doubt.  It’s just that the love had existed almost exclusively in absentia.  So all Alex knew of me was that I was his cool older cousin and all I knew of him is that he was Uncle Bob and Aunt Andrea’s cute little boy.
Then, about a year and a half ago, there came a shift.  As it happens, this blog was part of, if not the main conduit for, this shift.  Unbeknownst to me, Alex had become a reader; and an enthusiastic one at that.  As he tells it, he began to learn about me, my journey, my challenges, my life, as he perused piece after piece.  Shortly thereafter, he phoned me one day.  It was marvelous to hear the message he left.  I called him back immediately.  As we engaged in some genial small talk, I found myself feeling both disarmed and at ease simultaneously.  The chatting was easy.  It made me feel warm and connected to have the chat flow like so much butter after such an elongated period of distance.  And yet, it was borderline bizarre attempting to adjust to the voice of what was clearly no longer a little boy.  Clearly, I was aware that he had entered his third decade of life, and certainly did not expect that we would end up talking about Sesame Street and Lincoln Logs, and yet it was still a surprise to hear the deep tones he was emitting and the liberal use of his impressive vocabulary.  I had heard, through the family grapevine, here and there, a variety of snippets about Alex excelling and striving in a whole host of arenas.  I knew he had made excellent grades in high school and college.  I knew that he was proficient on the guitar and could surf like a native Hawaiian.  I knew he was tall and lithe and handsome- a ladies man just like his dad.
It became clear within ten minutes that he was all of that and more.  It was exciting.  I was psyched to be speaking to my cousin- I was even more psyched that I totally liked him.  It was easy to grasp that he was cool as hell, and yet completely humble at the same time.  The quips and sarcasm flowed organically and the laughter wove itself through the dialogue like a couple of DNA strands.  Then, as if it wasn’t already delightful enough, Alex asked if he might seek my council on a subject causing him some concern.
My heart leapt.  He was calling for advice.  Obviously, something in the writing had given him the impression that his older cousin was competent.  He had called wanting my help.  It felt like an affirmation.  I was being called upon by someone in my bloodline with the hopes that I might offer trustworthiness, empathy and wisdom.  I was determined not to let him down.
I don’t think I did.  Honestly, I don’t even recall the specifics of the issue he posed, but I most certainly recall that he thanked me vociferously, claiming that he felt calmer and more directed as a result of our talk.  Over the next year, Alex would reach out at least twice more for help and we struck up an ongoing Facebook dialogue checking in around family, work, and school.
Alex had made the decision to go to dental school and found himself working like a dog attempting to navigate the time management, the competition and the endless array of new information which comes with a degree of this magnitude.  Considering that, I was more than a bit surprised when he called wondering if he could take me up on my multiple offers to come visit.  Apparently, he had a short break and wanted to use the time to come see me and my family.  He asked if he could bring his girlfriend and I told him we could not wait.
I stood in the airport awaiting their arrival.  Alex had buzzed me on the cell to tell me they were taxiing in on the tarmac.  I was walking toward carousel five, but saw them, and realized it was them, by the time I crossed carousel two.
They were beautiful.  They were magnificent.  It was like Brad and Angelina had come to town.  They were holding hands and waving, decked out in casual boho-chic, smiling like they had just come off a Dentine commercial.
I like pretty people.  I just do.  I don’t like pretty assholes.  But all things being even, I prefer to be around attractive people.  I suppose there is something petty in that.  I don’t know.  I don’t judge or avoid the ugly.  And, of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I’m also not of the mind that I am some great prize.  There is certainly no danger of my being cast in the remake of Magnum P.I.  But I am more drawn to those I see as attractive.  Call it what you will.
And if the two of them had been hunchback dwarfs with severe deformities and lateral lisps, I would not have turned them away.  We might well have had a grand old-time anyway.  But they were quite pleasant to look at and that was just fine and dandy.
The connection was immediate with both of them.  We were effortlessly sharing and giggling before we hit 294 North.  Alex was as delightful in person as he was on the phone and it would be an understatement to say that he had secured himself a worthy companion.  Brittany was an absolute peach.  A superb lady on all accounts.  Think a young Brooke Burke with the mind of Ann Coulter and the sass of Sandra Bernhard.  They are a couple who need to reproduce, if for no other reason, that the world needs more people like them.
As it happens, though, there are clearly other, more important reasons, that producing little ones would be in their best interest.  This became abundantly clear within moments of our walking into the house, as both my daughters fell madly and completely in love with both of them.  The immediate draw was undeniable.  Both girls were head over heels.  For them, it was as if rock stars had come to town.  Like Justin Bieber and Miranda Cosgrove had shown up and revealed that they were relatives.  The deep satisfaction if filled me with was almost overwhelming.  It felt, to an extent, out of proportion.  Not troubling, mind you, just curious.  I had seen my kids take a shine to many people before, family and otherwise.  So why did their reaction to Alex and Brittney feel so uniquely powerful?
I realized that what I was experiencing was a kind of deja vu.  Somehow, I had done this before.  And, suddenly, I knew exactly when that was.
Sydney and Ryan’s reaction to Alex and Brittney was nearly identical to the effect I had had on Alex and his sister, Ashley, two decades before.
It was the summer of 1994.  I was 22, a year younger than Alex and Brittney are now.  I had been dating a woman named Michelle, who was ten years my senior.  I had spoken with Uncle Bob and set up a trip for Michelle and I, which would feature three or four days hanging out with the family and then an excursion to Key West.  Alex had to have been about eight, the same age as Sydney today.
For the next three days, the kids were all over us.  Every waking second, they were at our side.  Begging to color, read books, watch TV, swim.  When we went out to play doubles with Bobby and Andrea, they wanted to watch.  When they woke in the morning, they would wait outside the guest room door for us to rise and play once more.  They’d cry and complain anytime it was suggested that mommy and daddy craved some alone time with the guests.  For them, our presence was the most exciting thing their little minds could conceive of, and they didn’t want to waste a second.
I was smack dab in the middle of a re-creation of that summer.  Nearly a mirror image.  Only now, I was not the visitor, but the host.  I was the one who owned the pretty house.  I was the one with the wife and children.  I was the…
I was the grown-up.
And there it was.  Data.  Indisputable evidence.  Somehow, the true gift that Alex and Brittney brought to town was the stark reality that I had grown up.  And it wasn’t just the mid-nineties redo.  It was in the way they seemed to experience us.  The easy, honest conversations we’d shared on the ride from the airport continued on through their entire stay.  We spoke at length, deep into the night, about family and love and addiction and intimacy and hopes and fears and God.  I listened as they spoke of co-dependency and rigidity in both their family systems.  I listened as they spoke about their mutual desire for a healthy union and the capacity to effectively raise children.  I listened as they spoke of staying mindful and aware of how to find people they loved and respected who might model for them the tools one needs to manifest such desires.  And then I realized that they were talking about us.
They said that they understood the connection that Lorri and I shared to be rare.  They said that they could see that we talked to our children rather than at them and that we seemed to really love being parents.  They said that they felt safe and happy spending time with The Marks in The Mark Household.  On some level, they wanted what we have.
And through these words, I think I figured out what a grown up is.  Or, at least, how to figure out if you are one.  I realized that our guests were basically telling us that they not only understood us as grown ups, but that they sensed that the way in which we had chosen to grow up might well provide for them some useful markers in designing their own road map.
What’s more, I could see that my life had shifted from being about having what I want to being about wanting what I have.  This is to say, I was able to be curious and fascinated by the spot where they stand without wanting it for myself.  Like I said, they are amazing.  Everything is in front of them.  And they have the world by the balls.  I imagine them in ten years as a gorgeous dentist married to a gorgeous doctor with fabulous children, a boatload of money, and a decadent lifestyle replete with fine dining, exotic vacations  and a network of artistic and social visionaries.  And I love that image.  And I’d love to a part of it.
But I don’t want it for myself.  I don’t want to be 22 again.  I don’t want to go back to the freedoms and simplicities accompanying that particular segmentation of one’s existence.
I want to be 38.  I want to be married to my wife.  I want to be a daddy to my children.  I want to live in Wheaton and pay my mortgage and make my car payments and see my clients and write my blog.
And I want to have people like Alex and Brittney show up now and again to remind me that all these things, apparently, are the actions of a grown up.

