Continued from previous post…

You began acting callously and with impunity. Courting the trade press, you would say whatever came first, seeking credit and taking it. You then collected these stories in a shoebox, like scalps. The more awards you won the more you took winning for granted. You expected victory. When you got a substantial raise you asked for stock in the agency. You demanded monster bonuses. And got them. No title was big enough. Executive Chairman? You weren’t even sure what that meant. Put it on the fucking business card.

Sure, you created bridges but you began burning them as well. Whoever could help you was a loyalist. Everyone else was simply in the way. Always a competitive field now became ruthless. You made enemies, inside and outside your company. They were just jealous, you thought. And did it matter? Tables turned they would treat you the same as an opponent. Or so you believed.

In the eye of this storm a moral compass was useless. Drugs and alcohol became your closet allies. Feeding your ego. Telling you full speed ahead. Cunning, baffling and powerful! They would deliver you to the Promised Land. Back to that feeling you once experienced by the elevators. But of course it was all an illusion, their siren song leading you out to sea alone in a tempest. You would not be the first captain to have crashed upon the rocks.

Your hands trembled in a meeting. So you folded them under the table, hoping no one would notice. You perspired so you brought an extra shirt to the office. You ran for miles along Lake Michigan. At the gym, you tried to work out what was wrong. In the steam room you couldn’t see what was happening. Fear crept in where confidence once reigned. You took Valium and Xanax, along with the drinking.

The wheels were coming off.

For all your hubris it was this obsession with work that would save your life. When you realized your job was at stake, then and only then, you decided to quit. Not for your marriage or your family or even your health. Those lines you’d crossed a long time ago. You’d mortgaged most of your relationships. Your wife was in denial. Your father had written one of his letters. None of that mattered. The great copywriter and rainmaker you were not willing to lose.

In rehab, the group leader, himself a former addict, told you that maybe an advertising career wasn’t in your best interest. That it threatened your sobriety. He warned its venal culture would only suck you back in. You spitefully replied that you made more money in one week than he did all year. Quit your job? Unthinkable. Keeping it was why you’d stopped drinking in the first place! Sick as you were, this had been the most lucrative time of your life. You’d made over a million dollars. Losing all that for something as ephemeral as serenity? Please. What you did not tell the social worker was that you feared he was right.

Chasing Windmills

January 14, 2021

Continued from previous post…

Looking back, the corner office and all its trappings could be summed up via the old expression: be careful what you wish for. You’d gotten the carrot only to find out you didn’t like carrots. You’d grabbed the brass ring but it hurt like hell holding on. Climbing the ladder you hadn’t realized the rungs below would disappear until it was too late. There was no stepping down a few lengths to adjust, catch your breath, and assess the view. You had to keep climbing or plummet, which is exactly what happened. This was not to say certain ambitious and notorious colleagues hadn’t greased the rungs, expediting your fall; they had.

Came a time there wasn’t a safety net. No cushy job after the severance. No friends to catch you, even those you’d helped on their own ladders to the top. You try not to be bitter. What good would it do? Resentments were like taking poison and expecting others to suffer.

Enlightenment didn’t prevent you from occasionally trolling these pricks. Waves of resentment rolled in now and again, like the king tides in Marin, defeating you. Maybe you turned to the Internet, desperately trying to find an outlet for your vitriol. Mercifully, mostly, you never pressed send.

You remember the day you crossed the one hundred thousand dollar mark. When you were 30 years old, and recently married. You took Sarah out to celebrate, sat across from her in the restaurant, maybe even held her hand, speaking about the future as if it were a gift. If you ever were in love with her it was then, when nothing felt impossible. That night even drinking too much seemed fine. You don’t remember if you and Sarah made love but it hardly mattered. Intoxicated, the two of you. The next morning hangovers were pleasant. Lazing together in pajamas, drinking coffee, reading the paper, gazing at homes in the real estate section, day dreaming about the fantastic tomorrows both of you would share.

And yet, even then, you knew money was most of all a yardstick for your ego. Titles would serve the same purpose. Copywriter. Senior Writer. Associate Creative Director. Creative Director. Vice President. Group Creative Director. Senior Vice President. Executive Creative Director. Rungs in the ladder. Notches in your belt.

Perhaps after achieving success, as was accused, you became complacent. It’s possible. You had made compromises, believing certain situations required it. You must wonder about that now.

You were most content when your work got noticed, won awards and attracted people to you. One campaign in particular ran the table at all the award shows, garnering praise around the world. It would become the agency’s show pony, and you rode it proudly. The best whore in the whorehouse and you were its pimp. The man. Waiting for an elevator at work, a group of marketing students gathered behind you. You heard one of them excitedly whisper to his mate. “That’s him!” He was talking about you. “No fucking way,” the other guy said.

