Teach Him How to Drink


My dad was a plumber with an eighth-grade education, but his street-smarts far surpassed anything I would ever garner from years in college and graduate school.

My dad was also a player. He worked hard, and he played equally hard all of his life. Sadly, the only real sobriety he would ever know as an adult came as a consequence rather than a gift. At the age of sixty, he was initially diagnosed with colon cancer only to discover after surgery that the cancer had already spread to his liver … or vice versa. Doctors gave him 3 to 6 months at best; self-described “stubborn Polack” that he was, however, he lived for nearly two more years.

In the summer of 1977, four years before his diagnosis and at the age of 56—the age I am today—he boarded a plane and accompanied me to my freshman orientation at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He was a dyed-in-the wool, first-generation Easterner, and the Midwest held absolutely no allure for him, as it did me. The weakened beer served in bars, the suffocating heat and humidity, and the absurd absence of casinos (tribal reservations were still just that back then … reservations), dog tracks, horse tracks, OTB parlors, or professional sports teams in Des Moines left him shaking his head as to why anyone would submit themselves to life in such a desert of entertainment. Worse, he couldn’t understand why his only son had chosen to apply to colleges a minimum of 1,000 miles away from the “real world back East.” (Four years later, when cancer forced sobriety on his waning hours, I believe he came to understand that, as much as I loved him, it was the disease of alcoholism itself—the disease that would eventually consume me as it had consumed him—that drove me as far away from him as I could manage to get, even if that meant living in a veritable desert of entertainment for four years.)

Nonetheless, he did accompany me, and we would both learn a great deal from that trip. I would learn what I needed to learn to successfully transition to college life, and he would learn a bit about what my life at Drake would be like.

The evening after the first day of orientation (and after doing a little underage bar-hopping with other incoming freshman I’d met that day), I stopped in to visit my dad in his dorm room. I wasn’t surprised to find him sitting in the room’s bay window with a 12-pack of beer by his side as he read all the information he’d gathered that day during the parents-of-incoming-students orientation.

“Learn anything,” I said.

“Yeah, in fact, I did … sit down.” I sat on the empty bed. It didn’t take him long to notice I was eyeing his stash. “They’re getting warm,” he said.

“Not a problem,” I said, and reached over to grab one.

“That’s what I’m afraid of …” he said, and then he went on to tell me what he had learned. During the parent’s session, the parents were asked to write down and then share the one thing they wanted most for their children to learn while they were at Drake. Apparently one woman spoke up and said, “I hope my son learns how to drink while he’s here.”

“I heard that and I about fell out of my chair,” my father said. “I need to send my son 1200 miles away to learn how to drink?” Of course, the woman went on to say that she hoped her son would learn how to drink responsibly, that somehow during his four years at Drake, he would learn that drinking alcohol was a privilege—and not a right to be abused.

This was, of course, a novel concept to my Polish-American, Catholic, working class father, and, at the time, a pathetically silly concept to me. It would, of course, prove to be a moment of hyperbolic genius and a lesson neither of us would learn soon enough.

Four years later, and only four days after my graduation from Drake, I returned to Connecticut, only to learn that on his 60th birthday my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, that he was not expected to live long, and that for all intents and purposes, it appeared his work-hard-play-hard approach to life had come at a non-refundable price.

In the days and weeks that followed that summer, my father and I would play golf almost every day that the chemotherapy he submitted to reluctantly didn’t nail him to his bed. Sometimes, after our round, we’d stop in the clubhouse where he’d order a Coke and I’d blindly order a beer—or two or three. Almost every chance we had, we would argue about whether I was actually going to leave Connecticut for Arizona and graduate school that fall—me insisting I would NOT … him insisting, of course, that I would. “We’ll come visit you there. At least you can drive to Vegas from Tucson,” he’d quip. But his favorite thing to say that summer in his gruffest foreman’s tone, was, “What are you gonna learn hanging around here waiting for me to die anyway … how to drink? If you didn’t learn the right way in college, you sure as hell aren’t gonna learn here. Not in this family.” Sadly, he would sometimes add, “The only regret I have in this life, Son, is all the nights I can’t remember.”