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I had fallen asleep on the couch.  Well, not fallen asleep.  I had gone back to sleep on the couch.  I had originally fallen asleep in bed with Lorri.  But one of the near guarantees of using sleeping pills is that anything more than four consecutive hours of sleep is a relic of the past.  Having fallen out around 11, I rose for an episode of Mr. Sunshine and a Weight Watchers ice cream bar around 3.  I fell back to sleep around 4ish and opened my eyes for good around 7.  Lorri was still asleep, as she doesn’t go into the office on Fridays, and I headed to the bedroom for some morning snuggle time.  As I pulled back the covers on my side of the queen sized bed, I became aware that there was not one, but two, heads poking from beneath the comforter on the opposite side.  Clearly, at some point, Ryan had awoken and called out for mommy, earning a personalized escort to our room.  Additionally, she was naked.  Not unusual.  Ryan is naked more often than she is clothed.  Especially at night.  She always begins the evening in jammies, but they rarely make it through til morning.  In fact, on nights where Ryan is whining and moaning and resisting sleep with every fiber of her being (which, incidentally, is most nights) the way to know that she is about to fall unconscious is the point at which she decides to begin frantically stripping off her pj’s.

I wedge myself right up next to my wife and daughter and begin to softly scratch Ryan’s back and give a light squeeze to her tiny little tushee.  I love her little butt.  This is a precious thing in that it is quickly waning, and once gone, is never to return.  That is, healthy boundaries dictate (at least to my wife and I), that within a year or so (maybe less), no more tushee touching.  That’s how it is with Sydney, whose tush I both miss and am quite aware is no longer a tush- it is her backside.  Her derrierre.  A private part.  A part that she needs to know is precious and not for men to have their hands all over.  And her daddy needs to help model that.  So my fleeting moment with Ryan’s buns are special.  Lorri and I are softly chatting on either side of our quietly snoring daughter, when her sister comes strolling in, loping slowly and rubbing the crust out of her eyes.  She makes her way to my side of the bed and I edge to the left and peel the covers back, invitingly.  She climbs in, places her head on my chest, and snuggles in close.  She begins asking questions about the sleepover occurring this evening with her friend, Janelle, when Ryan (clearly having woken) chimes in with proposed dinner ideas and game options.  At that very moment, Ripley, our fourteen year old feline, jumps up onto the bed and settles herself on top of my chest.  Four girls.  One on top, one in each arm, and one tousling my hair from the left.  It is nirvana.  But it is more than nirvana.  It is the only nirvana I have ever dreamed of.

I am reminded of fifth grade.  Mrs. Berquist.  Our spring project, involving research, an essay and a collage was a response to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  I completed the project.  I am fairly sure that I did well.  At least well enough to be released into the waiting arms of junior high.  What’s interesting is that I have no recall as to what career I chose for the project.  None.  It might have been president.  It might have been forensic pathologist.  It might have been beekeeper.  I genuinely have no idea.  What’s even more interesting is that I absolutely remember why it is that I don’t remember.  I don’t remember because it was a lie.  That much I know.  I just made something up.  Something random.  Something that sounded benign enough that it wouldn’t raise any eyebrows.  Because the real answer was too embarrassing.  It was sure to bring mockery and gales of laughter.  Plus, Jennifer Kelly had already taken it.  She had signed up for “wife and mommy.”

