My Dad and I Wrote to Each Other

I don’t even know if Grandpa Norris was literate, growing up in an orphanage and all. I do know that my grandma and her second husband were only educated through the sixth and eighth grades. They could definitely read and write: my grandma wrote folksy poetry and songs, and my grandpa taught himself calculus and got his ham radio operators license. It’s just that public schooling in the United States was still pretty sketchy in a lot of places a hundred years ago. So my dad’s parents were marginally educated, working class people. But my dad and his half brother were artistically inclined. My uncle made his living as an artist/painter, and my dad went to college and became a high school teacher. My dad had many talents, actually. He had a lovely singing voice, entertaining audiences with Woody Guthrie tunes, strumming away on his guitar or ukulele. He and a buddy had a nightclub act full of songs and jokes. And he was a radio DJ on weekends, had a column in the local newspaper, and started the theater program at our high school. He was always in demand as a public speaker, sweetening his insightful remarks with hilarious one-liners. But mostly, he wanted to write “The Great American Novel.” Never did, though. He planned to in retirement, but unfortunately he already had stage four lung cancer when he retired. He died at sixty-six. I am sixty-one now, so I think about that a lot. Maybe that’s why I retired early, to try to beat the clock.

My English teachers heaped praise upon my writing, beginning in seventh grade, when my teacher exclaimed I was a budding Will Rogers. I had no idea who that was, but she thought an essay I wrote was particularly funny. In high school my creative writing teacher tried to get me to submit a story to a national competition, saying I was one of the few students he’d had who might have a chance to make it as a writer. And so forth. I always figured I would spend my twilight years punching out some stories. And here we are.

All this to say that my dad and I didn’t fight with light sabers. We penned missives. We saw politics and economics through the same lens, so we didn’t fight about such things. But over the course of our lives I think we both cared a lot about what the other one thought of us. So when we wrote to each other there was an undercurrent of urgency, maybe even desperate hope. Because we both felt we were poorly understood by other people, we found in each other a certain fraternal affinity. Nevertheless, we often disagreed about each other’s priorities in life. Most notably, when I was on the verge of entering into a hasty marriage with my high school sweetheart just shy of my twentieth birthday, he wrote me a twelve-page handwritten letter begging me to reconsider. I thought he didn’t know what he was talking about. Yes, he made excellent points, and the similarities with his ill-advised marriage to my mother were numerous, but I was offended that he thought I was as stupid as he was. I knew what I was doing! Three years later I stumbled upon that letter. The marriage had only lasted a year and was a total disaster, as he predicted. As I reread his words, only for the second time, I realized he knew of which he spoke. So, another eight months down the line, when I hit alcoholic bottom, perhaps I was more open to reaching out to him than I would have been. It saved my life.

The roles reversed a little towards the end of his life. He was going through some deep therapy and seemed to be flailing about, while my life had really come together after a decade of sobriety. So we wrote to each other frequently. He was grateful for my helpful insights. My next post will touch on some of what was going on, and what I think about it all now.

Grandpa Norris Had Two Last Names

According to my research into my ancestry my grandfather appears with different last names on the 1920 and 1930 census. In one case he uses his mother’s maiden name. I suspect he alternated between them as necessary. He and his brother appear in the 1910 census together listed in an orphanage in Bangor, Maine. I’m not even sure if they had the same father. Rumor has it that their mother was an alcoholic who placed her boys in the orphanage when she couldn’t take care of them herself. I have the impression that her marriage was also on and off again. Norris was handsome, slight of build, with a swarthy complexion. It is possible there was some Portuguese in his ancestry, but not officially. I guess I am implying that my great grandmother was a “woman of ill repute.” It would fit. My apologies: I could also be completely wrong about this. However you cut it, life was difficult for young Norris.

I am told that he was charismatic and charming, good with the ladies, and addicted to gambling. He also had a volatile temper, especially when drinking. As I described in an earlier post, my grandmother never forgave him for his abandonment of her and their baby son. Throughout her life she showed many signs of severe trauma. She received shock treatments in the 1950s for her depression. Given the way both my dad and I took after him, not just in appearance, but in personality as well, she seemed leery of both of us at times. She seemed much more comfortable with her second son, my father’s half-brother. When she remarried, her husband adopted my father and we all have his last name. My biological grandfather, my father, and I all seem to have been cut from the same cloth, including the reaction to alcohol and the temper, but also the charm. One story about Norris that stuck with me is how one time when he was hungover he threw his entire breakfast, plate and all, against the wall. I know that my temper was a problem for my family when I was growing up, and I am sure my dad was no different.