And then he would reminisce about our god-awful trip to the Midwest together and the night he realized the woman at the orientation had it right: College should be a place where I would learn a lot of things, including how to drink responsibly. But what is and what should be for an alcoholic and his son are two entirely different things. I wonder what our conversation would have been like if either of us had even remotely understood that we were powerless over alcohol and that without a solution, our lives, as well as our drinking, would always be unmanageable.

Seventeen years later, at nine months of sobriety, I would return to visit my father’s grave and not only make amends to him for all the pain and worry my own drinking had caused him in his final years, but also to forgive him for being one of the unfortunate alcoholics who hit bottom too late and consequently never came to understand the nature of his condition. Eight years after that, and two short months after the birth of my only son, I would visit his grave again, this time to ask him to pray with me that this child be the one to break the chain of disease and addiction that had for so many years both plagued and informed almost every biography in our family.

I Hope There’s A Heaven


The day my son was born I drove my daughter, who was just shy of 3 years old at the time, to the hospital to meet him. Upon arrival, she hopped into the hospital bed with her mother and the newborn and seemed thrilled beyond description to meet her new-found, life-long friend and sibling.

Later, while driving along the freeway in the early evening twilight on the way home from the hospital, my daughter seemed unusually quiet. I asked if everything was Okay. She just stared out the car window from her car seat and mumbled, “Tired.” Exactly what a father who has been up all night and running all day after the birth of his son—especially a 45-year-old father—wants to hear: That his nearly 3-year-old daughter is as tired as he is and ready to sleep.

But not so fast. As we pulled into the garage and I got out of the car to release my daughter from her car seat, I noticed her eyes were red and her cheeks were moist—clear evidence of sobbing.

“What’s wrong, Sweetheart,” I asked as I lifted her out of the car and gently set her on the floor, directly under the glow of the garage door light.

And then she uttered that sentence I will never forget nor the matter-of-fact tone in which it was spoken: “I think I lost my Mommy.”

STUMPED!

By all means, you should laugh at the spectacle of the 45-year-old man down on one knee—the editor, writer, former teacher who is never without something “more” to say—fumbling for a way to respond besides, “Oh … No, Sweetheart, no, that’s not true at all … I mean … No … why would you ever think …”

This situation was NOT described or even remotely foreshadowed in ANY of the many how-to-be-a-father books I had read nor did my fading memory recall any episodes of Father Knows Best in which the know-it-all father offered up anything like a remedy to this type of dilemma. Hell no.

But it did prepare me somewhat for the situation I faced tonight, 10 years later, with my now 10-year-old son. That night 10 years ago, I learned the value of being prepared to Dodge and Question rather than always try to Answer.

Tonight, as we drove to the church where his now 13-year-old sister was attending her usual Wednesday night church group with a bunch of middle school friends and their mentors, the ominous clouds of an impending thunderstorm set my son’s mind to thinking a series of what if’s …

“Dad, if we go on vacation, what kind of plane will we fly?” he asked, staring out the window sullenly, much as his sister had done that fateful night 10 years earlier.

“I don’t know … the usual, I guess. MD-80, 737, commuter planes, whatever they put us on. Why?” (Always end with a question.)

“Can those planes fly through clouds like those?” he asked and pointed out at the enormous black square of cloud and rainfall rising up from the earth to the heavens in his side view mirror.

“Yeah, sure, or fly around it. What are you worried about?” (Notice the “kind-of-an-answer” quickly corrected by a question.)

“I hope there’s a heaven,” he said, making the logical leap only a 10-year-old mind is nimble enough to make.

“You’re afraid there isn’t?” (Notice the repetition of a question here, ANY question.)

“I figured out there isn’t a Santa Claus because you did such a bad job of hiding the gifts under the bed this year, and I know the tooth fairy wouldn’t leave all my teeth in your sock drawer, and I figured out last year that the Easter Bunny wouldn’t leave the price tag on the Easter basket, but I don’t know how to figure out if there’s a heaven.”

“You don’t figure it out,” I said, proud of myself momentarily for being so direct and honest. “You believe it to be true. We talked about the difference between knowing and believing, right? You know I’m here because you have evidence, right? You can see me. You believe your sister is inside the church because you trust what she said is true, right? But you won’t know it for sure until she comes out, right?”

“Yeah, I know, and I believe in God because I feel like he protects me.”

