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Daddy Doesn’t Do Courthouses

This excerpt from my upcoming memoir, Amnesty Day, was originally published in Hippocampus Magazine

I was among the first wave of fathers to do at least 50 percent of the childcare. I can’t prove that, of course, except by telling you how out of place I was made to feel.

If your mom and I took you to the doctor, the nurses wouldn’t even look at me. They just kept asking Bonnie, Is the car seat facing the rear? How much of the bottle does she take? How many ounces? These questions were of real concern to us because you were always underweight (or “puny,” as we had taken to calling you).

The only problem was, I was the one with the answers.

“Did she eat anything today?”

“Yes,” I ventriloquize through my wife, “she had two four-ounce jars, one of peaches and the other of mixed garden vegetables.”

One time when I took you to the emergency room, the admitting nurse actually said to me, “Oh… Daddy didn’t know what else to do!”

I was both worried and relieved when you had a temperature of 104 degrees. You see, I’m not an idiot! Now, don’t take me too literally on that; in those days, when the first star appeared in the sky, my first wish was always for your health. Everything else was relegated to wishes two, three, and four.

I started calling it the Mommy Conspiracy. Mothers came up to me in the supermarket to point out that there was a harness in the front part of the shopping cart where you should be strapped in, when you would be in the main carriage, eating escarole. Does this happen to women, too? I don’t know. I just know that I was told you were going to need your hands washed after we were finished playing at the park—I was actually told that dirt was dirty—or that your foot was dragging behind the wheel of the stroller where you always put it. You loved to feel the road.

Around this time, they started showing the first commercials aimed at stay-at-home fathers. Like the one where a dad is vacuuming while giving two very young children a piggyback ride at the same time: I’ll buy it! I know we already have a vacuum. They’re targeting me, can’t you see!

What I’m describing is almost commonplace now, but in those days I couldn’t win. If we were playing tag at the outdoor shopping mall on Saturday, they would tell you, “I can see somebody’s going to be a real daddy’s girl!” If they saw us at 1:45 p.m. on a Tuesday, it was like, I wonder what he does for a living.

I was a waiter. Well, really, I was a writer. I was sensitive to the criticism, of course, that’s why some of it stuck. It was a better time for your mother than it was for me: She was getting her doctorate in psychology and was surrounded by passionate people. I was writing a novel about suicide, which might tell you much of what you need to know. But then we had you. And the arc of my life that had been trending inexorably down suddenly banked upwards with the same unmistakable force.

Your mom would let me sleep until she left for her graduate school classes, and then I would be on: feeding you, finding ways to entertain you, saying no to candy, often, or changing your diaper for a third time during your pre-nap dramatics.

Bonnie did certain things better than I did. She made up the best nicknames, and little songs like when you were just getting your spatial relations down. Stack ‘em up, stack ‘em up, stack ‘em up cups, she would sing, as you made your first pyramids of plastic. She could soothe you far more easily when you were teething and I got frustrated.

“She’s just a little girl,” she would say.

In truth, we were glad there were two of us, for the massive amount of work a kid is. I just wanted the credit I was due. I was the one who took you to every single playground in the county where we lived north of San Francisco. They each had a nickname, like Pinchy Fingers, for the time you got your hand caught in the gate. I was the one who distracted you from your pain after falling off a swing from a decent height; I walked on the balance beam and pretended to trip, throwing myself headfirst into the sand a dozen times until you stopped crying.

I’m almost finished complaining. The worst of the Mommy Conspiracy came at Gymboree. If you don’t remember precisely what that was, it was not just a clothing store. Beyond the outfits and light-up shoes was a giant playroom filled with brightly painted jungle gyms and learning toys that lay strewn on multicolored mats.

The first time you laid eyes on that, the look on your face changed. All right! your gleaming expression seemed to say. Now we can get down to some serious playing!

It was very hard to resist you when you had just glimpsed a new possibility. There would have been reasons to leave. Sitting in a circle and singing songs with strangers was not up my alley then (or, really, now). Opening up to that situation was made much harder, however, while I was also being observed with such scrutiny. One day a mother whispered fiercely to me, “She can’t see you!” when you kids were playing under the parachute. You were an independent child. You didn’t have to see me all the time. In fact, it was better if you didn’t sometimes. Then we would have a little reunion, and in the meantime your confidence would have grown at the same pace as your puny body.

