E14: The Captain’s Chair

Can I tell you something vulnerable? Yes, yes: I know. We’ve been sitting here for who-knows-how-many-hours, and I’ve told you a lot. Probably more than you expected when we sat down together. Still, there are things you can tell, and other things that fester inside of you. I suppose one might call them “secrets” if […]

17 min read

Can I tell you something vulnerable? Yes, yes: I know. We’ve been sitting here for who-knows-how-many-hours, and I’ve told you a lot. Probably more than you expected when we sat down together. Still, there are things you can tell, and other things that fester inside of you. I suppose one might call them “secrets” if they weren’t so obvious, if they weren’t right in front of you and hadn’t been there your whole life.

Perhaps instead of calling them secrets, we might call them Stories.

If I’m completely honest, I’m scared of my Stories. No, not the ones that used to be embarrasing, like the one about how I lost my virginity in a dormitory bathroom. That’s years in the distance now. I can see the humor. (It took a lot of walking.) I’m talking about bigger Stories like—I’ll just come out and say it—the ones about how I grew up. My family, my parents, the divorce…

Those kinds of Stories.

If I’m completely honest, I’m scared that you’re going to judge me. Terrified, actually. I’m scared you’re going to point at all the reasons why my story is unique and point out what is already right in front of my face. That I’m white, that I’m a man, that I grew up well off, that I’m cisgendered and straight.

I’m deeply afraid that you’re going to tell me that what I’ve experienced doesn’t matter, shouldn’t matter, we’ve heard enough of those stories already… The voices still ring around my head.

It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re right or whether you have a point. (Frankly, I think you do.)

What really matters to me is that you’ll simply reinforce all the same shaming and self-pitying things that I’ve been telling myself.

What scares me most is that these Stories will stay interred in my mind—in my heart—in my soul.

What scares me most is that no one will ever listen.

What scares me most is that I’ll spend the rest of my life telling my story to the anonymous Internet, and I’ll never meet anyone else who can look me in the eye and say, I hear you. I’ve been there.

What scares me most is that I’ll stay here, beneath the twinkling starry sky, and keep idealizing my destination.

What scares me most is that I’ll never enter the Temple again.

still in the eel river valley
on new year’s day

DAY 123
850 MI. To Go
That’s my father.

When I left Rose, my Mexican host on New Year’s Eve with the four son—three recently incarcerated—I wandered back towards the junction between the two binary highways: Highway 101 and Highway 1. I knew that, earlier that morning, my Dad had landed at SFO airport, rented a car and started driving up the coast. I texted ahead, telling him that he should meet me by the roadside. There was a gravel parking lot right next to the highway junction.

The New Year had begun with a cloudless sky that made the incessant December rains feel like a distant memory. I sat on the gravel in the sunshine and waited.


Watching the relationship between Rose and her two sons, the previous evening, had got me thinking about family myself. It was a conversation that had been building up on me slowly, over the previous few months, catalyzed by that experience with mushrooms on my thirtieth birthday.

Now it felt like everything was coming to a head.

As I sat there in the sun, I thought about all the times that I’d traveled with my Dad. When I was a child, we used to go together to my grandparents’ condo in Fort Lauderdale; my mother’s parents were inveterate snowbirds, and the Florida condo experience was like something straight out of an episode of Seinfeld. We were Ashkenazi immigrant Jews through and through. That was our normal, that’s what everyone else around us did too.

But my normal fell apart when I was about ten. That year, my parents brought us together in the parlor of the grand four-thousand-square-foot home that they’d spent past couple of years custom building and announced that they were separating. Dad would be moving into the “computer room.” He slept there on a pullout couch for about a year. They assured us that the separation wasn’t our fault, that they loved us very much and would both remain important parts of our life.

It was a lot to take in—especially for a ten year old. The message I understood was that I was losing my family, and it was all my fault.

DAD AT SUMMER CAMP WITH KIDS IMAGE

My Dad had never been a fan of the Fort Lauderdale condo. That wasn’t his kind of travel; he was the type that would have spent his youth traveling the world if his bank account—and his young wife—would have permitted it. Instead, he very reasonably began a career as a dentist, invested in his earnings in real estate, and slowly was accruing some modest wealth that he would go on to lose through the acrimonious, ten-plus-year battle that would be my parents’ divorce. That year of the separation, though, with all of that still ahead of us, my Dad elected to take me and my two younger brothers on a road trip through the Pacific Northwest. The plan was to fly from Toronto to Seattle, where we would rent a car and drive north into British Columbia before looping south down the coast of Washington and Oregon, returning home just in time for the start of school.