“That’s what I believe, Buddy. That’s what my experience has led me to believe over a whole lotta years.”

“Did you read it somewhere, too?”

“Nope. I didn’t learn it in books, and I don’t believe it because of all the people who told me I should?”

“You said you believe it because of what you feel in here,” he said, pointing to his chest.

“Exactly.” I was somewhat shocked he had actually listened to me whenever it was I had said that—a minor parental victory that threw me off momentarily.

“I feel God in here, too” he said, pointing again to his chest.

“Well … Good.”

“But I don’t know about Heaven. I don’t exactly feel Heaven in here. I don’t even know what Heaven is supposed to be like.”

And at that very moment, I went academic. I made 4 years of college, the last two as a philosophy major, and 3 years of graduate school all pay off. Rather than engage in a discussion about the existence of Heaven and Hell, I jumped on the prime opportunity to beg the question and leapfrog directly to, “Well, what do you think Heaven would be like?”

“Good … I guess. I don’t know.”

“Yeah, good is good. But what about specifics? What do you think it would be like?”

“I don’t know. Is it a place? What do you think it’s like?”

He had learned the Dodge and Question strategy all too well. He’s smart that way. A natural born Con Artist … or Politician.

“I don’t know if it’s a place, Buddy. I don’t think of it that way. I try to think more about what it must feel like.”

“So what does it feel like then?”

“You know how you feel when you don’t have any homework to worry about?”

“Yeah.”

“And how you feel when a ballgame is over and you had fun but you’re not overly excited about it anymore and your kind of glad it’s over because you’re tired.”

“Yeah, kind of.”

“Calm, right? Not worried about anything, not too excited about anything. Just kind of peaceful and calm. After that, I honestly don’t know what to think, Buddy. I just think it’s peaceful and calm and I leave it at that.”

“So if our plane crashes on the way home from vacation, we’ll end up being peaceful and calm …?”

Thank God for cell phones, and those critical moments when they ring … or vibrate. “Hang on, Buddy. It’s your sister … . No, it’s not raining or lightening. Just run out the front door. We’re in the usual spot,” I muttered in my usual grumpy dad voice.

“I don’t think it’s going to rain anymore tonight, Dad. I think those clouds are gone.”

And so, as his sister and her BFF appeared and my son complained about how slowly they walked because they were teenagers now, I turned to him and said, “You all good now?”

“Yeah, Dad,” he said. “It’s all good.”

Good is good, I thought. And for the first time in a long time, I looked right at him, and I wasn’t embarrassed to say out loud, “God is good, Buddy. That’s all you need to believe right now. And all you have to do is be one of the good guys.”

“Right,” he smiled. “We’re the good guys.” Something we’ve been saying to each other for years apropos of nothing, except that good is good … and we’re the good guys.

Thanks for Asking … In Response to The Absence of Hope


I concluded last night’s post with the following two sentences:

“I would implore any addict who knows he or she is an addict to step out of the darkness of denial and ask, ‘If I use again today, can my life possibly get any better?’

If the answer is an emphatic, No, take solace in knowing millions of us have discovered that, in the absence of addiction, there is always HOPE.”

I received more private responses to last night’s post than usual. One person (who will, of course, remain anonymous) posed the following question, which quickly set my wheels in motion:

“So when the answer is No, but there have been no bottoms, what is the next step?”

My response was genuine and straightforward. As I said in the post, answering No—for me—was a spiritual bottom lower than any other bottom I’d ever experienced. And once I put the plug in the jug, hope was almost instantly restored.

I went on to say that  bottoms are by definition relative. Sometimes “bottom” is physical illness, sometimes it’s a jail cell, sometimes a divorce, other times loss of job, and sometimes, recognized early enough, hitting bottom is as simple as being irritable, restless, and discontent whenever you’re not at least “buzzed.”

The determination of whether one is an addict or an alcoholic, however, is not relative. It’s personal. You can call me an addict or an alcoholic, but no one can tell me, with authority, I’m an alcoholic except ME—just one more fundamental paradox of the disease of addiction. But if you truly are an addict or an alcoholic, the bottoms you’ll experience are almost always progressively worse.