I’ve never been career motivated.  I’ve never had dreams of anything which would bring much in the way of financial reward.  In spite of this, I have found a multitude of ways to earn green paper.  I’m quite intelligent.  So I can accomplish with minimal effort what tends to bring  heavy brow sweat to the average human being.  But I’ve never been ambitious.  I don’t seem to have much in the way of vision.  My dreams never involved power or prominence.

Here is a dream I had repeatedly through my younger years:

It is a dream I do not appear in.

The woman who was to be my wife is at the beauty parlor (Yes.  The beauty parlor.  This was seventies after all.)  She is seated.  Two of her girlfriends flank her on either side.  Each of the women have their heads inside of one of those big dryer things (Do they still have those?  I don’t really know what they do.)  After a minute or two passes, my wife excuses herself to use the restroom.  Immediately upon her departure, one of her friends turns to the other and whispers,

“Do you know her husband?  He is SO good to her.”

That’s it.  That’s the dream.  I must have had it thousands of times over the years of my childhood.

And I dreamed of being a daddy.  The very best daddy there was.  A daddy who was funny and playful.  A daddy who all the neighborhood kids wanted for their own.  A daddy who was hands on.  A daddy who knew when the homework was due and what time dance class ended and when the last bath was.  A daddy who always had an ear for his children and well thought out advice when it was sought.  A daddy who provided his children an unswerving sense of safety and solidity.

That’s all I wanted.  And with each passing year of my childhood, and eventually my adolescence and early adulthood, I became surer and surer that my dream would remain a dream until I let it go, allowing my dream to become a regret.

I don’t know if I ever thought it in those words.  It was more of a vague feeling I tried to ignore.  While I am confident my family was never actually happy, our exteriors were mostly in place, initially allowing my fantasies of an ideal nuclear family to gestate.  Although, with each passing year, it became clearer and clearer to me that we were strewn with dysfunction and, consequently, so was I.

On some level, I guess I always understood that it is impossible to pass on what you do not have yourself.  So what did I have to pass on which might allow my dreams to materialize?

What could I give a wife?  Adultery?  That’s all I knew.  My father.  Both my grandfathers.  My uncle.  Many of my parents friends.  The men cheated.  It wasn’t an indiscretion.  It was built into the moral code.  You fuck who you want.  Just keep it on the side and out-of-the-way of the family unit.

What could I give to children?  Secret keeping?  Third party communication?  Co-dependency?

Therefore, even though I had no trouble drawing willing females and all my equipment appeared to be in working condition, my dreams felt more like fantasies.

And yet, here I was.

38 years old and lying in bed on a damp Friday morning, with every dream I ever had ensconcing me with sweetly sour morning breath.  Except for Ripley.  Her breath always smells that way.

The quiet was delicious.  Like a warm bath strewn with lavender.  I was aware that what I was about to say would kill it.  I was a little reluctant.  But I simply could not help myself.  “You know,” I said curiously, “I’m amazed that no one has said anything about fairies.”  Both girls simultaneously bolted upright with eyes the size of dinner plates and joined in a mad dash to their respective bedrooms.

You see, two fairies were due to have visited the night before.

One will probably be more familiar to you than the other.  That would be the tooth fairy.  She was scheduled to make her sixth visit to Miss Sydney, who had extracted her most recent incisor during the previous mornings tooth brushing.  She was doubly excited considering that the long dangling tooth had been causing her some discomfort.  As has been the pattern, she put the tooth in a small plastic sandwich bag complete with a note that read:

Dear Tooth Fairy,
Here is my sixth tooth.  I hope you like it.
Love Sydney

I love this stuff.  It’s so much fun.  Taking on the role of tooth fairy gives me the dual bonuses of engaging my creative side and making my little girl smile.  After she had fallen out, sitting upright,  complete with the most recent edition of Diary of a Wimpy Kid strewn across her chest, I shut her light, lowered her head, covered her up, and took said plastic bag from beneath her pillow, replacing it with her tooth booty.

For this particular tooth, the tooth fairy had left one pack of sugar-free gum, a lollipop, four quarters and a note which read:

Dear Sydney,
Tooth number six.  Holy macaroni!  Thanks for not making me wait too long for this one.  Looks like you and Daddy are almost finished with the third Harry Potter book.  Watch out for Sirius Black!  Tee-hee.  And keep those teeth coming.
Love T.F.

She bounded back into the room with a big gap-toothed smile excitedly recounting for us what she had found beneath her pillow.

Close on her heels was her little sister with a lollipop and a note of her own- care of The Earring Fairy.  Yes, that’s right, The Earring Fairy.  There were also little white radios hanging from her earlobes where there had previously been little yellow corn dogs.  Which, essentially, was the reason behind the creation of The Earring Fairy.

To explain this, I’ll need to take you back a few months to a cold Sunday in early January.  Lorri had taken Ryan over to her friend Charlotte’s house so that the girls could play while Lorri hung out with Charlotte’s mom.   Sydney and I were hanging out in the playroom competing in tennis on Wii Sports.  I was doing a bang-up job of staying competitive while still allowing her to win.    All of a sudden, there was a loud bang followed by a “Syyyyyyyddddddnneeeeeeeyyyyyyyyy!!!!!”

It sounded like puma coming down the stairs.  The play room door burst open with Ryan breathlessly proclaiming, “Sydney.  Guess what?  You’ll never guess.  It’s the bestest thing.  Charlotte got her ears pierced!  And she said that it didn’t even hurt!”