Way.

Being revered was beyond anything you’d ever experienced, more gratifying than your promotions and trophies. And it had come unsolicited. Out of the ether! For what seemed like the first time, you’d been noticed for greatness not flaws. No longer were you the fat kid punched in the gut and crucified on the diving board. You were special, with proof. You’d waited so long for that moment had fantasized about it. Comeuppance. By then the fantasy was less about smashing your tormentors and more about gaining respect and validation. You had no idea what it would look like until that afternoon by the elevators, when the world shifted, ever so slightly, favoring you.

You chased that feeling like the drug that it was, madly looking for it in every promotion, every raise, every accolade. It was never enough but the next one would be.

Relationships and family took a back seat. Any idiot could find a mate and have babies. Friends were transient. Parents weren’t there. Finally, you had something you could control. What you craved was conditional and directly related to your accomplishments. Your vocation became the most important thing in your life. You drank. You got high. But it was just a byproduct of success or a panacea to failure. Finally, you had a calling.

You were chasing windmills.

Falling off the Pedestal

January 6, 2021

You have been steeling yourself for this conversation, for this moment. Actually, the right time was two years ago, when you had been caught. Maybe neither of you was ready then, hard to know. Yet you cannot wait any longer.

You knock on Remy’s door. She doesn’t answer. But you know she’s there. Your daughter deserves her privacy. She’s a woman. Regardless. You crack open the door. Peek inside.

Softly, you say her name. “Remy?” Again. “Remy?”

She has on headphones. Beats by Dre that she got for her birthday. Bright red and cost a fortune. She’s listening to hip-hop, the language of the streets, the African American experience, rife with “F” bombs and the radioactive “N” word.  You can hear it pulsing through her sleek headphones.

Unseen, you take a moment to observe her. A small person, she seems half swallowed by the comforter on her bed. Her bobbing head reminds you of the gophers that occasionally poke through the grass in your backyard. You think it’s funny: this little white girl listening to rap.

Save for the blues, you grew up loathing disco and rap. You remember an ill-fated promotion called  “Disco Demolition Night” at Comiskey Park in Chicago. An unruly crowd of mostly white teenagers, incited by a local DJ, lustily roared as a mountainous pile of disco records got blown to bits in center field. An embarrassing spectacle, it caused a riot. They had to cancel the baseball game. You’re glad Remy has an open mind, even if it sometimes scares you.

Remy sees you and removes the headphones. She is genuinely surprised. Her eyes widen.

“Hi,” you say. “Can we talk?”

“Right now?” She asks. Remy bites her tongue, a habit she’d recently developed. Your request was unusual, as was your presence in her room. She braces herself.

“Yes, please,” you say. “If that’s okay.” You enter her bedroom and take a seat on the large ottoman.

Remy crosses her legs on the bed. “What’s up, dad? She asks. Nervously, toying with her headphones. Finally, she turns off the music, shutting her laptop.

“Don’t worry,” you begin. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I’m not worried,” she says, timidly. “I mean not really.”

“Let me start by saying you’re an amazing person, Remy. I don’t tell you that enough.” It’s true, you didn’t.  In spite of dragging her to California, disrupting her life, utterly, Remy had remained stoic throughout the ordeal. She has no friends! Her mother had cried. She doesn’t belong to a group! Feebly, you’d reasoned that Remy had sisters and that the move had brought them closer together. But you knew Sarah was right. The move had hurt Remy, thrusting her into a world of diffident girls uninterested in befriending a pale and diminutive child. A wound you’d made infinitely worse by betraying her mother. This is why you are here, to make amends.

“When I was a boy, I put my father on a pedestal,” you say. “Maybe even more so after he left us.” You pause, pulling one of Remy’s long brown hairs off of the ottoman, watch it fall to the floor.  “I don’t remember when he fell off it exactly but I do know it was painful…realizing my dad had flaws and weaknesses, a life that did not include me.”

Remy looks right at you. Her brown eyes remind you of your own.

“Anyway,” you continue. “I think we both know exactly when I fell off your pedestal. That is assuming you had me on one in the first place.” You force a laugh.

Remy smiles. Thank God, you think.

“The night your mother found those texts on my phone. When you and your sisters saw her yelling and crying. That was the moment.” Though you desperately want to avert your eyes from Remy, you do not. Doing this correctly demanded your full attention. And so you say the hard part: “When I betrayed your mother I betrayed you as well.”