My own career started early. I took my first drink at the tender age of 11 and didn’t finish until I was 38, with varying degrees of sobriety in between. As early as the age of 13 or 14, I can remember experiencing restlessness and irritability when I felt I hadn’t had enough to drink. I didn’t think of it as restlessness or irritability; I just knew that I found myself getting pissed off when all the booze we were able to corral as teenagers was gone, and I still wanted more. As clear an expression of the phenomenon of craving and its consequences as I would ever need to know.

My friend who posed the opening question (above) described almost precisely the same state of mind in the absence of alcohol. He confessed he found himself getting “pissy” and looking forward to a drink almost every day around 3:00 pm. He also confessed that he didn’t really enjoy drinking as much anymore, but still, he found himself in the liquor store day after day nonetheless. Whether he’s an alcoholic is not for me to say; it’s for him to discover.

But I do know this: If he or anyone else determines he or she is an alcoholic or addict, and they genuinely seek a solution to their problem, they are in for the ride of their life, and it is a ride that transcends all the stigma and self-centered pride that keeps most of us from getting sober in the first place.

It’s a little before midnight on the 30th of October, 2015. At exactly this time 17 years ago, on the patio of the Long Boat Key Club in Sarasota, Florida, I was busy knocking back what I hope is the last double Jack ‘n Coke I’ll ever order. Each and every day, 24 glorious hours at a time, I’m still the only one who can decide whether that had to be my last drink … and surrender to a power greater than myself is still the only way I know to keep it that way.

Now it’s a little after midnight on the 31st of October, 2015, so I can safely thank my sponsor and all the addicts and alcoholics I’ve come to love for another year of sobriety.

To the still suffering whom I haven’t yet met, all I can say is Please, sooner rather than later, “step” into a solution. If you do, many of us are willing to guarantee you, it won’t be long before you realize you just stepped straight out of hell.

The Absence of Hope


I took my last drink years ago on the patio of the Long Boat Key Club in Sarasota, Florida while listening to waves crash in the dark on the beach. The sky was dark but full of stars and stretched out to forever. For some reason, it struck me at that very moment that if I woke up again tomorrow—as I had on so many tomorrows before–and took another drink, my life would never get any better … and evidence suggested it was likely to get a whole lot worse.

I had already hit many bottoms: marital, legal, professional, financial, familial … but I’d never hit a spiritual bottom so low it trumpeted the complete and utter absence of hope. My life would never get any better, and it was likely to get a whole lot worse.

I smoked my last cigarette on another patio, one by the fire pit in my backyard, while listening to the rustle of dying grass in an Iowa farm field and staring at a chill cobalt sky. The clouds stretched out to forever. And the experience was the same. I remembered the patio at the Long Boat Key Club and thought, If I keep smoking “just one more” cigarette, my life will never get any better … and volumes of evidence suggest it will get a whole lot worse. Once again, that complete and utter absence of hope.

Drugs and alcohol get portrayed in many different lights: glamorous, dramatic, exciting, dangerous. But they rarely get portrayed as potentially signaling, for some of us, the complete and utter absence of hope. And as too many of us who have lost friends to addiction know, the absence of hope is likely the leading cause of suicide.

It isn’t hard for those of us who are addicts to know we are addicts and to know what it is we are addicted to. But for some of us, it’s almost impossible to take that first step in the direction of a solution.

I would implore any addict who knows he or she is an addict to step out of the darkness of denial and ask, “If I use again today, can my life possibly get any better?”

If the answer is an emphatic, No, take solace in knowing millions of us have discovered that, in the absence of addiction, there is always HOPE.

Love Eternal


Probably the single greatest gift—and the single greatest challenge—I’ve been given in sobriety has been the opportunity to parent my children, a 12-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. I can honestly say that nearly thirteen years ago, at the instant my daughter was born—at 4 years sober and 42 years old—I finally learned the meaning of the phrase “unconditional love.” A few years later, when my son was born—at a moment when I did not think it possible to love another human being with the same intensity that I loved my daughter—I learned that unconditional love knows no bounds, that the capacity to love any number of children once you’ve loved one is limitless. I’ve since learned to love many of my friends’ children as well, maybe not as limitlessly and intensely as my own, but certainly without condition. I wonder if I would have learned anything at all had they been born when I was still using.