The last thing I will say about Norris is how he came to play a direct role in my recovery. In the final two years of my drinking I lived in San Francisco. As I got closer and closer to the edge my life began to fall apart. Eventually I stopped communicating with my parents entirely. My world was getting darker. Shame and guilt grappled with rage and confusion as I thrashed about pursuing momentary urges, continuing my deliberate slide towards death. I had decided during my first year there that I would not overtly commit suicide, but I was convinced that I would die drunk before I was twenty-five and I didn’t mind the thought. I found out later that both my father and my mother, long divorced, had each lifted me up in prayer: she in her church prayer circle, he in his Al-Anon group. He had started attending Al-Anon because of me. They both came to accept that they were going to lose me to the disease. But just a few weeks before my recovery began, unbeknownst to me of course, in a state of desperation he began to pray to the spirit of Norris, the father he never had the chance to meet. He said something like, “Hey, we both have suffered from the affliction of alcoholism. You died young, but I was lucky enough to recover. Now my son is fighting the same battle and it looks like he’s not going to make it. Wherever you are now, is there any way you could maybe put in a good word, pull some strings, help him?” He persisted in this prayer daily for several weeks until, out of the blue, I called him one evening, reaching out for help. Now, is any of this real? Ancestor worship is one of the oldest human expressions of religion. Who knows? What I do know is that during those final weeks of my drinking there was a series of weird coincidences, spooky experiences, and seemingly miraculous encounters the accumulated effect of which led directly to the breakthrough that reversed the course of my life. I guess I choose to believe that grandpa was indeed able to pull a few strings and call in a few favors. Why not?

My Ongoing Relationship with My Father

I am old enough now (sixty-one) to have lived through the end of innumerable worlds. We all do. It’s common. The end of childhood, for example. Divorce. Losing one’s parents. Any major life transition, frankly, is experienced as the end of one world, the beginning of a new one. Optimistically speaking, I am entering the final one third of my life. (I am not so optimistic as to believe I will live past ninety, but it is theoretically possible.) Having just recently retired from a fourteen year career as a licensed massage therapist, I feel the end of that world acutely. The new world in which I find myself is less structured, less complicated, and, I suppose, lonelier. But it feels good to have the newly expanded energetic space filled with people I truly love: my life partner, Sarah, her teenage daughter, and my two grown children (both around thirty.) And I finally have the time and freedom to write, which was always the plan for my final stage.

I have been thinking a lot lately about my father, who passed away in 1998. At sixty-six he was only five years older than I am now. We shared a love for the game of chess. He taught me to play as a child. He had a few books and was a decent player. In my teens I remember playing quite a few times with my best friend, Chuck, who was an avid member of our high school chess club. He frequently urged me to attend, but I was too busy with musical activities to ever try it. It wasn’t until my father purchased a chess computer in 1979 that I became truly fascinated with the game. I vividly remember visiting him over Christmas break during my first year of college. My brothers and I watched my dad play against his new contraption, and we took turns ourselves. I managed to beat it on my second or third try. I explained to my older brother the mistake I believed the computer had made. Puzzled, he mused, “Wow, but I thought computers don’t make mistakes.” It was the earliest stage of computer chess and the machines of those days were rather weak. I explained to him about the billions of possible positions that exist even a few moves ahead, and how the computer must examine as many of them as it can with limited processing capacity and memory storage, in a finite time. There is no way it can think of everything, so it was possible to beat it. That began for me an exploration of what makes a good player better than a weak player, an obsession that has stuck with me for over forty years. It was a subject I always enjoyed discussing with my dad. Even today, when I am playing or studying, I often imagine him at my side as we discuss the marvelous ideas that emerge from even the simplest positions.

My relationship with my father was quite problematic, actually. Until I got sober in 1985 we never really got along. We got on each other’s nerves, probably because I took after him in so many ways. Friends and family have often commented that he and I were so much alike, and I remember cringing every time he described me as “almost like a clone.” Because it wasn’t really true. I have just as much in common with my mother, but it is different things. I think those parts were invisible to him. He was a bit narcissistic, for one. And also he didn’t like thinking about my mother (they divorced when I was nine), so he wouldn’t be disposed toward seeing her in me. When my siblings, all of whom had major issues with my dad, say that I take after him it never feels like a compliment. I end up feeling a bit sheepish about it, and make an effort to show them that I am different.

When I needed to get sober I reached out to my dad, who at the time had twenty-one years of sobriety. All of a sudden he had a role to play, and he and I went to meetings together and had long discussions about the program of recovery. My world at that time was a terrifying place, and I could visit him as a refuge. It was good to finally experience something like a healthy father-son relationship. I remain grateful for all of that. I was thirteen years sober when he died, and was the only one of his six children to have anything like a positive relationship with him at that point. In my next post I will give more details, because what I am experiencing now reminds me of what his final years were like, even while utterly different.

