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.

The Acorn

November 16, 2020

On the last day of your senior year in high school you broke a rule by wearing shorts. The Principal called you out for the infraction, stopping you in the hallway. The details of your exchange are lost in time but you most certainly had been disrespectful. Whatever the case, he ended up banning you from the graduation ceremony. A harsh blow, but hardly the first one the school had dealt you during your tenure. Thankfully, it would be the last. Good riddance. Your mother was upset by the news. Maybe she cried. Maybe she took your side. You don’t remember. It was a long time ago. However, you do recall your father’s reaction. “Good,” he had said. “Now I don’t have to go.” You were relieved that he hadn’t gotten mad. But was it also possible that you’d been hurt by his indifference to your banishment (and by proxy his). After all, had you not been banned from the ceremony your father would have been forced to attend. At the time you viewed it as a win: neither of you sitting in the hot sun waiting for a piece of paper. But shouldn’t a father want to go to his son’s graduation?

The acorn does not fall far from the tree. Having three children, you too are put off by the myriad events you were made to attend. Parent-teacher conferences. Recitals. Soccer matches. Graduations. You were ambivalent about going to any and all of them. Sarah hated this about you. “Why must you only think of yourself?” She asked a million times. As time wore on, she would become even more direct: “You’re going, whether you like it or not.”

And go you did. Sometimes grumbling, rarely happy about it, always happy when it was over. You have wondered about this attitude. Many times. It’s not that you didn’t want your children doing these things you just didn’t want to do it with them. It was nerve wracking watching Remy hammering away at the piano or Callie being bested on the soccer field. Worse was enduring the other children. That was the opposite of entertaining. What did Oscar Wilde once say? Hell is other people’s children. They bored you to annoyance.

But you went. Dutifully. You have Sarah to thank for this.

After joining AA, you learned to name your character defects and that your principal sin was one of self-centeredness. Early on, you recall a member’s lamentation about drinking in his car while his daughter played the cello. How low can one go? He asked the group. Join the club you wanted to say. It went without saying.

Your upbringing demanded that you become self-sufficient. Your difficult surroundings forced you ever deeper into your head, where you created fantasies to offset the growing fears and frustrations of the outside world. You became introverted and built your life around it – it being you. Reading, writing, collecting butterflies, drawing comics, even masturbating; by the time you started using drugs and drinking the die had been cast. You put yourself first because in your mind no one else ever would. You had ample evidence to support this view. Your parents abandoned you. Friends betrayed you. Girls were beyond you.

You have covered this territory before: in therapy, in AA, in your writing, in your head, ad nausea. Even during your darkest hours, you knew better. That’s why you intervened on yourself, joined AA. What you hadn’t counted on was “better” meaning selfless. You desired to be a better husband and father but you couldn’t let go of your will. Despite everything, you admired your wits and what they had wrought. In AA, you heard people attack such pretenses over and over but… There was always but. Needless to say, untangling yourself from your self has proven to be tricky. A lot more tricky.

Even so, there is much to celebrate. You are not so angry anymore. You are responsible, law-abiding, and paid your taxes. You do not feel cheated by the world or anyone in it. Though you know the world is unfair you also realize that this is why you are still alive and not a drunken statistic. If life were fair you’d be dead. You are grateful for what you have. You are sober.

Every day you do something physical, something spiritual and something for your brain. You have your set of unwise and unhealthy behaviors but it soothes you. It could be worse.

But the calm always seems conspicuous. Can you maintain it? Will another front arrive? The questions buzz like mosquitos, disturbing the peace. What now?

Most of the television shows and movies I watch contain a preponderance of alcohol, tobacco or drugs. Many of them are integral to the plot itself. Platforms like Netflix and Hulu (among many, many others), free and clear of network restrictions, opened Pandora’s Box in terms of sexual and violent content. To say nothing of the Internet.

Some of the most popular and/or critically acclaimed shows on any screen are predominantly about illicit drug use, alcoholism and related topics: Breaking Bad (Methamphetamine), Shameless (ETOH) and Euphoria (<ATOD) One needn’t be a pearl-clutcher to say it’s difficult finding mass-appeal content that doesn’t feature ATOD’s.

But I tried.