Earlier this summer, while driving her home from dance practice, I asked my daughter how she and her “boyfriend” were doing. She had “claimed” a boyfriend near the end of the school year, and being the annoying older father that I am, I kept close tabs on her “relationship” with him … like every single day. As one would expect, I received the characteristic mono-syllabic, pre-teen answer to my question: “Fine!” This, of course, merely pushed my generally annoying demeanor up a notch to sheer belligerence. “Sooo, do you l-o-v-e what’s-his-face?”

(For the record, it doesn’t really matter to me who she dates over the years to come or who she marries, I don’t really care if she marries into royalty, the other-than-her-father man in her life will ALWAYS be known as what’s-his-face or what’s-his-name behind his back. I will, of course, be duly cordial in the little turd’s presence. I’m a recovering alcoholic, after all; I can fake anything.)

“I don’t believe in love, Daddy.”

There is nothing worse—as a father—than believing you have the upper hand in a conversation only to have it matter-of-factly stripped from your grasp like a rain-soaked football. My daughter—unlike her face value, what-you-see-is-what-you-get brother—is a master of causing Daddy to fumble.

“You don’t believe in love?” I repeated the declaration in an attempt to buy myself some time and in hope that she might elaborate.

No deal.

“I don’t believe in love,” she repeated without missing a beat and without elaborating.

“Ok, what gives? Did you and what’s-his-face break up?” I proceeded to crumble. “Did he hurt your feelings? Because if he did, I promise you, it’s the last time his silly little …”

“We’re fine, Daddy.”

“’Fine.’ That word again. Have I told you how much I hate that word? ‘Fine’ as an answer is one step above your brother saying ‘nothing’ when I ask him what he’s doing.”

“Okay.”

One-word answers and statements will be the death of me.

“If you two are ‘fine,’ then why don’t you believe in love?” And here, I truly disintegrated. “I mean … wait … I don’t want you to think I want you to be in love or anything, especially not with him, he’s a Yankee fan, but I’m wondering what this not believing in love thing is about. Never mind him or anything. In fact, forget about him. He has no place in this conversation. We’re talking about love here. I want to know why you don’t believe in love. Don’t you love your father … your mother … your brother, well, ok, your mother and father then?”

“Of course, I do.”

A moment of solace, victory even, and then …

“Even people who don’t like their parents have to love them.”

Fumble.

“Then, what do you mean you don’t ‘believe’ in love.”

“It’s simple, Daddy. I believe love is eternal. If love is eternal, it can only exist in eternity. So, you can’t really know if you love someone until you’re dead.”

I felt a little relief. Her declaration about love was obviously just one of those purposefully twisted, testing-the-limits-of-logic-illogical, run-of-the-mill, pre-teen theories about something she clearly knew nothing about. … Wasn’t it?

“That doesn’t make sense, Sweetheart,” I said.

There. Much better. I could breathe now. For a moment, I became the painfully practical father and felt I had effectively regained the upper hand.

“Yes, it does, DAD!” She suddenly became painfully insistent. “If love is eternal, you can’t know if you love someone until you’re dead. You can care for some people more than you do others while you’re still alive, but you can’t know if that feeling is love until you’re on the other side.” And then, as if she were stating the most obvious, empirically verifiable fact known to mankind, she clarified everything. “If you still care about them once you’re on the other side, then you know you love them, and when they join you, then your love will be eternal.”

Having been a double-major in English and Philosophy with an undeclared minor in substance abuse, having spent many a late night during college and graduate school reading the likes of Joyce, Proust, and Celine as well Hobbes, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche while high as an untethered kite, a certain part of me, that part of my misspent youth which had never died or grown up, knew exactly where she was coming from. I was fully capable at 55 of understanding what she meant and forced to admit that her theorem was, at the very least, “plausible,” meaning that the propositions in her formula basically added up if you were willing to accept the basic premise that love is eternal.

In fact, her declaration forced something completely unexpected on me later that night—the realization that, by my daughter’s criterion for love eternal, I wasn’t sure whom I truly loved in this life besides my children. I wasn’t really sure I needed two hands to count the people I had known whom I was “dead” sure I’d still care about once I reached the other side.

