My Really, Really Short Career As A Hero To My Wife And Kids

Dear Michael and Caroline,

We’re all taking the ferry from Martha’s Vineyard to Cape Cod, the four of us, in late August of 1995. We’ve just spent most of the week staying in a rented house with our friends the Heymanns. Now we’re on the first leg of our trip home.

As soon as we leave the dock, though, a wave surges so high it splashes the front deck, the front of the ferry tipped upwards, the passengers crying out in alarm at the sudden spray striking without warning. We move away from the front, toward the middle.
We’re all taken by surprise by this show of oceanic force, even though we’ve just come through a summer of storms, one right after another, preventing us from swimming during our sojourn on the Vineyard.

We’re unaccustomed to riding a vessel that’s lurching to and fro, buffeted by waves on all sides. We’re all avowed landlubbers, no more nautical than your average New Yorker, and unsure what to expect, fearing the worst, namely drowning at sea.

At that moment I knew it was I who would have to be the steady hand at the wheel, I who would have to navigate my frightened family through this ordeal until we arrived safe at home. You look scared and Mom looks scared and some of the other passengers look scared, eyes all bugged out, and so someone is going to have to be the hero here, and so I decide no one is better equipped for the assignment than I.

After all, I’m the father.

There’s just one little hitch. I immediately start to feel nauseous.

The ferry plows along its path, listing left and right, the sea heaving all around us, the waves swelling and slapping the hull, and every few minutes, a surprised passenger lets out a yell.

And in this predicament, in this moment of need, I grow more nauseous still, the butterflies in my stomach transforming into caterpillars. Now I feel dizzy and faint, wobbly on my feet, no longer quite up to the task of herding my family to safety.

Whatever sea legs I might once have possessed have long since disappeared beneath me.
Nor should any of this nausea surprise me particularly. I’ve long suffered from motion sickness, whether on buses or airplanes or in the backs of cabs. I remember once actually getting dizzy on a seesaw with you, and swings proved no better.

And so I leave my family huddled together and go to the railing and lean over the side and start to puke my freaking guts out. Our family gets to behold this marvelous spectacle, the man of the family losing his breakfast in the wild Atlantic Ocean in the thick of a storm, Dad coming through in a pinch yet again.

Next time I feel like being a hero, I’ll try to remember to bring my Dramamine.

Undesignated Driver: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

The only real problem with this whole scenario, of course, is that I could easily have killed myself that night. All the right factors were in place for me to have cracked up the car and died in flames. I was young and stupid and going too fast, certain I would live forever. All that had to happen for me to die was to lose my focus for just a second or two, or turn the steering wheel an extra inch, or whatever, and I would be a goner, never to marry your mother and bring Michael and you to life. I would have missed out on a lot – the last 35 years, to be precise, and however much else lays ahead.

Luckily, I got home safe. You’ll please excuse me if I regard this outcome as a miracle, but I do. I can think of no good reason why I would survive, except maybe that I was a pretty good driver, my hand sure, my reflexes sharp, even when blind drunk.

Whatever the case, I got lucky. I lived to tell this tale.

So here’s what I’m trying to get across. I always liked to get a little high, and once in a while more than a little, either with or without a little help from my friends. I never got anywhere near that drunk again, so I must have learned my lesson, and in my whole life I’ve gotten drunk only a few times, including my first date with your mother (again struck with that familiar what-do-I-do-now panic!).

But I’ve always enjoyed the effect of alcohol. And for about 10 years of our marriage I drank either vodka or gin every night – just a drink or two, or maybe three, spread out over an evening, never rushed – but still every night with disciplined regularity. And soon I realized that year after year I was getting through a fifth of vodka faster and faster, first a week, then six days, now five.

And if I kept up that pace, I was probably going to be an alcoholic. It might take me some time to attain that official designation, maybe five or 10 or 15 years, but I was going to get there.

So I quit cold. No more hard liquor. No vodka (my favorite) or gin (my second favorite) or scotch (my former favorite) or anything that strong. August 6, 1987 – that’s the day I stopped. It’s an easy day to remember (8/6/87). And I’ve never touched any hard liquor since.

Why would I? Sometimes just living your life is like driving blind drunk late at night anyway.

Undesignated driver

Dear Michael and Caroline,

I’m driving drunk out of my skull along Route 4 in Northern New Jersey, heading home from my school, Fairleigh Dickinson University. I’m 20 years old, a junior in college, and really drunk, the most ever, the absolute drunkest, and driving a car, a blue 1968 Chevelle.

I’m so drunk I’m actually driving blind. I can hardly see the road in front of me, much less any other cars, and I’m squinting and blinking, squinting and blinking as if this act will somehow clear up my blurred vision.

And because I’m such a smart young man, so reliable and responsible, I’m doing something other than driving drunk here at 2 in the morning.

I’m also speeding.

Oh, yeah, I’m racing along at easily 65, 70 miles an hour, pretty much how fast you should always drive if you find yourself utterly unable to see. My logic for this folly was infallible. I figured that the faster I drove, the sooner I would get home – hence, less time on the road, lowering the odds of an accident.


So I’m blazing along there, driving blind drunk, both scared out of my wits and believing I’ve got the situation under control.

How I got that drunk is this: I went to a party for the school newspaper, held in its office, a cinderblock basement affair. I’d just transferred to this school, from a junior college in Boston, and joined the paper, then called Tarrevir (“river rat” spelled backwards because the Teaneck campus lay on the Hackensack River), just as I had belonged to the paper in Boston. I think the party was to start the new school year, to celebrate it.

And I’m there knowing almost nobody. It seems everyone there knows almost everyone else except me. So I help myself to some punch in a bowl.