This was why we had to find our fun in unconventional places. We would pile into my leased navy blue VW Jetta and let the day direct us. Our demands were not high. The pizza place had a sticker machine, and for two quarters you might pull out Strawberry Shortcake or a SpongeBob-themed $2,000 bill. We might buy a fresh pack of baseball cards and go through them one by one or visit the farmers’ market and sit in the audience, watching Twee-Twee the clown make balloon animals, while the sunshine poured down on us.

But the best thing of all was a bouncing ball. No bigger than a quarter, if it was flat, a good bouncing ball could always surprise you with the way it ricocheted off walls and rocks and trees and across streets—Don’t you dare go get that!—and up stairs and down escalators, animating every scene it entered.

The farmers’ market was held in the parking lot of the Civic Center, which included the Marin County Superior Court. You wanted to take your bouncing ball in there one day. Except Daddy doesn’t do courthouses.

You can’t tell a three-year-old about all the arrests and infractions that led to a well-attended trial in college—which, if I had been convicted, I would also have been expelled from school—such was the nature of town/gown relations. My brushes with the law stopped about the time I quit doing drugs, and then you were born, and I quit drinking, too.

Some part of me still didn’t feel free, though. We had a little stand-off outside of the Civic Center. You were never one to take ‘no’ for an answer even when there was a good reason, let alone when all I could come up with was a fumbling, half-conscious reason.

Of course you won that battle. I was pretty sure I was safe with you. You charmed security guards and harried lawyers and struggling souls weighed down by multiple misdemeanors. Pretty much everybody stopped to give you your ball back.

The building was gorgeous. I should have gone in there earlier. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, it nestled into the low-slung terrain like a stucco aqueduct. The earth-toned colors blended into the chaparral and oak woodlands, and it had fountains both inside and out.

You bounced your ball into an operating fountain. It was an apotheosis of enjoyment for you, and only a minor hassle for me to take off my shoes, roll up my pants, and wade in to retrieve it. You bounced it in again and again, your head thrown back just before laughter, while I decided that if this was what I was going down for now, I would be just fine with that.


P.S. Check Enclosed

I need to tell you something I’m not very proud of. I fear it will reflect badly on me but maybe the understanding I was granted will partly offset matters.

While in Prague, I hung out with a group of expats, sleeping on their couches and drinking other people’s warm, unattended beers in outdoor restaurants. This isn’t the bad part. Ken Nash borrowed a coaster one night in a pub and handed it back with a well-drawn caricature of me.

The caption read, “If I wasn’t a poet I would pay for these beers, man. I swear I would.” Ken later became a famous illustrator. A lot of the crew in those days went on to become professors, or novelists whose books were turned into movies, but this was before publications and careers were the most important thing. The hierarchy of the streets then was all about one-liners; your cool was based on how present you were.

You might think this is pretentious, but I remember the time a friend of mine called me up crying. What was wrong? I asked her.

“I just wrote a poem,” she said.

She was not embarrassed; she was overwhelmed by emotion. We were living for creativity in a city where every day dawned from a different angle. It is difficult to describe the atmosphere of Prague in the early 1990s. Some historians compared it to San Francisco in the 1960s or Paris in the 1920s. I’m not qualified to judge cultural moments like that, but anyone could feel how electric the atmosphere was as the city shed decades of communism. The liberated country elected an absurdist playwright, Václav Havel, to be its first president. Havel brought in the costume designer from the movie Amadeus to design the police uniforms. Shit like that.

Havel had even named the nonviolent political movement that resulted in a Western-style democracy in Czechoslovakia, the Velvet Revolution, after Lou Reed’s band, the Velvet Underground. The band itself reformed after twenty years and I got to see them perform a concert in the Palace of Culture. Americans were welcomed as symbols of intellectual freedom, although there wasn’t much in the way of employment for many of us.



I didn’t require much. I had gotten used to eating oatmeal with brown sugar, fruit, tuna with pasta and parmesan, and repeat. I was thirty-five pounds lighter in those days, although that could have been the cigarettes.