My greatest fear as a parent is not that my children will someday have to endure pain—more specifically, emotional pain. In fact, I know they will, that they in fact must experience it to grow, and I even hope they get a fare dose of it early so as to develop their second skin. No, my greatest fear as a parent is not that my children will one day be in pain. My greatest fear is that one day I will have to witness them in pain—physically, emotionally, or otherwise.

And so, turning onto the freeway that evening, I suddenly decided not to dissuade her of the notion that love could only be tested in eternity. At that moment, it seemed a perfectly legitimate defense against unexpected emotional agony. My daughter and I are cut from the same cloth after all, which means she is prone to experience the simplest emotional pain in excessive and irrational proportion to the source or cause of the pain—proportions, in fact, that might very well lead her to “kill the pain” one day with drugs and alcohol or worse. If, by keeping my mouth shut, I could spare her the years of torment I put myself through because I didn’t have an appropriate defense against emotional pain, so be it.

I know this much for sure since that drive: I won’t be as quick to joke around about “love” with my daughter in the future, and I’m not nearly as likely to assign the word to feelings I’m experiencing without some notion that feeling has the potential to be eternal.

It’s 8:00 AM On A Saturday Morning


It’s around 8:00 AM on a typical Saturday morning, and I’m driving to a meeting. I jump on the I-80 Eastbound just outside of Waukee, Iowa and head for West Des Moines. It’s become one of my favorite times of week since I moved out here two months ago. At this time of day and week, there’s rarely anyone on this stretch of interstate, and I can let my G37XS do what it was designed to do–jump up to 80 before we even exit the on-ramp and make a rapid but graceful ascent to triple digits … at least for a mile or two before I reach the outskirts of the metro. At my age and sober, hitting triple digits on an open stretch of interstate, even briefly, is the thrill-meter-equivalent of a three-day bender on a yacht in the Caribbean with people who like to party the way I once did—In Excess.***

But maybe that’s not such a good idea this particular Saturday morning. It’s the first truly crisp and clear Saturday morning we’ve had this year, the kind of brisk but pleasant morning that heralds the approach of spring and makes you truly grateful you are sober and alive and fully awake and aware this early on a Saturday. It is so clear and so crisp and also so sunny, I’m lucky enough to glimpse a flash of sunlight as it reflects the chrome of an otherwise inconspicuous Iowa State Trooper patrol car up ahead and long before my G hits triple digits.

The trooper is stationary, and as I approach, I notice a second vehicle a few car lengths in front of his. I’m initially surprised to see that both the trooper and the driver of the car are standing on the shoulder of the road. A moment later it hits me: This is not a routine traffic stop. This is a field sobriety test, as evidenced by the posture of the poor woman attempting to walk a straight line–arms outstretched and seesawing like a 747 trying to touch down in a 40 mph crosswind.

It’s 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning in Middle America, and the whole scene is so incongruous, so “not right” for this time of day on this deserted stretch of interstate that I have to slow down and stare. Of course she’s seesawing. She’s in high heels … and a black skirt and a black and white check blazer and a white blouse.  I would guess her in her 40’s or 50’s at a glance, and, if it were any given weekday morning, I would have guessed her to be on her way in to work. But as I pass by and glance back in my rearview mirror, my somewhat rusty but never completely dormant alcoholic mind kicks in and clarifies everything.  Most likely this poor woman is not on her way to work but still dressed in the clothes she wore to work … yesterday. Most likely she is on her way home from a Friday night “happy hour” that didn’t end soon enough or ended in a place that isn’t her own and where I’m guessing she didn’t have access to a toothbrush or a “smarter” pair of shoes–bad break if you’re getting pulled over for speeding or driving suspiciously at 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning.

Once the pair melts into the horizon of my rearview mirror, my first thought is, “Thank God it’s not me.”