It took about 17 seconds from that proclamation until the following proclamation,

“Daddy!  Mommy!  We want to get our ears pierced!”

And so it was.  Lorri and I had not put much in the way of age limitations on ear-piercing.  We had always told the girls that when they felt like they were ready, we would gladly take them.  Up until now, both girls wanted no part of it, sure that anyone poking holes in their ears would be a horrifying experience.  Charlotte’s proclamation that it was pain-free completely took care of that reservation.  Lorri’s preferences veered more toward waiting longer, but her main concern was that the rite of passage be special.  I told her that, from my vantage point, the whole family venturing out the next evening to the mall felt perfectly special.  She tentatively agreed and I told the girls that the boss had given us the go ahead.

We had been informed by Charlotte’s mom that when she had Charlotte’s ears done, the store had provided two clerks offering the opportunity to have both ears done simultaneously.  This sounded very much like the path of least resistance.  So, we were quite disappointed to hear, from the lone employee working in the store, that the aforementioned service is offered only on the weekends.  We both had some fears about the girls, Ryan in particular, freaking out after the shock of the first ear.  But we had clearly passed the point of no return.  The plan at this point was, basically, for Sydney to go first and depending on her reaction, we supposed, more would be revealed about Ryan.

Sydney was a trooper.  Once the girl had the dot properly placed on her right ear, she raised what looked like a staple gun, encapsulating Syd’s lobe on either side, and hit the trigger.  Syd’s whole body flinched a bit and her eyes welled with tears.  The idea of fleeing the store with her left ear hole-free was clearly running through her head as a viable option.  So, swiftly and gracefully, before any minds could be changed, the girl pushed through the flesh of the left lobe and it was done.  Sydney was shaking, overcome with the intensity of the moment and her tears began to fall.  Lorri and myself quickly went into action praising her to the heavens for her courage and shoving hand-held mirrors in front of her that she might marvel at how pretty she looked.  Order was restored fairly quickly, but not quickly enough to avoid Ryan from beginning to percolate with reconsideration.

She said that she didn’t want to do it.  We said fine.  Then she cried and said she wanted do it.  We said fine.  Then she began to melt down.  She didn’t want to stay and she didn’t to go.  I pulled Lorri aside:

“Here’s what I think.  She really wants to have earrings.  She’s going to be devastated if we go home with only Sydney’s ears pierced, especially when the whole idea originated with her.  Then we are going to have weeks of jealousy and fits because she doesn’t have her ears pierced and it’s not fair and on and on and we will probably just end up back here.  Unless she is adamantly in favor of leaving, which she is clearly not, I say we make this happen now.”

Lorri wasn’t sure about this course of action, but seemed to think it was better than the alternative.  So I pulled the girl aside and asked:

“Just out of curiosity, what do you generally do when a girl flips out after the first ear?”

She replied:

“Happens all the time.  When that occurs, you are faced with two choices.  You can either go home with one hole or hold her in place while I do the second one.  If you can hold her still, I assure you, I’ll get it in.”

The thought of strapping my little girl down while a hole is forced through her ear was more than a little bit nauseating and I was liking this whole earring deal less and less.  But the ticket had been stamped.  We were all in and the finish line was near.  I hopped up in the high chair and put Ryan in my lap.  This gave her enough confidence to carry forth.  She was shaking and grabbing a little handful of the flesh on my right thigh for all she was worth.  I had my hand around her tummy and her arms were at her sides and, therefore, within the circle of my arm.  Point being, I had it set up where if she began to squiggle and squirm after the first ear, all I would need to do is tighten my arm to keep her still.  I was hoping to avoid this.  But, alas, it was unavoidable.  After the pop of the first ear, Ryan went ballistic.  She was shrieking and the act of holding her in place while the second hole was punched haunts me still.

The praise and mirror viewing options were not nearly as effective with Ryan as they were with Sydney.  Lorri was walking up and down the aisles with Ryan screaming, “I knew it!  I knew it was going to hurt!  I knew it!  You lied to me!  I hate having my ears pierced!”  It was somewhere between awful and comical.  We paid the seventy bucks and headed for the exit.

By the time we arrived back home, Ryan had mostly shifted from anger to excitement alleviating at least some of the guilt Lorri and I were experiencing.  Both girls had chosen posts with their birthstones and they both looked exquisite.  We took pictures to be sent out to all the respective family members and the girls spent the next few days showing off their new acquisitions to anyone who glanced in their direction.

They tell you in the little direction pamphlet that the original posts need to stay in for eight weeks before you can start changing them out.  So, to say the least, the girls had been waiting with bated breath, for that amount of time to pass.  And once it had, we ventured back out to the mall to peruse the vast selection.

They had a wide array of these little six packs of earrings on sale.  Each pack had a theme.  Sydney chose a rock -n- roll set which included a pair of guitars, a pair of volume knobs and a pair of guitar picks.  Ryan went with the fast foods collection replete with hamburgers, french fries and pickles.  They were so hot with anticipation we barely made it out to the parking lot.  Lorri somehow gotten co-opted into changing out the earrings in the car before we went grocery shopping.  This allowed the family to essentially stage a re-creation of the original experience eight weeks previous.  Apparently, after the original posts spent that much time in the earlobes after the original poke, a certain amount of scar tissue tends to build up causing one to, essentially, have to re-poke through the hole.  Once again, Sydney struggled some and Ryan struggled mightily.  So much so, that Ryan ended up coming home with her ears adorned by one pink post, one teeny corn dog and a face hot with tears.  Which brings us to the earring fairy.

That night, Ryan had fallen asleep in our bed with her head on my chest.  Lorri looked at me and said, “What if I tried to change out the other earring now.  Do you think she would wake up?”  I answered, “No, I don’t.  And that might be the most brilliant idea I have ever heard.”  So with the precision of a surgeon, Lorri extracted post and inserted corn dog.  It was a thing of beauty.