My Lineage

Content Warning: frank discussion of alcoholism and recovery, with family details

I am third in a direct father-to-son line of alcoholics. Not people who “drank too much,” but alcoholics of the “hopeless variety” –those whom alcohol affected in a crazy way, who never took a “normal” drink in their lives. My father hit bottom when he was thirty-two, soon after the birth of his fifth child when I was two years old. I have no memories of his drinking, but I suppose my older siblings might. I do have many vivid memories of attending AA meetings with him from an early age. My dad never met his own father.

Grandpa Norris died when my father was ten days old. At that time they lived in East Los Angeles. While my grandmother was still recovering from childbirth my grandfather was partying in the little town of Mojave. This was 1932, before Las Vegas was a thing. I am told that in those days Mojave, about one hundred miles north of LA, was the place to go to play cards. Norris got lucky and won big. He was drunk when his car crashed, killing him and his passenger, who happened to be his brother’s wife. This is what I recall being told growing up. My father believed that his tires had been slit in revenge for winning at cards, but however you slice it, the circumstances of his death are compromising. My grandmother never forgave him.

My dad was a “periodic drunk,” which means he was mostly sober, but occasionally, perhaps every ninety days or so, he would go on a binge. During these binges he would lose all control, black out, and come to after about three days. He told me the last time it happened he came out of a blackout while on the road to Susanville, where he and my mother lived some years before, many miles from the town of Woodland where we lived at the time. He had no idea what day it was or why on earth he would be making that drive. He pulled over, found a pay phone and called my mother. The last thing he remembered was partying on Friday night. It was now Monday, and the local high school had been calling the house to find out why he had not shown up to teach his classes. It was a very sobering situation. He sought out the local fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and began his recovery. He had thirty-five years of sobriety when he passed away of lung cancer at the age of sixty-six.

Despite having grown up surrounded by sober alcoholics and receiving education and warnings about the danger of inheriting the malady, I developed a drinking problem of my own. It was apparent even at fourteen that I didn’t process alcohol in a normal way. I partied a lot in high school, and by the time I was nineteen I went to AA myself to get sober. I will be writing a lot about my experiences in future posts, but for now let’s just say that I was given an ultimatum by my then girlfriend and future ex-wife that I had to choose her or the “cult” of AA. I chose her and drank for another four years. Eventually I hit bottom at twenty-three and have been sober ever since.

A Gentle Warning to the Reader

One thing that has really held me back in the writing of this blog is a concern, based on regretful experience, that if I just relax and be myself, talk about my life and my thoughts, it will be too much for some. So this is a general “trigger warning.” I am likely to talk about some life experiences that could reopen old wounds. I might shock people by revealing bitter truths in blunt language, reminding them of their own dark past or unhealed hurts. Others may find my self-revelations to be in bad tasted, or suspect me of exposing myself to get attention or to attract readers through morbid curiosity.

Let this post serve as notice: I don’t really want readers. Not yet. Maybe someday. Right now I am not very good at this. I hope I don’t accidentally make someone’s problems worse by saying the wrong thing. So, reader, please feel free to stop reading a post at any time should you feel that it is too much for you right now. Perhaps avoid this blog entirely if you feel fragile or are not up to it. This is a tough time for everyone. I need to write for my own sanity. I don’t know if anything I have to say at this point will be of value to anyone, now or later. Thank you for your forbearance.

Annual Dreary Rehash

Beginning in January 1985 a remarkable series of events occurred that eventually led to my becoming sober on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 1985. I had scarcely drawn a sober breath since the preceding August, and by February was bouncing around in a haze acting from mostly unconscious motives, making a shambles of my life. The crazy, serendipitous events of that period will provide material for many future posts, but for now I will say that in my darkest moments rays of light were beginning to pierce the veil. By the time I got sober my memories of those last two months of my drinking were a jumble. Vivid images of people and places and of my own actions and words haunted me, but their connection to each other was incoherent. Of course, in working a program of recovery I had to do my best to make a thorough review for the purposes of self-evaluation and accountability. Nevertheless, every year for the past thirty-four years I find myself in a bit of a funk during this time of year as the memories resurface unbidden. Every year I make new connections between the events and have new insights into myself. I see more clearly the buried motives that fueled my actions. Each year I find myself able to forgive myself a little more, to understand the pain I was masking and running from, and to feel ever more grateful for the deliverance I received. And each year when the anniversary of my sobriety arrives accompanied by the emergence of Spring, I breathe a sigh of relief. Reliving those dark times is never pleasant, but I have no choice in it. The memories come as surely as the snows of Winter.