But within minutes of passing the trooper and Ms. Anonymous, memories of my own experience under similar circumstances and as a much younger man come rushing back. First and foremost, there is that moment of panic the instant you realize the flashing red lights are meant for you. If you are at all cognizant, you glance quickly around the front seat of the car as you pull to the shoulder and pray there’s no evidence of your more-than-evident-to-everyone-but-you intoxication. And then there’s the rehearsal in your head. “Hi, Officer, was I over the speed limit? I didn’t realize … blah, blah, blah.” (If you are drunk and driving you don’t realize you are probably being pulled over because you’ve over-indulged any number of telltale indicators you didn’t go home after the second cocktail–weaving within your own lane, driving with your lights off, driving 10 mph above or below the speed limit, and on and on.) Once the officer doesn’t smile or say good morning and hits you with the stoic, “License and registration, please,” you begin to sense this isn’t likely to go well and begin to pray you were driving faster than you recall and hope to “get off” with a speeding ticket. Once he comes back to the car, and you hear those fateful words, “Step out of the car,” you don’t know it, but he’s very confident he has you dead to rights. I’ve never heard of a field sobriety test that resulted in an officer of the law saying, “Gee, Sir, your balance is better than a gymnasts,” or “Why, Mam, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard such an impeccable recitation of the English alphabet.” (Hopefully you don’t make the mistake of asking the officer if you can “sing” the alphabet rather than say it because you’re having trouble getting passed the letter “Q” or “R” even though you’re a graduate student in the English department of a major university–wink, nostalgic chuckle here. This makes your lawyer’s job especially difficult if the officer is tape-recording or videotaping your roadside chat.)

There’s nothing funny about a DUI unless you’ve put a few 24-hours between yourself and your last drink. The first conviction is the worst, to be sure. Being cuffed and pushed down into the back seat of a patrol car is never fun (no matter how many times you’ve experienced the downward plunge and faced the cage between you and the front seat), but it is especially demoralizing the first time. Suddenly, your I-don’t-care-what-people-think-of-me cocksure swagger transmogrifies to “How am I going to face my … fill in the blank: Mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, daughter, son, neighbor, boss?” Whether you are “knowingly” alcoholic, a defiant “I-work-hard-so-I-play-hard” drinker, or just someone who worries about how much and how often you drink, a sudden gush of fear that now everyone will know you’re drinking is out of control may occupy your mind on the way to the police station. Or, in the saddest of cases, you may be the one sitting in the back seat thinking, “Screw it, I don’t care what they say about my blood alcohol level, there’s no way I was over the limit, and the world just has it in for me.” Whatever the case, whether your default emotion is utter panic or deviant denial, you know that everyone in your world is about to get a new perspective on the issue of YOU and ALCOHOL, and you may very well need to plan a “geographical revision” of your current biography if you’re unwilling to change your current lifestyle.

I’ve been trained since Day One never to judge other people’s drinking, that it is never my place to label anyone but myself alcoholic. But it also doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that “normal” drinkers are almost never subjected to a field sobriety test at 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning wearing yesterday’s work clothes. When I arrived at my own meeting that morning, and there was a moment of silence for the still-suffering alcoholic, my heart truly went out to the Ms. Anonymous I saw on the interstate only minutes before. She would surely lose her license and probably have to jump through a number of hoops to get it back. Most of us know if she is truly alcoholic, returning her license one day will be the metaphorical equivalent of releasing a kamikaze pilot from a POW camp, returning him to his plane, and asking him to promise to fly straight home and never dream of dive-bombing the enemy ever again. Just not in his DNA. What the law can’t do, what her family can’t do, what no period of untreated abstinence can do is “tell her story” the way another addict or alcoholic can. My hope for her then and now is that she be forced to go somewhere and talk to other people who’s eyes were opened by the same experience, who might help her be grateful her behavior didn’t seriously injure others, and who might teach her to find the courage to share that experience with others like herself and maybe one day find both the humor and the humanity in it.

***For the record, I never once partied on a yacht in the Caribbean with anyone, but I fantasized about it plenty from my couch in the living room while watching the latest episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

 

 

The Warrior and The Princess


This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Renew magazine.

For me, 2014, the Year of the Horse, has been a game changer. It was the year I realized that in many ways I have become my father. It was also the year I came to realize my greatest opportunity in life might be to break the cycle of anger, addiction, and alcoholism that has plagued my family as far back as I can trace. And once again, this year, I learned that surrender is my greatest ally and benefactor.

On the 31st of October, at the tender age of 54, I celebrated 16 years of sobriety. A few months before that, I joked with my son on his 9th birthday that he was now 9 years sober since hadn’t yet taken a drink. (At least, I don’t think he has. I took my first drink at 11, and kids do things earlier and earlier these days, so who knows.) A few days after my 16th anniversary, my daughter celebrated her 12th birthday. On that day, I remembered that 12 years earlier I had come to understand, in a matter of moments, what it means to love unconditionally.