Remy nods, uneasily. This was an adult conversation, maybe the first she’d ever had with you.

You press forward. “I don’t expect you to put me back on that pedestal, Remy. Or even to forgive me. I know what I did was wrong and that I hurt this whole family. And for that I am truly sorry.”

You stop talking. You’ve said what you came here to say. You will not provide reasons or excuses. You must accept that she may give you no quarter. The outcome was not yours to determine. Only that you own the mess that you’ve made.

Remy speaks and her poise surprises you. “Thank you, father,” she says. “It’s true. I did have a hard time when we moved here. I pretended it was cool but it wasn’t. And then what happened, what you did … that made it even worse. It was awful.

You nod. “Yes, it was.”

Remy comports herself, sitting up straighter. “But in the last year or so I found my place. I have friends now. It’s not perfect but I like my life. I grew up.” She laughs. “Just in time for college!”

You had not expected humor. Nor would you have linked Remy’s maturation to your own bad behavior. But the dots connected. Your weakness begot her strength. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. But that’s exactly what had happened.

You are not glad hearing this, but reassured. “I was scared I might have lost you. And I would have understood it. But I want you to know that you will never lose me.”  You look down, contrite. Play with your wedding ring.

Remy sighs. “I’m glad you and mom are still together,” she says. “I know that it can’t be easy, for either of you.”

In that moment, gazing upon your daughter, you realize what you just did here was right, the words and the deed. If only you could continue down this path. Being intimate, vulnerable and honest. If only…

“At school, the sisters always preach forgiveness,” Remy says. “That we should even pray for the people that hurt us…”

You’ve heard that said before, in AA. It was a textbook example of something easier said than done.

“And so I prayed for you.”

You point to the ceiling. “Do you know every morning I ask God for help? And every night I thank Him for giving it to me.” You pause.  “For keeping me sober… For all of my blessings… And for you.”

Remy’s phone vibrates, lighting up. Somebody wants her and you don’t wonder why. She’s a remarkable young woman.

“It’s okay, I won’t look at my phone,” she says. “If you’re not done.”

“I am done,” you say, getting up. You don’t want the conversation to end. Yet, you didn’t want to push it either. In this family, intimacy was damn near a mirage, like water in the desert. Too much all at once could be detrimental. “Look, I know this is awkward but can we end with a hug?”

Remy rolls her eyes. All the same, she climbs off the bed, opening her arms.

In these tiny arms that you created. She squeezes back. Next time, would she come to you? It was more possible now than it had been ten minutes ago. Every year, their high school has a Daddy-Daughter Dance for its freshman. Proud fathers and their flowering daughters, everyone enjoys it. You recall being petrified. Holding your daughter that close felt so awkward. Yet, she was scared, too. Reluctant. Her tiny bones seemed to vibrate. Like father like daughter.

The thing about falling off a pedestal is getting back up onto solid ground.

Privileged to Serve

January 2, 2021

In addition to my writing, for the last 6 months I’ve been serving as Primary Counselor in the Treatment of Substance Use Disorders at Serenity Knolls. The pandemic has only heightened the need. I’m privileged to serve.

Long ago, my father told me: “If you want to write copy work as a bartender. You’ll learn what people really think, need and desire.” Well, now I’m working as a counselor for people with alcohol and drug disorders. So, in a way, that box is checked.

Unthink.

December 26, 2020

“It was a beautiful day when I awoke but then I started thinking.” A great line uttered by a strange man. Dave is ex-military, ex-cop and now drives a canary yellow VW Bug. He still pines for his mother’s affection, though she’s been dead for decades. Dave is 80 years old. He has become a fixture at one of your meetings and not a beloved one. You see the others roll their eyes when Dave shares. At first, you did too. Dave’s a slow learner. He repeats himself. At his age moping about his momma is weird. Now you listen to the coot, searching for gemstones in the mud:   … But then I started thinking.

Nearly 60 years old, the last 17 of them sober, you’d like to think you’re past the point of criticizing organized religion. Hating on the church is a cliché, though it seldom feels that way at first. Disavowing the sacred, calling it profane. It’s empowering. Then you start sounding like that snob who derides TV as a vast wasteland, or the Internet. Best to just get it out of your system. The man who keeps harping on the religion of his youth becomes no less tiring than Dave crying for his mother. Let it be. Popular religion is an opiate for the masses… the Budweiser of Higher Powers. Nothing wrong with it on Sunday. Most people in the program prefer a craft-brewed Higher Power. Spirituality is different from religion. Better than. Have they forgotten how outsiders view AA: a musty cult of chain smokers and book thumpers…Twelve Steps versus Ten Commandments?