It was a disaster. On our outbound flight, we had a stopover in Chicago, where my four-year-old brother got lost—carried away while playing on the moving sidewalks. There was an overhead announcement; my brother in tears. It set a tone. In Seattle, I vomited on the monorail between terminals. (Another ordeal.) When we arrived in Vancouver by rental car, late at night and exhausted, we discovered that there wasn’t a vacant hotel room to be found. AFter a frantic search, we ended up sleeping in the vehicle in a hotel parking lot. I can still remember the kink in my neck as I adjusted to my new location in the captain’s chair.

When we returned to Toronto and reported back to our mother, she was aghast that we had slept in the minivan. That story became family lore; my mother’s family was still teasing us about it for the next ten years. The not-so-subtle implication was the incompetence of my father—shamed and disowned.

(In later years, the implication became even less subtle. My maternal grandfather was the one who came up with the nickname The Prick. It was an apt description of my father. It stuck.)

These annual trips soon became a tradition on what I always thought about unfairly as the “other side” of my family. Every year, my Dad would fly us to some remote location, where we would hop into a rental car and spend the last two weeks of our summer visiting State Parks and sleeping in flea-bitten motels. It was an awesome introduction to the world beyond Toronto (and Fort Lauderdale), and I loved so much of it. But by then, the battle lines between my parents had hardened, and I always felt like I was a spy in enemy territory. It was my responsibility to take notes.

I was becoming a teenager, and my allegiances were firmly with my mother. The truth was I thought he was a Prick also.

IMAGE GOES HERE.

My Dad had his own nickname for him, and for us. It was a moniker he’d borrowed from an 80s movie starring Kevin Costner and Judd Nelson called Fandango. (“Five college buddies from the University of Texas embark on a final road trip odyssey across the Mexican border before facing up to uncertain futures, in Vietnam and otherwise,” says IMDB). They were the Groovers, and we were too. In his mind, our adventures were chasing the same freedoms that they were—my Dad’s dental practice and real estate investments be damned.

Once, on a tour of the American Southwest, we drove hours out of our way to get to the small town of Winslow, Arizona, just so we could pose for a picture on a street corner, emulating the lyrics from a song by The Eagles—my Dad’s favorite band:

Come on, baby, don’t say maybe
I gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me
We may lose, and we may win
Though we will never be here again
So open up, I’m climbin’ in
So take it easy

Looking back, it’s easy to see the similarities between me and my Dad. He saw himself as a misfit, too, but there’s only so many ways to rebel when you’ve got three kids, two businesses and a vicious divorce battle by your late-thirties. I can empathize differently than I could then. Back then, though, my Dad’s fury and grief and sense of victimhood were palpable—I could feel them even if I couldn’t name them. On those long drives through open country, my Dad would gripe about the shitty hand that life had dealt him. He would make vague, abstract promises about an imagined future when he would be redeemed, and when my mother would finally get her just desserts.

In retrospect, he’d been humiliated. He felt like he’d lost everything that he valued. He had wealth but he lacked in love.

I suppose it’s easy to see why I valued the latter and disdained the former.

Sometimes, though, the hardest Stories to see are the ones right in front of you.


The Story of my teenage years played out in legal terminology. There was the custody agreement: Wednesday nights, Sunday nights and every other weekend at Dad’s. The rest of the time at Mom’s. (Holidays alternated annually; each year, we’d swap where we’d dine on the first and second nights of Rosh Hashanah.) Fortunately, my parents lived less than two miles from one another, but it still seemed a massive inconvenience as a fifteen-year-old.

There was also the agreement about cost-sharing. Mom’s side of the argument was that, because Dad earned more, he should pick up a proportional amount of the child-rearing costs. Dad argued that Mom was misrepresenting her income, and that the right balance should have been 50-50. I can’t even begin to estimate the tens of thousands—or hundreds of thousands?—of dollars that were spent adjudicating this dispute. I half expect to receive a bookkeeping ledger as my inheritance.