The next morning, Ryan awoke the same way she does every morning; with a call for Daddy tent time.  Every morning, once she awakens, I climb into bed with Ryan and throw the blanket up over the two of us and we snuggle and smooch and chat until she is ready to be taken down to the kitchen for breakfast.  So there we are, hanging in the tent, when I look at Ryan’s earlobe and say, “Hey.  When you went to sleep last night, didn’t you have only one of your corn dogs in?”  With a look of astonishment on her face, she throws off the covers and dashes over to her Dora the Explorer vanity table to look in the mirror.  “Daddy, my other earring is in!  What happened?”  I hadn’t planned to not tell her that Lorri and I had done it, but the look of pure amazement on her face led me in a different direction.  “I don’t know honey.  What do you think happened?”  “Daddy,” she answered, “Do you think it was magic?”  “I’ll tell you what I think, sweetie.  I think it was The Earring Fairy.”  Her eyes grew wide with wonder and she asked, “There is an earring fairy?”  “Of course,” I said.

And before I knew it, she was flying out the door of her bedroom headed for the bathroom where Lorri was dressing for work.  “Mommy!  Mommy!  Look!  Look what happened!”  And without missing a beat, my fabulous wife, with a glorious nod to our symbiotic relationship, answered, “Wow!  It must have been the earring fairy.”  And so a new tradition was born.

Of course, then came a wrinkle.  That evening, we called the girls up for brushing and flossing, and little miss Ryan comes strolling proudly into the bathroom proudly brandishing a small sandwich bag.  “What you got there, monkey?”  “Earrings for the Earring Fairy to put in.”  And there they were.  She had gone into our bedroom, opened up the jewelry box, picked out a new pair, put them in a bag, and informed us that we needed to help her write a note so that the earring fairy would not be confused.  We looked at each other, realizing that our brilliant idea was on the verge of becoming a nightly headache.  But we made our own bed.  So we helped her write her note, and under the pillow went the earrings.

As I sat down with paper and markers to play the role, I had an idea:

Hi Ryan-
It’s me, The Earring Fairy.  I love your name.  I’m so excited that you left me such cool earrings to put in your ears.  Your note was so awesome!  I can’t believe you write your letters so beautifully.  By the way, I am only in Wheaton on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, so those are the days you can leave me earrings to put in for you.  Otherwise, you’ll have to ask your mommy and daddy, ok?
I love you-
The Earring Fairy

I walked upstairs with my note, just as Lori was exiting Ryan’s room having done her part of the task at hand.  She read the note and said, “You are a genius.”  I slid the note under Ryan’s pillow and the wrinkle was ironed out.

Which brings us back to the bed this morning.  Ryan had abided by The Earring Fairies request and waited until Thursday night to ask for an earring change.  It just so happened that Sydney latest tooth fell out Thursday morning, setting the stage for dueling fairies.  This time around, in addition to providing her sisters pair of little guitar earrings, Ryan asked if The Earring Fairy could provide her a picture of herself.  This had Daddy up for quite a while trying to draw an appropriate portrait.  If I do say so myself, it was pretty damn good.  Plus, to make sure she didn’t feel too jealous of her sister’s tooth bounty, I threw in the lollipop.

So, there we were.  Me, my beautiful bride, and our deliriously happy children.

Eat my dust, Jennifer Kelly.




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The Junkie and The Mistress

Dad: I’ve been very upset with you, Michael

Michael: I know, Dad

Dad: I’m sitting there reading the “Mom Revisited” post and I come across the line that reads, “Her junkie husband left her for his mistress.  Left her with two kids and not much money,” and I almost fell off my chair.  How could you write that about your stepmother and I?

Michael: It wasn’t meant to be hurtful, Dad.  I was trying to paint a picture of what was happening for mom at that time.  I wasn’t trying to take a shot at you.

Dad: You didn’t realize that those words would be painful to us?

Michael: No, I didn’t.

Dad: Michael, you’re a very smart person.  How is that possible?

Michael: You’re not the first person to ask that question, not by a long shot.  I really don’t have the answer.  I’m certainly aware that, at times, I can be quite blind to the potential impact of my words.  Even if I WAS  aware, I’m not sure I would have written it differently; but again, I didn’t mean for you to be hurt, I’m sorry that you were, and no, it didn’t occur to me that you would be.

Dad: There are parts of you I just don’t understand, Michael.

Michael: Join the club.

Dad: I know you’ve been asked this many times before, but why do these pieces need to made public?  Why does my business have to be put on Facebook?

Michael: Well, those are two different questions, Dad.

Dad: No they’re not.

Michael: They are.  Why my writing is available to the general public and whether or not I need to write about you in particular are not the same thing.  The first one is easy.  I am a writer.  Writing is my art, and like any artist, I wish to do more than just record my thoughts and feelings.  I wish to create some kind of discourse.  I wish to effect people and make them feel something.  I wish to give voice to difficult subjects, speak the unspeakable as it were, and have others come along for the journey.

Dad: I understand that.  I understand what you are doing.

Michael: Okay, thank you.  So that is why the writing is out there for anyone to read.  With that said, I do not need the writing to involve you.  I can totally leave you out of it.  You once told me that I could write whatever I wanted about you.  I now understand that you feel differently.  I understand the request and I am happy to honor it.

Dad: But that’s not what I am asking.

Michael: It’s not?

Dad: No.  Not at all.  It’s just, if you are going to talk about my being a junkie, you need to also talk about how I’ve been sober for a quarter century.  If you are going to call your stepmother “my mistress,” you also need to talk about how we have been in a happy, monogamous marriage for longer than I was married to your mother.  Don’t you think that’s fair?