The greatest act of spirituality I can think of is the act of forgiveness. This was the year I sat quietly in the bleachers at a baseball game moments after my then 8-year old-son hit his first ever, over the fence, out of the park, home run—a walk off grand slam no less. I sat quietly because it was at that very moment—the moment other parents were jostling me, patting my back, and yelling, “Did you see it? Did you see it go over the fence? It’s a Grand Slam!”—it was at that very moment I realized I had become my father.

Less than an hour before hitting his first home run, while warming up, my son had seemed rather lethargic. I had chided him for failing to hustle, failing to show enthusiasm, failing to listen to his coaches … failing, failing, failing … to do what I thought he should be doing, as my father had chided me for failing to do what he thought I should be doing many years ago. And just as I had done to my father on numerous occasions—and with great pleasure—my son rose up and quieted my rant with one swing of his bat.

At that moment, the moment my son launched the ball over the fence with the bases loaded, I realized I had become my father and I forgave him.

Like his father before him and my father before me, my son exhibits a great deal of natural talent on the baseball field (a blessing and a curse). Already, though he’s only 8, I’ve heard numerous parents and coaches—some of them former professional baseball players–talk about his “potential,” a word I grew to hate between the ages of 8 and 18. Unlike my father, who would never know the joy and clarity of sobriety before alcoholism took his liver and eventually his life, I have the opportunity in sobriety to make my son’s experience of that word much different and hopefully more fruitful than my own. If nothing else, recovery has taught me to think of those who depend on me before I think of myself. In my son’s case, recovery forces me to focus not only on his successes and failures but also on how well he and I handle them together … until he is ready to handle them on his own.

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After yet another day of baseball on yet another Saturday afternoon, the father of one of my son’s teammates sent me a series of photos of my 8-year-old in action. I eventually posted this one to Facebook and labeled it simply, The Warrior. I’m sure most who look at it chuckle over the artful overabundance of eye black that same father-photographer applied to my son’s cheeks before the game. It would become his signature look for the remainder of the season. Privately I labeled that picture the Warrior because I know that as an athlete and as a man, he’ll face many of the same trials and tribulations that I did and still do. Thankfully, to date, he’s never seen his “old man” take a drink or use any substance to handle any of those trials and tribulations. My greatest prayer is that in so witnessing, he, too, will turn to faith in a power greater than himself as a solution to life’s challenges before he ever thinks to turn to anything else.

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Later that same day, after the baseball games were over, my son and I drove 45 miles north to Ames, Iowa to watch my daughter dance in one of her many dance competitions. Sitting in CY Stephens Auditorium on the Iowa State University campus waiting for her to take the stage and perform her solo for the first time in front of an audience, I realized how peacefully and purely I enjoyed watching her dance. She was out of my reach, way beyond “my” element, and certainly out of my control. There was nothing I could do for her even if I knew what it was she was supposed to do. I could not run back stage and tell her to show some enthusiasm or listen to her coach. I couldn’t even go backstage. And civility prohibited me from yelling out instructions or commands once she did take the stage. More important, I wouldn’t have known what to “yell out” even if civility didn’t prohibit me. All I’ve ever known to do where my daughter’s performances are concerned is to wish her luck and courage beforehand, enjoy the show, and applaud her performance once completed. Here was forced surrender and consequently a much more serene and peaceful experience of the moment.

That evening in Ames I experienced yet another moment of clarity. I realized the incentive my father provided me as a young man came not from the stern discipline and drill-sergeant-like directives he was famous for, but rather from his mere presence. Whether stern and disciplinary or supportive and loving (and he was all of the above at different times), his presence, the fact that he cared enough to be present, kept me fighting to improve as much as his absence robbed me of desire.

Sitting in that auditorium choking back tears as my daughter performed, I realized if I knew as little about baseball, golf, math, and literature as I do about modern dance, I might actually surrender a little more and enjoy my children a helluva lot more. I might learn to be less the ogre, and more the nurturer they need when struggling to learn how to live life on life’s terms.

My father never had a daughter to learn from, and sitting there that evening I knew without a doubt I had a lot more to learn from the Princess on stage that might one day benefit the Warrior by my side.

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