It tastes really sweet, obviously some fruit juice, maybe orange and pineapple and cranberry. And soon I feel this tickle ripple through my bloodstream and into my head, the onset of the condition known as tipsy.

I ladle out some more punch into my cup and keep sipping away until tipsy graduates to drunk. Now I know everyone there and everyone knows me. My loneliness is suddenly gone, replaced by a sense of warm fraternity.

And now I’m driving blind drunk from school to home, no more than six or seven miles, from Teaneck to Fair Lawn, passing the Bergen Mall and the Garden State Plaza, the drunkest ever, feeling as good as I’ve ever felt, invulnerable.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

I Worked The Vice Squad: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

So I quit. Oh, I tried a few times first. Once, I tried to quit by smoking nonstop, one cigarette right after another without interruption, in order to make the act so revolting I would stop out of protest. But I kept going back to my Salems.

Finally, on January, 1, 1977 – about 14 months after meeting Elvira, 18 months before getting engaged to her and 26 months before our wedding – I quit cigarettes for good.

Same with hard liquor.

Now, I was never as much a drinker as I was a smoker. But make no mistake: I liked to drink. It had nothing to do with the flavor and everything to do with getting high. Vodka, mostly, but also gin, and once in a while, at least early on, scotch, too.

It never looked like it would ever evolve into a problem, except eventually, at the age of 35, I realized someday it very well could be. So on August 6, 1987 – 8/6/87, as luck would have it – I quit hard liquor, too.

In both instances, it was really a matter of making the commitment, nothing more, no secret cure. Once I decided to quit, I quit, and never went back. No regrets.

In fact, I’m quite relieved. If I’d smoked over the last 31 years, how would I feel, what would I look like, how much different might our lives have turned out? Same with drinking. Almost certainly one vice or the other, or possibly the combination of the two, would have destroyed my health, or at least put a serious dent in it. And then maybe my career and our family.

But I stopped in time. Quitting gave me a fresh start. It’s funny how it works out. No sooner do you get addicted to something than you grow addicted to going without it.

I Worked The Vice Squad

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Sometimes nothing gets you going in the right direction better than quitting something.

I know. I speak as a longtime quitter. I’ve quit at least two major bad habits (though I still have several more to go).

Back in 1970, for example, away from home for the first time, in college in Boston, I started smoking cigarettes. A pack a day grew to two packs a day in short order. My life was designed around my smokes, or vice versa – hard to say which – with me smoking after every meal, smoking with a drink, and certainly smoking, always smoking, as I wrote, usually late into the night.

I loved it. Loved the whole routine, the ritual, the taste, the smell, but most of all the sight, the tendrils of smoke coiling under a reading light like some primordial fog. I went on like that for years, believing myself pretty cool, ever so much the writer, through college and into my first job. Knew it was bad for me, unhealthy, cancerous, yet I had no plans to quit.
Until I met Elvira. She hated my smoking. Hated it! She forbade me to smoke in her presence. After we moved in together, she banned my smoking in the apartment, banishing me to the terrace. She told me that kissing me was like licking the inside of an ashtray.

Ah, doomed romance!

Well, that was the deciding factor right there. If my kisses were going to disgust her, why would we keep living together?

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

Daring, As A Dad, To Be Pretty OK

Dear Michael and Caroline,

From the start, first with Michael and then with you, Caroline, I wanted to be a perfect father. Whatever you needed from me, I promised myself you would get.

I had my reasons. You were both born perfect and deserved a perfect life, or at least as perfect as we could manage anyway. If I had to be perfect at anything, I figured, it might as well be as a father.

But here’s what it probably all came down to: I expected to do better than my own parents had done. Much better.

My mother frequently yelled at me, often hysterically, over nothing – and so I pledged to myself to be quiet and even-tempered with you.

She often slapped me, sometimes swatted my backside with a big spoon, and once even punched me in the stomach, leaving an imprint of her fist there – and so I privately vowed never to lay a foul finger on my children.

My father often left the house before anyone else woke up, returning only after we went to bed, and on weekends, he would rather nap or putter in the garage – anything, really – than ask us about our day at school or play catch with us. And so I swore never to deprive my children of time with me.

But early on, it dawned on me that, like my own father, I’m imperfect, and decidedly imperfect at that, despite all the best intentions. All too often, I’ve lost my patience and yelled at you for creating a commotion. On some weekend mornings I look to escape the entanglements of family, if only for an hour, with some coffee and a newspaper over at Starbucks.

The list of everything I planned never to do with my children but found myself doing anyway is long. Memories of my father prey on my anxieties even now.

You’re the same as he, goes the haunting refrain in my head. No better, no worse.
Then again, I’ve come to understand the struggles my father faced as a father. It took me years to appreciate the weight of the responsibility he must have felt, and the depth of his fatigue, too. I’d never sympathized in the least with him over his frequent absences or his degree of distraction in our company. But after working a long day, I feel as tired, as disoriented, as out to lunch, as he must have.

Now make no mistake here: as fathers go, he and I are more different than similar. It’s probably fair to say, and my father might well agree, that fatherhood remained a concept he never quite seemed to grasp. I tend to believe I’ve had at least some idea of what I’m doing here.

But then I got to wondering about this whole business of being perfect.

What if I were a perfect father?

What if I never cursed, blew my top or lost a job?

Maybe a perfect father, by definition, is imperfect after all. The impossible ideal is an illusion.

Maybe I should grant myself the right to flaws – to exercise my prerogative, in short, to be imperfect.

Maybe, if you see some of the chinks in my armor, that’s a better, truer example for me to set.

Maybe the more imperfect I am, the more lessons I have to offer you.

Maybe being pretty okay is actually more than good enough.

Maybe, in the end, my imperfections make me some kind of perfect.