I had saved up a shoebox full of cash working as a waiter in the States, but it had now been depleted. I couldn’t ask my parents for money. They wanted me to settle down, get a career going. They didn’t want to sponsor me any longer. Although, as a fellow expat, Jennifer, pointed out, they did send me $200 and a scarf when they heard where I was going. It was going to be cold in Central Europe.

Here comes the part that makes me wince. To make ends meet, I stole books. Dozens of them, from the two English-language bookstores. And then I either returned them to the original store for cash or sold them somewhere else at half-price and put the proceeds toward my one meal of the day, timed for about 3pm.

The shopkeepers didn’t catch on, even though books like John Berryman’s Collected Poems were 347 pages in the Faber & Faber edition—not a perfect fit under the shirt, but it retailed for $32. That went a long way in a second-world economy, and No, I’m sorry, I don’t have the receipt. . . .

It’s pretty ironic that a starving artist would choose a starving-artist business from which to pull off his heists. Maybe a bookstore is the only place I felt comfortable enough to do something like that. Or maybe that’s just where I was most often. It wasn’t about being a scofflaw. I didn’t do it for thrills. At the time, I thought I was just trying to survive.

Stealing is wrong. It occurred to me several years later, standing next to my smashed-up rental car in San Francisco, where thieves had taken several suitcases, some of which were filled with expensive presentation electronics, that I was looking at karma. Among the missing items was a box of thirty copies of the books I had written. I shuddered to think what dumpster they had ended up in. Karma may not be that tit-for-tat, but it could be close.

I just wanted to be a writer so badly, and the inspiration I found overseas was unmatched in my previous experience. Writing was the main focus of every day. Based on which side of your family, or which side of your psyche, you are drawing from in the moment, this single-mindedness is either noble or indulgent; it shows either romantic impracticality or strength of commitment. I have heard it all.

They say sometimes to get along you have to beg, borrow, or steal. Or is it beg, borrow, and steal? There wasn’t anybody left to borrow from, and my conscience had finally gotten the better of me, so I was left the first option to continue my writing mission. I had to beg from someone who understood though.

I wrote a letter to my great-uncle Manny. There is a lot I could say about my great-uncle. I once dropped his birthday cake after having been given the honor of carrying it out to him during the singing, and all he did was laugh and convince me the screwed-up icing made for a better story this way. He believed in reincarnation, which was pretty unusual for a Jew born in 1910. At times, he would do things that fit his type, like drive a lime-green Cadillac or eat hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise. But then he would come out with Zen-like sayings that you were never sure if even he understood.

I remember at one cocktail party, I was talking to a famous surgeon, or, rather, he was talking to me. “Stuart, all that matters in life is whether you think the glass is half full or half empty. Watch this”—and here, he grabbed Manny’s elbow. “Manny, is this glass half full or half empty?”

“That’s not my glass,” Manny responded.

See, like that! Did he mean that, or was that coincidentally mystical?…

I asked Manny for a thousand dollars, and he came through as a patron of sorts. He was straight with me; he told me I was now living the “life of Riley,” meaning my adventures were being paid for by someone else. But he also praised me for meeting challenges that would have been too much for him.


It was a very balanced portrait. He liked my poems and wrote me a letter on Philadelphia Savings Fund Society notepaper telling me his favorite aspects of them. He said I was a master at painting pictures with words. He said I reminded him of Will Rogers in that I “never met a man I didn’t like.” Writing did bring out the best in me.

He never told me to come home. He never mentioned the money until the end of the letter, when he wrote, “P.S. Check enclosed.”




I read his letter again looking for some judgment. He shared a few details from his life, casting everything in a positive light. When he wished me good luck that was the entire sentence. Rereading brought me only courage, all the way through to the end. “P.S. Check enclosed.”

The Act You’ve Known for All These Years

This article was originally posted on the Good Men Project website. 


What do you do if are a father of a daughter who loves to perform? If you’re Stuart Horwitz, you go busking with her.