The famous family therapist, Esther Perel, likes to say that there were two types of Holocaust survivors: the ones who survived and the ones who came back to life. My Mom’s family fell into the latter category; our family dinners were full of song and dance and jokes and laughter. Through their eyes, life seemed like a celebration of survival, and my mother’s father—I called him my Tata—would literally have given me the shirt off his back or the underwear out of his top drawer. He used to insistently force gifts on me, and I would demur politely.

Dad’s side fell into the other category. My paternal grandfather had escaped Austria right before the War. He went to England, where he immediately signed up for the Royal Air Force. The family lore goes that he became a navigator for a Lancaster bomber because he was one inch too short to be a pilot, running bombing sorties over his former fatherland. After the War, my grandfather started a business as a textiles merchant. My father was born in Manchester, the second of four kids, before his family moved to Canada at the end of the 50s. Not long after they arrived in Toronto, my grandfather slipped and fell down the stairs. He suffered brain damage, and navigated the rest of his life with a motor speech disorder that, as a child, reminded me of Chewbacca. My Dad’s house was a perpetual reminder of what had been lost; it was a place where children were meant to be invisible, not like in my Tata’s house, where each successive grandchild became a new celebration of hope.

My Mom was the softy. My Dad had the money. As the child of divorce, you learn pretty quickly how to play your parents against each other.

IMAGE

In the background, though, my upbringing was blessed. I grew up in a safe area of Toronto, I went to good schools, my family didn’t struggle with drugs or alcoholism, there was always money around. I never wanted for a new baseball glove or bike or video game system or ski holiday or Groover Trip. I was privileged beyond privilege, but the ongoing animosity around the divorce kept all of that firmly in the background. My parents couldn’t be in the same room for nearly fifteen years if lawyers weren’t present, and my Dad was—by everyone’s account, including his—a Prick. You needn’t be much of a Freudian to understand why I became my mother’s defender, and I literally wore my supremacy in her home like a paper crown from Burger King. I decided early on that I was never going to become a Prick like my father.

But puberty brought the kinds of challenges that I simply couldn’t have envisioned when I was thirteen or fourteen. There were girls; there was desire; there was sex; there was drugs; there was the problem of who I was going to be and how I was going to express myself in the world. There was, in short, the problem of how I was going to be a Man. (It was my mother who gave me my first shaving lesson. She handed me the straight razor and warned me not to slit my own throat.) In high school, I became the kind of guy that the girls called, late at night, after they had gotten off the phone with their boyfriends, so I could help them interpret what the young men had said. The eldest son of divorce, I was a born therapist. At best, I was relegated to the Friend Zone; at worst, the rumors went around that I was gay. I wasn’t gay: actually, at the time I was consuming an obscene amount of pornography, as the dissonance between my sublimated desire and my outward expression of a Nice Guy was taking root.

I really thought that I was a Nice Guy, though. My mom assured me. She told me that, one day, the girls would finally see the truth.

I was already completely bald by the time I was 22.

When I went off to college, I loathed questions about my future. I wanted freedom, I wanted travel, I wanted to see the world! And, I also wanted stability, relationship, love. There was several very reasonable solution to this problem, but I was blinded by rage. In those years, my relationship with my father was at its nadir. I felt like he was trying to control me, and when I put aside my adolescent glasses, I was probably occasionally right. I didn’t want to settle down and be disciplined. I wanted What He Could Never Get. Naively, I dedicated my life to doing Whatever It Took to avoid being a Prick.

One thing led to another led to another led to another, and by the time I was 28, I was three years into my Quarter Life Crisis and backpacking across India with Sally. All these factors were not “secrets”; they were my Story, right in front of my face. As what my father called my “vacation from reality” lingered, I continued making choices designed to infuriate him. When I look back now, Sally may have been one of them.

Things only started to change in October of 2009. This was just weeks before I planned to move to Vancouver. Sally had secured her Canadian work visa and arrived in Toronto. We planned to spend a few days showing her around my native city and introducing her to my family before we continued to the West Coast.

One afternoon, the phone rang: it was the office manager at my Dad’s dental practice. My father had been taken to the hospital by an ambulance.