Michael: No.  I mean, I don’t really think it’s about fair.  I don’t think that the nature of art is always telling all the details of a story, so much as it is about telling the details that are pertinent to the story that the artist is attempting to tell.  For example, if a musician wrote a song about his ex-wife and how he felt hurt and abandoned by the split,  is it incumbent upon him to write more songs talking about all the good times they had?

Dad: But Michael, I’m your father.

Michael: I agree.  You are my father.  So, here’s my offer.  If you would like me to write a post broaching more of the story I’d be happy to do so.

Dad: Yes.  I would like that.

Michael: Done.

Dad had been furious.  Maybe madder than I’ve ever seen him.  Well, no, I’ve actually seen him far madder.  Previous to entering recovery in the mid-eighties, Dad was a fairly rageful man.  Actually, I can remember a particular instance outside of old Yankee Stadium in The Bronx.  I was probably 11 or 12.  We had just watched the pinstripers squeak out a dramatic win and we were outside in the parking lot looking for the car.  Some guy came up from behind me, walking briskly, clearly not paying attention to his immediate surroundings.  He bumped me kind of hard, and just kept on walking.  My Yankee hat fell off my head and I as I bent down to retrieve it, Dad went after the guy like an anxious cheetah.  With three quick strides, Dad closed the gap between himself and the guy and grabbed the back of his shirt collar, clotheslining him and nearly taking his head off in the process.  Dad is strong.  Always was.  He stands about 5’8 and is built like a brick shithouse.  Still holding the guy like a naughty dog by his leash, Dad swings the guy 180 degrees and delivers a one word command: “APOLOGIZE!”  And he did.  I remember it like it happened yesterday.  The guy was stammering words of apology in a fashion so pitiful that I wanted to hug him.  He was utterly shell-shocked; terrified.  Although he could not have been half as scared as I was.  There was a look in my father’s eyes that I could only understand as dangerous.  And my dad looking dangerous felt, well, dangerous.

So Dad was pissed.  Super pissed.  And while Dad is no longer what I would call an angry guy, Dad is still prone to lapsing into old behavior and going off half cocked.  He left me a voicemail which, well let’s just say it left me less than anxious to call him back.  Within thirty minutes he left me another one.  Angrier.  Around two in the morning, I got a third and around six in the morning, a fourth.  He was raging with much fervor on behalf of both himself and my stepmother, and his furor was intensifying with each call.

Dad and I love each other an awful lot.  An awful lot.

We’re both addicts, so they way in which we individually choose to express that love is, at times, less than ideal.

We’re also both in recovery, so, at the end of the day, we are both more committed to being happy then we are to being right.

So after a week of icy coldness and deep resentment on both our parts, we found our way back to each other.

We talked.  It felt good.  In spite of his occasional phone rants, Dad is a reasonable man.  In spite of my rampant blogging, so am I.  And, in spite of our many similarities, we are ultimately very different men.  Sometimes we don’t understand each other and how we each choose to be in the world.  Sometimes that confusion breeds anger and feels borderline intolerable.  The road back to “be and let be” is always communication.

Dad and I have that.  However imperfect, we’ve always had communication.

Dad was raised by a cold, punishing, shaming, pill-addicted mother and an abusive, sexually abhorrent hedonist for a father.  Dad dropped out of high school and fled for the military as soon as he got the chance.  He returned from the Panama Canal Zone a drug addict with few tools to fall back on in the real world.  His father brought him into the family business, vending machines, which afforded Dad some authority and a halfway decent living.

Dad wanted, more than anything (I believe), to gain his parents acceptance- which he would come to find was the ultimate red herring always just beyond his grasp.  But, at the time, he told himself that a nice Jewish girl from a decent family might fit the bill.  So he found one.  My mom.  And they had me and my sister.  And somehow, along with his rampant life of debauchery, Dad managed to grow his father’s business into a highly successful corporation.  I don’t know that it would be accurate to say I grew up wealthy, per se- but we were, at the very least, upper middle class.

To judge us from the outside, which was really the only aspect being properly tended to, we were the perfect family.  The white picket fence was brown and we didn’t have a dog but other than that, all the pieces were very much in place.  Which is why when the bomb dropped, the shrapnel took everyone by surprise.  I’ve detailed the basic framework of the breakdown of my family of origin in previous pieces and I will leave it to you to seek them out.  Suffices to say, it was ugly.

Dad was as flattened as a man could be.  Destitute.  Bottom of the barrel.  My starkest memory of this time was going to visit Dad about a week after he’d moved out of the house.  He had rented a room at The Holiday Inn on route 46 one town over from ours.  I don’t actually remember how I got there as I was still a few years away from my license.  I suspect one of my older buddies hooked me up.  Either way, I walked in and had the concierge call upstairs gaining permission to ride the elevator up to the appointed floor.  When I found Dad’s room, I was about to knock but realized the door was open.  I pushed against it and walked into what, to this day, is one of the saddest sites I have ever seen.  Dad had been using.  He was standing behind the second of two very distressed queen sized beds.  I could barely see, because the shades were drawn and the lights were dim.  Dad’s hair was mussed and his clothes were crumpled.  His eyes were red and his pupils were extremely dilated.  Pretty much everything he owned, or at least everything he had taken with him, was stuffed in a bunch of garbage bags heaped one on top of another in a rickety faux-wooden free-standing closet which he must have bought cheaply and put together himself.  The look on his face was one of seething self-pity.  He was utterly defeated.  It was the bottom.  And it was a terrible thing to see.

I remember thinking that Dad was going to die.  I wasn’t sure how.  Perhaps he’d overdose.  Perhaps he’d take his own life.  Either way, I found myself feeling quite anxious wondering when it would inevitably happen and how I would find out.