We wake up day after day to the sound of our daughter singing somewhere in the house. On different mornings, we take her singing to mean different things. We tease Fifer about how perfect everything is, and she’ll say, “I admit it. I love my life!” Underneath this repartee is a sadness that Bonnie and I try to keep from becoming real jealousy. We envy her unconscious joy in living, the ability a ten-year-old has to just brush off the hurt and wake up singing. Other days, her singing reminds us that she is a unique individual, a product of her parents, but with something else mysterious thrown in.

It used to drive me insane that my daughter didn’t like to read. She could; she would. She just preferred to cut designer fashions out of paper and adorn them with tiny beads and messy glue. Me, my whole life is words. I coach writers, I teach writing, I write. Then something happened in my mid-thirties, when my daughter was six or seven: I stopped reading. I brought crates of novels to a used-book store and traded them for a T-shirt. I started to look at the world more directly, without the filter of black lines across white pages. I picked up the guitar. How sweet it was to make music, to bang on strings and sing to myself—this simple lesson I learned from my daughter on those mornings when I had ears to hear. No one was recording me; I wasn’t going to make a name for myself. Something even better was emerging: I was alive.


One day, when Fifer was eight, we received a notice that our local community center was hosting tryouts for The Wizard of Oz. For the auditions, kids had to sing a song without any accompaniment. My daughter learned “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” with help from her grandmother and Bonnie, and then they trundled off to the audition.

“They wouldn’t even let me be a Munchkin,” Fifer said upon her return, with a disappointment that was not tinged with bitterness, if an adult can imagine such a thing. And this is a kid with perfect pitch. I’m not bragging, because her talent doesn’t come from me. We had started learning some songs together, with me on the guitar and her on vocals; I would look over at the tuner, during an obscure part of the Beatles’ “Within You Without You,” for instance, and she would be right there on the B-flat. I remember a friend of hers, a kid symbolically named Dylan, once asking her, “Why are you always singing?” Fifer replied, “Because it’s my destiny.”

Besides being fated to become a vocalist, my daughter loves money (she’s a Capricorn). To see this trait so apparent in a child’s eyes was a little shocking, but it gave me an idea: We would step it up on the songs we had been practicing—which made me happy, fulfilling my role as the father who was supposed to make her stick with things—and then we would play them on the streets for money. Busking is what it’s called; we learned that term together. “Some dads take their kids fishing,” Bonnie said. We would perform Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band straight through twice (with the exception of tracks two and four, which we never got around to learning). Though Fifer vowed me to secrecy—she wanted to keep her “normal girl” status, playing softball (pretty well) and viola (no worse than anyone else in third grade)—she looked forward to our “gigs” as much as I did.

Her enthusiasm for performing didn’t surprise me. One time when she was about three, we attended a crowded story time at the local library. After the reader had stepped down, Fife crawled between all the sprawled-out kids and patient parents and got into the big chair. Then she picked up a book. “Now it’s my turn,” she said. She couldn’t read yet, so she sort of performed the book by looking at the pictures. The reader, an older gentleman who was vaguely famous, came over and clapped me on the shoulder. “I’ve never seen that before. Good luck, Jack.”

Maybe it was genetic. In my early twenties, as a performance poet, I had stood in front of the American Express office in Prague after dawn, declaiming Bob Dylan lyrics, with a hat placed on the sidewalk to collect tips.


Busking is a genuine artistic experience. No gatekeepers determine whether you’re good enough; the audience does. People either dropped money into our guitar case or they didn’t. Some, like the crowd outside Fenway Park, were surly and drunk and not into having their hearts moved by a young girl. Others were encouraging, like the woman who told Fifer, “Jesus loves you, honey.” Fife turned to me, and without a trace of irony, said, “That’s so nice!”

We had hecklers. My ex–business partner said, “You’re teaching your kid to beg, huh?” But in what other job can an eight-year-old make over $300 in one summer? Fifer gave some of the money she made to charity, and she put some in the bank for a car, but then she bought herself a powder blue iPod Nano, for which I paid only the tax. It was a proud moment in my parenting career.

We didn’t do it for the money, of course. There were times when we would be walking to our spot, and one of us would freak out a little and ask, “Why are we doing this again?” And the other one would respond with what became our mantra: “To face our fears!” We did it for that moment after we had set up our music stands, when we had taken a deep breath and were looking around for a sign that we knew wasn’t going to come from anywhere but inside us. And then we would start.