“PEN 15” is a serial on Hulu about two awkward adolescent girls navigating the perils of middle school. The conceit is that the two leads are actually adult women playing themselves from that time period. It’s actually pretty good.

In the episode I watched the two girls find them selves hiding in the girl’s bathroom at school to avoid bullies (a constant threat for them), when they find a cigarette on the floor. This lone cigarette proves to be a catalyst for all manner of awkward, ridiculous and potentially scandalous ADULT behavior.

Later, the girls are playing with dolls together when their entire childhood gets called into question. Old behaviors suddenly seem boring to them –childish.

They toss the dolls onto the floor and reach for the cigarette.

But in order to smoke it they will need a lighter. So the girls decide to dress up to look older and this becomes a whole scene onto itself. Using makeup they took from their parents and the “flyest” clothes they can muster, the “ladies” glam up in order to venture to the corner store in their neighborhood. They believe looking older is necessary in order to purchase a Bic lighter. There, one mocks a child who is line with his mother for being “with his mommy.” The two adolescents ape all manner of supposed older behavior –costume, makeup, attitude- all because of the still un-smoked cigarette they found in girl’s bathroom at school.

As it has been for countless adolescents, the cigarette symbolizes adulthood. PEN 15 (a combination of characters intended to mimic “penis”) is a coming of age comedy and the cigarette portends all that await these two awkward kids on the cusp of being teenagers.

The show then introduces another concept familiar to every kid who ever got the talk about ATOD: that smoking cigarettes is a gateway to even more scandalous behavior. The girls show up at the hangout of a group of 8th grade girls and ask if they can join them “to smoke.” The older girls invite them in. After a lot of posturing (in order to impress the older kids) one ends up chugging a beer. The other tries a whippet (inhalant) and passes out.

Not only has the still-unsmoked cigarette lead to alcohol and inhalants it has also presented the viewer with a classic case of peer pressure and its effect on young people regarding drinking and using drugs.

Then the boys show up.  In a painfully awkward scene each boy chooses a girl ostensibly to pair off and make out: the ultimate taboo! The two girls reluctantly pair up with two boys and, while they don’t “hook up” per se, the promise of illicit sex hangs in the air. We see brief scenes of the 8th graders canoodling in the dark.

A parent shows up and “busts” the party before anything else occurs. The two hero girls end up taking the fall for the beer and bad behavior. A be careful what you wish for moment for the two aspiring teenagers. Here, getting busted is also an iconic plot point in the age-old tale of experimenting with drugs. In shows like Breaking Bad and Shameless people get arrested or even killed for getting caught, Of course, in this story nothing like that remotely happens. The two are sent home to their mothers.

Handled briefly here, a poignant scene featuring one of the girl’s mothers frowning sadly at her daughter. She does nothing but walk away. Yet, her silence speaks volumes, more punishing to her child than a scolding. A parent’s disappointment is yet another trope in such stories (and in reality). The sad, helpless mother is an indelible part of the ATOD narrative.

The final scene of the episode has the two girls back in their playroom… pondering the unlit cigarette that started it all. They decide to put it away in a jewel box, saving it for another day. They resume playing with their dolls. Roll credits.

To be sure, the ending is sweet. Yet, it’s interesting to note that they do not dispose of the cigarette but rather hold onto it. The butt caused them nothing but trouble yet the trouble was a shared memory of an adventure that bonded the two girls. Romanticism is an inextricable part of ATOD’s.  Always was and maybe always will be.

Welcome to Armageddon

September 25, 2020

“I’m going to tell you a true story, okay?”

Callie is looking at her phone but you know she is listening. You are driving her to rehearsal. She has a big part in Les Miserables. She plays the grown-up version of Cosette. Though you saw the movie you don’t really remember the story. Victor Hugo is not your thing. Being a musical, Callie has been practicing her song for weeks. You’ve heard her belting out lyrics from her room, in the shower, on the trampoline in the backyard, which she pretended was a stage. You couldn’t tell if she was good or not but her enthusiasm was infectious. It gladdened you to see her so passionate, so happy. Many members from your family are coming in to see her perform. Hundreds of other people as well. The tickets cost money and this is a real show. Up until yesterday Callie had been totally psyched.

One of her “friends” had disrespected her online, insulting her singing skills or some other shit. Usually a brick, Callie had been wounded.  Your wife told you as much. Now you felt it in your daughter’s sullen demeanor.