But Dad didn’t die.  Dad was saved.  Yes, he was ultimately saved by God.  And, yes, God saved him through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.  But, the doorway to those miracles was his very own angel.  In much the same way my own journey would play out, Dad was saved by a woman.  That woman is my step mom, Patti.

Patti was, as stated previously, Dad’s mistress.  Patti and Dad were engaged in a full-blown love affair before my parents split up.  And that was unfortunate.  And that was hard for me at the time.  Dishonest as that choice may have been, my parents, for years, had been married only by virtue of the fact that there was a piece of paper filed in a drawer somewhere downtown stating that it was so.  So, from this insider’s perspective, Patti may have been a mistress, but she was far from a home wrecker.  And their love was real.  Dad and Patti are one of the few couples I can unequivocally say were “made for each other.”  Quite frankly, in the world where I grew up, where all men cheated and all marriages were built on shifting sands, Dad and Patti ended up to be the very best data I could get my hands on that marriage could work and be based on a real partnership.

A favorite story of mine, and one that I have heard Dad tell numerous times, has Dad in a high-priced, ritzy drug rehab having been dropped off there by Patti who was attempting to stand by his side as he tried to find his way onto the proverbial wagon.  On the way to the rehab, Dad had asked Patti to stop at a department store so he could buy himself an expensive white sweater.  The ego of the active addict is a remarkable thing, as Dad thought it more important to look good than to concentrate on saving his own life.  Dad’s drug of choice was pills (specifically Percodan and Percoset) and at this point he was swallowing forty to fifty a day.  So Dad was pretty far gone.  That night, after deciding that this place was not the place for him, he called Patti to come pick him up.  She refused.  He begged.  She stood strong in her refusal.  And then he pulled out the big guns.  “Listen,” he demanded, “if you don’t come and get me right now, I am going to climb out on the edge of this windowsill and leap to my death.”  Patti’s response was, “Okay.  But do me a favor.  That white sweater you bought will probably fit me, so take it off before you jump, okay?”

Her refusal to cosign his bullshit is why he is alive today.

She’s a pretty awesome lady.  She knits clothes that put Gymboree and The Gap to shame, cooks like a Top Chef finalist and she’s funny as hell.  I don’t just mean that she appreciates good humor.  She’s sharp and sarcastic and can get downright vulgar.  Patti kicks ass.

But initially it was challenging for us.  Once it became clear that Dad was not going back to Mom and that he was actually in the process of building a life with this other person- I just had no idea what to think about that or how to respond to it. And then Dad set up the initial meeting.  Me and Patti.  At the new condo in which they were cohabitating.  I hadn’t a clue what to expect and, mostly, I suppose I was telling myself that I needed to try to be a grown-up, act like a grown-up.  But I wasn’t a grown up.  I was fifteen.  And far angrier than I realized.

One of the key elements to my relationship with my father as far back as I can remember is a mutual love of humor.  This is one of the great gifts my fathers genetics bestowed upon me and a piece of me he always nurtured generously.  We both have excellent memories, a great sense of timing and a talent for mimicry.  Consequently, both my childhood and adulthood have been strewn with my Dad and I regularly tossing “lines” at each other.  Lines from films like “The Frisco Kid,” “Blazing Saddles,” and “Stir Crazy.”  Lines from television shows like, “Seinfeld,” “The King of Queens,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”  Lines from the great comics like George Carlin, Buddy Hackett and Robert Klein.  Dad and I can do lines all day long.

And so my relationship with Patti began with Dad attempting to set her up with a line to get me laughing.  There is a scene toward the beginning of “Young Frankenstein,” where Gene Wilder is bidding farewell to his fiancée, played by the great Madeline Khan, who is far more concerned with her finely tuned appearance not getting mussed than she is with the prospect of being away from her lover.  She rebuffs his advances again and again, disallowing him from kissing her or embracing her.  Finally he simply draws out his hand to touch her, and she says, “Taffeta darling.”  Thinking that this must be some kind of term of affection that he has never before heard, he replies, “Yes.  Taffeta darling.”  To which she responds, “No.  This dress is made of taffeta.  Don’t touch.”  Finally, he relents his advances and, as the train starts to pull away, they sort of air-touch their elbows as an agreed upon farewell technique.  In addition to “What Knockers,” and “Did you make a yummy sound?” and “Abby Normal,” “Taffeta, darling” was a much repeated line from that particular movie between me and pop.

So I walk into Dad’s condo and Patti is sitting in a wing back chair waiting to meet me.  I walk up to her and lean in to say hello and she holds her hand up and says, “Taffeta, darling.”

It just didn’t land.  The heightened tension of the moment and my own nervousness was such that I was just confused by her shrugging off my attempt at pleasantries.  I stood frozen for what seemed like an eternity when I noticed the smiles on both their faces and retroactively understood the attempted funny.  It was too late, though.  It felt horribly forced to begin with as it bugged me that Dad would let this new person in on our own personal world of lines, and, to boot, I felt humiliated that I had missed the gag.  This was enough to make me decide that I did not like Patti.  Of course, I was a selfish kid, and I had no idea that she might be as nervous as I was- probably more so.  It got us off to a rough start.

Conversely, Patti’s failed attempt at humor was far outweighed by the myriad of ways in which I sabotaged the relationship.  I was young and I was waist deep in the throes of my addictions.

When they married, Dad asked me to be his best man and I accepted, only to bail at the last second.

I regularly bowed to the will of my mother and disallowed Patti from attending important events.

And I robbed them.

It’s one of the more shameful deeds of my past.

It wasn’t technically breaking and entering because I had my own key.  Although, the trust they instilled in me makes the theft even worse.