I can hear Fife now, imitating Paul: “One! Two! Three! Fo! [We’re Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band / We hope you have enjoyed the show…]” It was always easier when a few people she knew were in the audience; then if, for instance, the high-E string on my electric guitar broke during “Lovely Rita,” we could get other people to sing and clap along. Other times Fife couldn’t get started at all. That’s when I would forget about the weight of the amps that I had to carry and forget about my own need to be heard, which was always lurking. I would be ready to pack it all up again if I had to, and I’d offer to do so. Then maybe the cloud would pass, and I could coax Fife back into connecting with her confidence.

“It always feels better to play than not to play,” was one of the quotes Fifer wrote down from those days—she chronicled every show we did over the span of two summers. Besides the good lines, she recorded the set list, the screw-ups, the amount of money we made (of course), and the magical moments. She wrote about the time on Boston Common when we drew a crowd only after a dying pigeon named Sam did his diseased circle dance in our guitar case. Then there was the time we had just finished a set of Sergeant Pepper’s and an eleven-year-old girl came up to Fifer and asked, “Did you write those songs?”

Some things she didn’t write down. My father and mother came to see us and listened as we performed “She’s Leaving Home.” I sang John’s chorus: “We struggled hard all our lives to get by…What did we do that was wrong?” I’m not sure how much of the healing my father and I were doing was conscious, but afterward he bought me a state-of-the-art portable recorder to capture our best tunes. “What does that mean,” Fifer asked, “She’s leaving home after living alone for so many years?” You will never know, I said.

The shows went on, and we had our ups and downs. There were great moments. A female drummer—Rachel—joined us, and she did the best-ever “Ah-ah-ah-aahs,” in “A Day in the Life.” A rhythm section—Robbie and Timmy—filled in for Rachel one night and then never left. My daughter, now nine years old, was fronting a Beatles cover band. Yeah, that made me proud.

Then there were nights when she wanted to go to church or a school party. But we had already made all of our arrangements, and you can’t just cancel on other people at the last minute…

New York was probably our finest hour, blasting through a punk version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in defiance to what had started the whole experience, or holding an a cappella sing-along during Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” (we had increased our repertoire by then). A guy named Adam approached us in Washington Square Park, offered us fruit, and called us “his lovelies.” “You have helped me feel free again,” he pronounced. Somebody else said they wanted to make a documentary about us.

And then Fifer said she was done. She gave no reason, until I pushed, and then her reasons kept changing. “There’re too many kids here,” she said one night in Newport, when we drove away from the town without ever playing a note. (Was she getting self-conscious now that she was approaching preadolescence?)  Or she would say, “I’m bored.” But how can you say that? You had your arms up in exultation after your last performance, squealing, “That was so fun!”

Then I recovered a little Zen. It is what it is. Stop asking questions. Don’t accuse her of being lazy, not committed. Let it go and be there for her in the way she needs you to be. Keep learning the lessons at hand.


Three months after our last gig, someone e-mailed us about an upcoming audition. The national tour of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was coming to a stage much bigger than the one where The Wizard of Oz had played. Did she want to go try out? Because it was totally up to her; I wasn’t going to take the rap as some pushy stage father. Yes, she said. And yes again, when I asked again later.

The ornate lobby was crammed with kids warming up for their well-taught dance routines. Eighty-six kids were trying out for seven spots. When a ten-year-old next to me belted out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” I thought it was Ethel Merman herself. “Well, it’s a good experience,” I told Fife. “Think about all the people who aren’t even here. There’s no way they’re going to make it—right?—if they’re not even here?”

Fifer was going to perform her last, best busking song, the one we would play over and over again in Central Park, when the tourists couldn’t give two shits about us: “…And you, take me the way I am.” They took the kids away in groups of ten, leaving us parents in the lobby.

“Tell me again how she said it?” I asked. Fife had returned to the lobby, and I wanted her to describe precisely how the judge had responded to her performance. Fife went through a few different intonations until she was satisfied with her delivery: “Wowwww!”

I was the first in the house to find out Fife had been picked for the part. I bought the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang DVD and played the theme song loud enough one November morning to wake everyone with the news.