Sally and I borrowed my mother’s car and took off for the Emergency Room. I felt full of nervous jubilation, of butterflies. I was hoping that, finally, my dream of the Prick’s early death had come true.

When we arrived at the ER, I was disappointed to see that my Dad appeared to be completely fine. He was sitting upright in a hospital bed with his arms crossed tightly across his chest. It was a familiar position. He was wearing the eyeglasses he hated because they reminded him he was getting older, and his hair was long at the back, as always, because the look that Canadians call “hockey hair” was one way that he could convince himself that he was still acting young. His face was tightened in a familiar grimace. “Appaaaaaaarently,” he drawled, using his favorite expression that implied he knew better than anyone, “the nurses think that there might have been a cardiac incident.”

I shook my head. Way to miss the obvious, I thought. What a Prick.

It was the first time that he met Sally. I facilitated the introduction, noticing how he cast his eyes away almost instantly. I was furious that he wouldn’t even make eye contact with my beloved girlfriend—the woman who might one day be my wife! “I’m sorry we have to meet under these circumstances,” he sniffed dismissively.

I stifled the urge to leap onto his bed and choke him.

The diagnosis was a suspected heart attack. The nurses had run him through some tests, but it would be some time before the results were interpreted by a cardiologist. My Dad thought that result was unlikely. He was about to turn 55; there was no history of heart disease in the family. He didn’t smoke, he exercised frequently, and he barely drank, so he didn’t have any risk factors as long as you didn’t consider twenty-plus years of chest-crushing stress. It wasn’t long before my two brothers joined us in the emergency room: my middle brother loudly scolding my father, my youngest brother more focused on making everyone feel safe, me worrying nervously in the corner. My two uncles arrived, followed swiftly by my dad’s on-again, off-again girlfriend—the one he had named in his phone as “Trouble.” It was the first time Sally had met anyone, and it felt like a rude awakening for our relationship. I hated that she had to see me like this.

The wait for a cardiologist was taking a long time. Seeing that my father seemed better than expected, my uncles left the scene. Trouble disappeared as well. It was late in the afternoon, and people were hungry; my middle brother magnanimously offered to take Sally to the cafeteria. As the eldest brother, I felt like it was my duty to sit by my father’s bedside. There I was, in the captain’s chair again. My Dad had had his arms crossed across his chest for more than two hours. He sighed once, and I ignored it as I flipped through the ages of the newspaper. Then he sighed again.

If in my Mom’s house I was the Burger King, around my father, I became a kind of Queen—a perpetual confidant, a perfect partner, an always-ready therapist. I didn’t know how to avoid taking the bait.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“Sure,” he lied. “I’m fine.” He paused. “She seems nice.”

I nodded curtly. Nice? That’s the love of my life. Now it was my turn to sigh. Prick!

“And your plan is to…”

“We’re moving to Vancouver.”

“When?”

“Well, we were going to go next week until…”

“And have you thought about what you’re going to do for work?

“It’s not important,” I said dismissively. “We’ll find something. Maybe I’ll get a job as a photographer’s assistant or something. We’re not going to be there long. Maybe just until the winter.”

“And then?”

“We’ll probably go back to India again.”

Another loud sigh. “Do you think that’s… I mean, I don’t want to be rude. But have you considered the impacts on your career?”

Sure, I’ve considered the impacts. I’ve decided I don’t want to be in a hospital bed when I’m 54 with an ex-wife, three sons who hate me, and an on-again, off-again girlfriend called Trouble. The thought ran through my mind, but before I let it out of my mouth, we were interrupted by a nurse, who asked my father to say ahhhh so she could spray nitroglycerine onto his tongue.

He smacked his palate, and I turned my attention back to the newspaper.

Another sigh. My father was fidgeting. I could tell he had something to say, and I dreaded hearing it. I had never signed up to be his therapist, but I had spent many hours in the captain’s chair on our long Groover Trips listening to his fantasies about the future. Things would be better, he would tell me, when he sold his practice, when he settled the divorce, when he finally found the love of his life. He lived perpetually in a future that he would never allow to arrive. I hated hearing his same old sob stories. I loathed his sense of victimhood. I could barely understand him, and I hated that we both belonged to the same category: Man. At the same time, I was mature enough to understand that he must have been terrified, that whatever was happening inside of him was something he felt like he couldn’t share with anyone else—not even Trouble knew what troubles my Dad had long suppressed.

