Category: Amnesty Day

Contact Us Today for a
Free Consultation

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.

Q&A with TODAY.com

This article was originally posted on the Today Show website, following their publishing an excerpt from my upcoming memoir Amnesty Day. 

 

By: Laura T. Coffey

A Rhode Island dad made what he described as a “calculated gamble” and won the prize of all parents’ dreams: an open, honest line of communication with his daughter throughout her teenage years.

The gamble centered around a concept Stuart Horwitz dubbed “Amnesty Day” — a monthly opportunity for his daughter to come clean about absolutely anything without getting grounded, guilted or otherwise punished.

Horwitz said he felt the need to try something when he sensed that his daughter, Fifer, was starting to withdraw and withhold information in her 10th grade year.

“I could tell that she was holding some things back that she needed to let out,” Horwitz, 51, a writing coach and editor, told TODAY Parents. “This is an iffy time period for teenagers. They have to talk to somebody and most of the time they’re going to tell their friends, but teenagers don’t have enough experience to figure things out together.”

So, during one of their 40-minute commutes to Fifer’s high school, Horwitz suggested a “tell me anything” Amnesty Day on the last day of every month. He recalled feeling both relieved and terrified when Fifer said yes.

Fifer felt the exact same way.

“My dad was my buddy for my whole life and I always told him everything,” she told TODAY Parents. “But then I felt like there were things I couldn’t tell him anymore — and he could tell. I remember him saying, ‘Just tell me. It’ll be OK. You can just say it.’”

 

 

Horwitz chronicled the parental roller coaster ride — and the ultimate successes — of his daughter’s monthly confessionals in a personal essay that he shared with the TODAY Parenting Team community.

“On Amnesty Day, I heard about the night she wandered around Providence on the drug ecstasy wearing only her socks for footwear,” Horwitz wrote. “I learned who bought her fake I.D.”

Horwitz acknowledged that such revelations made his “blood run cold as a parent” — but they also gave him a home-court advantage for having honest, meaningful conversations with his daughter.

“I couldn’t ask her, ‘What were you thinking?!?’ At least, not in the tone in which that is usually said,” Horwitz wrote. “I had to ask her, What were you thinking? In the sense of, What motivated you?”

Horwitz told TODAY Parents that he and his wife Bonnie wanted, above all else, to help their daughter cultivate good decision-making skills before she went off to college — skills Horwitz said he lacked during his own college years.

“We were basically using those last two years of high school as training wheels for college,” Horwitz said. “Our thinking was that when a person is away at college, fear is not going to be an effective motivator.”

Now a 21-year-old senior at Boston University, Fifer said the lifeline of communication with her parents has made her teens and early 20s so much easier.

“It somehow made me feel like I didn’t need to rebel so hard,” she explained. “I didn’t really need to go crazy. … It was like reverse psychology.”

Child development and parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa said that while Amnesty Day may have worked for the Horwitz family, it might not be the best approach for every family.

“Teens — and their developing brains — need structure,” Gilboa told TODAY Parents. “That includes knowing that there are consequences for their actions, consequences they can’t talk their way out of or be offered a free pass once a month. … There are rarely Amnesty Days in adulthood.”

In Horwitz’s case, the “no punishment” policy was not a “no consequences” policy. Fifer’s confessions didn’t go into a vault, never to be spoken of again. Instead, Horwitz viewed Amensty Day as a personal challenge to discuss what happened with his daughter in a calm, rational way. The goal was to be reasonable and forgiving without shielding Fifer from the consequences of her decisions.

“I’m not abdicating my responsibility to be a parent just because I also want to be a coach at this pivotal moment,” Horwitz said.

For instance, one night Fifer called her dad from a high school party and asked for a ride because she and her girlfriend had been drinking. Horwitz remained stoic when he picked them up — and when one of them threw up in his car.

“I did make her clean out my car the next morning, though,” Horwitz said.

“He did!” Fifer chimed in. “And that night I had been drinking orange juice and vodka, so the next morning they made me drink orange juice. He was still messing with me.”

 

 

Fifer said she developed such gratitude for her heart-to-heart talks with her dad in high school that she asked him to write his stories and reflections down so she could have them with her when she went away to college.

“I didn’t know if he was going to do it or if he forgot about it or what,” Fifer said. “But when my parents dropped me off at college, he left it on my pillow. He didn’t say anything about it — I just found it there waiting for me after they left.”

Horwitz is now in the process of revising his love letter to Fifer into a book he plans to call “Amnesty Day: A Father’s Memoir to His Daughter.” The book is due out next year.

Fifer said reading her father’s words helped her stay grounded during her college years.

“I learned in my reading that my parents aren’t perfect, either — they made a lot of mistakes too — so it’s OK if I make some mistakes,” Fifer said. “It’s just a question of how can I improve on them? How can I prevent them in the future? How can I grow?”