It Is Time

A few months ago a friend asked me if I had been blogging much lately. The answer was no. She said, “Why not?” I said that the times are perilous, and were I to write honestly about has been on my mind it might upset people. I then proceeded to rant for a while, to her bemusement.

A few weeks ago I heard an eighties tune playing on the radio, and for a few minutes I was viewing today through the eyes of my twenty-five-year-old self. I felt nostalgic for a time long gone, and suddenly realized that I am now that “old guy” who misses how the world used to be. Not that I don’t see and appreciate the countless ways in which things are better now. But I am aware that more of my lifespan lies in the past than in the future, and I think it is time to begin sharing from my direct experience so that my younger family and friends can benefit from a record of what I have lived and learned. That has always been the ultimate purpose of this blog.

Moving forward from here, I would like these posts to be less professorial and more personal. I am an “applied philosopher,” so my stories will either serve to illustrate philosophical principles and methods, or the philosophical methods will help make sense of the stories. My trepidation is lessened by the knowledge that my readers are few and, so far, friendly. So, here goes!

“Happiness” Is an Art

“Most people are about as happy as they choose to be,” said Abraham Lincoln. The word “happy” comes from the old Norse root “hap,” which just means “luck” or “chance.” To be happy, in the crudest sense, is simply to be having a string of good luck: things are going well. But in our time it seems to have a deeper, more metaphysical sense, indicating a generalized sense of wellbeing or contentment. Psychologists came to equate this with being “well-adjusted.” Most religions hold out the promise of happiness as an end state to be achieved by the virtuous, a reward.

How one quantifies this depends on the time frame in question: momentary versus ultimate happiness. While it is impossible to imagine happiness existing without some associated feelings of happiness, mere feelings are not enough for most people. Artificial sensations of joy, contentment, and release can be created by drugs, for example, but when the effects wear off a gnawing feeling of emptiness and remorse can ensue. While Mortimer J. Adler, in his book Ten Philosophical Mistakes, makes a reasonable argument for the notion that true happiness is arriving at one’s deathbed with a sense of satisfaction at a life well-lived, it is hard to imagine such a scenario without there having been many happy moments leading up to it.

For what I feel is the best treatment of this subject, I recommend the book The Art of Happinessby His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D. This useful book shows how achieving happiness is a skill to be developed over a lifetime, with implications far beyond the individual.

The Wisdom Prayer

Before I continue describing the power dynamics at play in the formation and evolution of language games, let’s take a break and just play one. Without any meta-analysis of the language game I am playing here (“sharing experiences of recovery”) I will just “make a move.”

My father joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1963, when I was two years old. We frequently recited the famous “Serenity Prayer” at the dinner table as I was growing up. Later, when I was twenty-three, I had the “honor” of following his footsteps on a path to recovery of my own. While supplicatory prayer to a deity is no longer part of my daily spiritual routine, I must have said the Serenity Prayer countless times in the first decades of my sobriety. Its most common (short) form is as follows:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer was originally written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. For understanding the nuances it helps to see a slightly longer version (also by Niebuhr) which reads:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

I have decided that calling it “The Serenity Prayer” is a big mistake: it gives the impression that “serenity” is the main thing being asked for when in fact the crucial element is wisdom. When I know for a fact that something cannot be changed, it is easy to accept it. Likewise, when I am certain that my effort to change something will be rewarded with success, I jump right in without even considering the need for “courage.” But real agony sets in when I just don’t know whether I must accept something or I should work to change it.

And some of the worst suffering in my life has been when I was absolutely certain I couldn’t change something so I prayed and prayed for the serenity to accept it, to no avail. Meditation, formal rituals of surrender, “moving on” to other concerns: nothing worked. I always found myself back in the familiar anguished state of bewilderment, frustration, and despair. When one day it dawned on me that I might be wrong, I found the biggest obstacle to changing my view was the amount of energy I had invested in explaining to myself why I had no choice in the matter. For example, I had dropped out of college in 1983, about two thirds of the way through a B.S. in chemistry. I had long since moved on and made a decent career as an I.T. guy. I was working way more than forty hours per week; I had kids and a mortgage. Surely it was too late for the self-indulgence of going back to college? But the negative effects on my self-esteem took a toll over the years. Even I got tired of hearing my excuses and negative storytelling about how I had missed my chance. Knowing the difference between something that can be changed and something that can’t is wisdom, and it is what I needed.

The same thing applies to situations where I fought for years to change something, unwilling to accept that it was simply never going to happen. Serenity is great. Courage is great. But only wisdom can make the difference that ends suffering.