That night, I wanted to watch the movie. “Dad,” Fifer said, “the performances aren’t until March.”

Apparently I was still learning, about nonattachment, about doing the thing that is to be done in that moment, about being there for somebody even when what they need is changing too fast for conscious record. Then I settled into our rematch of Sorry! Sliders, trying my best to beat her, because that’s how we do things around here.

Drinking was my friend: How I talked to my daughter about my alcoholism

This article was originally posted on the Today Show website


When my older daughter, Fifer, entered high school, I introduced the concept of Amnesty Day. On the last day of every month, she got to tell me anything she’d done that wasn’t what she was supposed to do—and not get in any trouble for it. We talked through what choices she could have made differently, but on that day only, she didn’t get guilted, or yelled at, or grounded for not following the rules.

When Fifer’s confessions were about her own behavior and choices, that worked out well in terms of opening the lines of communication. As she approached legal drinking age, however, I needed to be able to discuss alcohol with her in a way that would prevent her from getting sucked into the void of her newfound freedom. How could I do that without relating my own battles, which eventually led to my becoming sober?

That was not something I could hide, like we couldn’t hide the fact that our younger daughter is adopted. Bodhi is from Taiwan; my wife and I are white. We never tried to figure out when would be the right time to tell her. She’s just always known, just as Fifer has always known I am a recovering alcoholic. Dad doesn’t drink. There must be a story there.

There were a lot of stories there. There were nights that didn’t end without my getting cut off at a restaurant, alienating everyone I was out to dinner with, and lying down to hiccup in the gutter for an hour. In those days, I wrote as many poems as I finished off bottles of scotch; I had to have the former to justify the latter. I got the shakes; I had hallucinations; I was not headed for a long life.

In recovery, you’re not supposed to tell these stories in a way that makes them sound romantic. With Fifer, it was doubly important not to make my escapades sound appealing. If I told her what I did when I was her age, would that give her permission to do the same? There was a lot riding on our not misunderstanding this fine line.

As I searched for a way to communicate my history, I came upon the journal I kept during the early days of my sobriety.



I didn’t write a lot in it (and I can write a lot when I want to!). It was actually just a series of 41 different answers to the same question, one that my therapist, Gretchen, had posed to me:

“Why can’t you stop drinking?”

The first time she asked me that, my response was “Because drinking is my friend.”

Gretchen didn’t like that answer. She challenged me to abstain from alcohol for a month, and to use that time to record all the reasons I wanted to take a drink, even as I knew drinking was not working in my favor.


I started with some pretty mundane motivations. I want to drink . . .

. . . because I’m in a bar.

. . . because the best man from my wedding is coming to visit.

. . . because I need a day off.


These soon graduated to more serious appraisals, however, about what wasn’t working in my life:

. . . because work isn’t going well and I may have to leave eventually.

. . . because I’m so frustrated.

. . . because I’ve been hurt.



I wrote one reason per day, and as I dug deeper, I uncovered what had been driving me all along.


. . . because no one has any space for me.

. . . because I don’t have any space for me.

. . . because I don’t know who I’ll be if I stop.


Forty-one days later, I closed the journal, and I have been sober ever since. I’m not saying that my lack of self-love blossomed into a reliable self-esteem overnight. But my life did start trending up. The things I learned yesterday were still there today. I was building on something, instead of waking up to find it all wiped away while I stood in a hole of my own making.

When I showed this journal to Fifer, it was in the context of Amnesty Day. In doing so, I realized I was seeking amnesty from her. Not healing in the sense that my past never happened, but healing in the sense that it did happen. It could be released from the dark corners of my mind.

In an unexpected turn of events, her witnessing me allowed me to witness her. Rather than feeling as if she had license to misbehave, she seemed to trust me more. Now when I counseled her on how not to get taken advantage of at a house party or be part of some horrific accident in college, I didn’t seem as much a hypocrite as a mentor.

I know I can’t save her from making the mistakes that are hers to make. Everyone has their own road. But she believed me when I told her that I wanted her to write the next chapters of her life with more light, more self-possession, and more inner peace than I ever had. She heard me say a prayer that she keep herself safe by loving herself. And that is a prayer that I have come to have faith in.