So you tell her a story…

“Before you were born,” you begin. “Back when I was coming up at my agency in Chicago, we were preparing for this huge presentation. It was my idea we’d be showing. I had written all the copy. And I had the game to go with it. I knew what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. I had my shit down.”

Callie looks up when you curse. Good. You had her attention. No easy feat with a teenager.

“Anyway, the night before I rehearsed my bit in front of the team. I get done. My colleagues are pleased. One even clapped. Then the head account person –the guy who deals with the client- he proceeds to crap all over my work. He’s not happy with the creative, he says. It’s shit. I’m dumbfounded. Where did this come from? He’d seen it before.”

Traffic on the 101 is heavy but it allows you to turn and look at your daughter. “The guy says to me, in front of everybody, if you present that work tomorrow it will be Armageddon.”

“The end of the world?” Callie asks. “What did you do?” Callie’s eyes are one of her most beautiful features, big and blue, and they are wide open staring at you.

You laugh. “I told him I would make changes. That I’d do what he wanted.”

“That sucks,” your daughter says.

“It would have sucked,” you say. “Had I listened to him. The next day I delivered my presentation just as I’d planned it. My work. My way. And I fucking killed it. When I was done the client cheered.”

“Really?”

“Damn straight,” you say. “But the story’s not over. After the meeting ends, everybody’s shaking hands, patting each other on the back. I walk over to the account guy who’d dissed my work. He thinks I’m going to shake his hand. I look him right in the eyes, and I say, ‘Welcome to Armageddon, asshole.’”

Almost missing your exit, you swiftly change lanes. So caught up are you in the tale.

“Wow, that’s a great story, dad,” Callie says. “It’s all true?”

“Every bit, sweetheart.”

At the red light, you look at Callie full on. The middle child, she’s the sassy one. The daughter that gives your wife the most trouble. You choose your words carefully. “If people disrespect you or your work that does not mean you have to listen to them. Just be…”

The light turns green and you move the car forward. The word comes to you.

“Devastating.”

AA teaches that redemption comes from being of service. Letting go the bondage of self. This is true. Yet redemption also comes by shattering the chains from the bondage of others. You want your daughter to believe in herself, even when others don’t.

In the parking lot, Callie thanks you for driving her to practice. But you sense something deeper. You can see it in her eyes.

The fierceness has returned.

You watch Callie as she marches toward the theater, joining her other cast members. When she was a toddler, she had refused to walk upright, instead choosing to tread on her knees. The pediatrician had concerns. Your wife was worried. It’s not normal, they said. But you knew her day would come. And in your mind so did she.

The world is a stage and you just gave an important player some badass direction.

Stray Cat Blues

September 15, 2020

Lying in bed you wait for the Seroquel and Gabapentin to kick in, drugs that were prescribed 15 years ago by the head of addiction therapy at Rush Hospital in Chicago. He’d said they were non-habit forming. Yet you cannot sleep without them. Go figure.

Despite being agnostic/atheist, you say a brief and scattered prayer, thanking a “Higher Power” (AA‘s euphemism for God) for keeping you clean and sober and forgiving you your defects of character. When you awake you will ask God to help you with these same things… Asking for help. Giving thanks. Prayer at its simplest. The least you can do. Taught early in recovery to fake it ‘till you make it isa strategy you still employ.

Before your eyes adjust to the dark you roll over, gathering the pillows to your chest as a child might a stuffed animal. In fact, you sucked your thumb until you were almost a teen-ager. Even now, during times of stress, you still chew your pinkie finger, gnawing on it the way your dog does his chewy. At work, you often caught yourself with a finger in your mouth. While no one ever said anything they surely must have noticed. You imagine it was one of the unsaid reasons they had to let you go. Firing The Man Who Chewed His fingers. It’s not normal. You pick at the callous, thinking, knowing, it will be there forever. The medication begins lowering its shroud, like the fog rolling over Mt. Tam. Soon you will be asleep.

Outside a cat yowls, piercing the night. At a skunk, raccoon or possibly coyote. Such were the consequences of straying. Or, maybe it found another cat and is fucking it silly. That could easily be it, too, another consequence of straying- a better one.

You fall asleep.