I was seventeen.  I honestly don’t remember why I needed the money.  Or even if I needed the money.  Not that it would serve as an excuse, but I sort of wish I needed the cash to get my knocked up girlfriend an abortion or because I needed to get my car out of the impound lot.  But it was none of that.  I just wanted some cash.  And I figured I’d find some at Dad’s.  I let myself in at a time that I knew no one would be home and began to search.  I checked every drawer and cabinet in the place before remembering an event that I suspected might prove useful.  Back when Dad was still living in the house, I recalled walking into the guest room one day and finding Dad standing in front of the closet.  This closet was an extra storage place and was utilized mainly to house Dad’s suits and sports jackets.  As I entered, Dad was pulling what looked like an enormous wad of cash out of the inside pocket of one of the suit coats.  I don’t remember if he even noticed or acknowledged my presence, nor do I remember attaching any particular significance to the event.  I didn’t even realize that I had remembered it until that moment.  I went and found the closet where Dad’s current set of suits and sports coats were hung and began to systematically check the inside pockets of each one.  Sure enough, the fifth one I checked, jackpot.  I pulled out what must have been four or five thousand dollars in assorted bills.  Wanting to pick a number that might go unnoticed, I chose to take three hundred and fifty bucks.  I folded it, slipped it into my back pocket, relocked the door and went on my merry way.

Two days later, Dad called me in the early evening.  He said that he needed to speak to me.  He said that it could not wait.  He told me to meet him at the Howard Johnson’s on Black Oak Ridge Road.  I couldn’t imagine what could be so important, but I agreed.  He was there waiting for me in his car.  I rolled down my window and he told me to park my car and come get in his, which I did.

Dad: I need the money back, Michael.

Michael (indignantly): What money?

Dad: Please, Michael.  I know it was you.  I don’t even want to discuss it.  I just need the money back.

Michael (angrily): I have no idea what you are talking about!

Dad: You know how much I want to trust you Michael?  I blamed Patti.  I realized the money was gone and I blamed Patti.  Considering we have scrimped and saved for over a year to save that money, it makes no sense at all that she would take it, but I blamed her anyway.  And she, justifiably so, was enraged.  And we fought.  Finally, Patti reminded me that you have a key and, even then, I refused to believe it could be you.  But it is.  It is you.  And, Michael, I’m begging you.  I need you to give the money back.  I’ll let it go.  We’ll recover.  Please.  Give me the money.

Michael: You know, Dad, I am totally offended that you’d think I would do such a thing.  If you want your key back, you can have it.  But I don’t have your money!

Even to write it down brings back the pain of a moment I don’t suspect I’ll ever completely recover from.  He was so dejected.  He had no choice but to accept my answer and drive slowly away.  It was an excruciating moment.  A true low point in my humanity.

I didn’t admit the truth until I entered AA eight years later.  Having engaged in a fair amount of theft himself as an addict, much of it with his folks, he easily forgave me.  It still bothers me, though.

So for Dad, these moments were obviously painful, if not devastating.

But for Patti…

Jesus.  What could she have been thinking?  She’s trying to build a relationship with this man who is trying to stay sober and they have no money.  And on top of all this, the guy comes complete with this obese, selfish teenager who breaks into their home and steals their money.  God bless her, she never gave up on me.  I always felt welcomed and accepted by her and, over time, we’ve built a warm and loving relationship.

And I referred to her as Dad’s mistress.  And she’s mad.  And I get that.  I can’t take it back.  And it’s true.  She was Dad’s mistress.  But that was not meant as an insult.  Like Dad, Patti comes from a spotty and damaged past full of pain and dysfunction.  In many ways, she was just as lost and adrift as Dad.  And they rose from the ashes together.  Mistress doesn’t define Patti.  Mistress is part of what makes Patti so impressive.  It’s part of the wreckage of her past and, like all my greatest teachers, she pushed through and found a life of joy and contentment.

They did.  They made a life that works.  A life that, in many ways, I aspire to.


And it certainly didn’t come easy.

Shortly after Dad got sober, the vending business went under and he was penniless.  Patti made a decent living as a paralegal, but it was not enough to support them both.  Dad did not even have a high school education and a forty-five year old guy with little schooling and no training was not exactly a hot commodity on the job market.  So he went to, pretty much, the only place that would have him.  He applied to Prudential to sell insurance.  I imagine he was not the poster child for what they look for in a new salesman, but I would guess running his own sales-generated business for a couple of decades, made him worth taking a flier on.

I remember coming to visit him at his home in West Patterson having just been accepted by Prudential.  I let myself in and he yelled that he was downstairs.  I made my way down to the basement where he was sitting on the couch in a white sweat suit and socks studying for his insurance test.  He was wearing glasses pushed down on his nose and staring at a laptop.  I had never before seen my father so much as touch a computer.  He looked very small and very scared.

I remember thinking, “What is he doing?  He is not equipped for this.  It takes a couple of years to even have a chance at making money in insurance sales.  He doesn’t have that kind of patience.  And he doesn’t have that kind of time.  My dad is an immediate gratification junkie.  The constant rejection of this business is going to swallow him up and spit him out in a matter of months.”

I’m happy to say I was wrong.  Dead wrong.

Over the next ten years, Dad turned himself into one of Prudential’s best salesman, far exceeding his goals every year.

He built himself up a nice pension and retired at sixty.

Patti still works.  Not as hard as she used to.  She’s as competent in her work as she is in everything else, so she pretty much calls her own shots.  That is to say, she’s made herself entirely indispensable, so she has increasingly managed to figure out how to get paid more for working less.

So yes, The Junkie and The Mistress.  I stand by that characterization.  I see it as a badge of honor.  A purple heart.

It makes everything else that they are, all the more remarkable.

In the words of Larry David, “They’ve done pretty… pretty… pretty good.”

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