I could see all of that at the corner of his lips, just dying to come out. Truth be told, I liked watching the Prick squirm.

Then, a beat later, there was another nurse at his bedside. She asked him to say ahhh too, and as she delivered a second spray of nitroglycerine, I remember wondering whether there had been some sort of confusion. Did she know that the other nurse had just…? My dad smacked his palate, the nurse disappeared, and for a beat we looked at each other in silence. Suddenly, my Dad’s eyes rolled back in his head.

I was sure I had just watched the Prick die.

I turned toward the nurse’s desk to call for help, but when I opened my mouth, nothing came out. I tried to make a sound. Nothing. Now, unexpectedly, the tears were flowing. Somehow, I got a nurse’s attention, and suddenly everything was happening at once. There were tubes and beeping machines and maybe a defibrilator? When I look back, the whole thing seems to run together. Now, my dad is wearing an oxygen mask—now, we are rushing down the hallway heading for an ICU. My Dad is dead! I’ve lost my father! Then, my Dad’s eyes flashed open, and I felt a rush of what was somehow both joy and disappointment.

He’s reaching for my hand. I can see that he’s crying—the only time I could remember seeing my Dad cry was after his father died. He’s saying something, but I can’t make it out through the oxygen mask. He pushes it to the side. “I’m sorry,” he’s gasping. “I’m sorry for being such a shitty father.”

And I’m squeezing his hand back, and I’m feeling like the whole thing is ridiculous, and when did my life become a soap opera, and where did he practice this line, and can I even believe this Prick. I tell him it’s fine. It’s over. It’s all in the past. Don’t worry, I forgive you.

Not that I even knew what forgiveness really meant.


When my Dad arrived, I knew instinctively where I wanted to take him. I wanted to take him to the redwoods. So I got into the captain’s chair of his rental car, and we went north from Leggett on Highway 101, twisting through the narrow canyon of the Eel River Valley. It was surreal to travel north by car for the first time in months. Out my window, I could see sections of highway I had only just walked. There was that guardrail where I took a water break! There was that tree where I took a piss! At three miles per hour, every step had felt meaningful, important, a sentence in a grander Story. At fifty-five miles an hour, the world went by in a blur. There was no forest, only trees.

Before long, we were zipping past Garberville, and I peered longingly out the window while thinking about Ashley and Stella’s sister, Jolene. My Dad didn’t seem to notice. He was talking about himself. I could tell that he was in a good mood, that he was swelling with what I could clearly identify as pride. He’d spent the last week on a strenuous cycling trip down the coast near Santa Barbara; this was the first real test since his heart attack. “My ticker passed with flying colors!” he boasted.

“That’s great, Dad,” I said, trying to sound compassionate even as I reached for Paul’s crystal.

It wasn’t long before we reached the turnoff for the Avenue of the Giants. By then, my Dad was deep into his fanciful dreams. He was thinking about retirement, he was saying—maybe, someday, even though of course, he could walk away from everything in an instant. “So why don’t you quit?” I asked, unable to stop myself from taking the bait.

“Appaaaaaaarently,” he drawled, “it takes a long time to turn an aircraft carrier.”

I shook my head and rolled my eyes. After months of walking, I had assumed that I had changed; I had naively reasoned that if I was changing, surely everyone else was too. But though my Dad seemed slimmer, he seemed just as lost in the clouds as ever. Softer, though. I could see how his brush with death had softened him.

Soon, we arrived at Rockefeller Grove—the place where I had sang and danced among the giant redwoods on the winter solstice, just ten days back. Had it only been ten days? So much seemed to have happened since then. As my Dad grabbed his camera and tripod then took off down the trail, I followed him, walking slowly, remembering how happy I had been last time I was here. It had felt like a pinnacle experience in my life. Little did I know that I would meet Ashley just a few days later. I peered at my phone—no open message with AShley, but Stella was still waiting for an answer.

I wondered how much I should share with my Dad as I followed him down the forest path.

The forest grove was filled with birdsong and children’s laughter as families wandered around the trails, out celebrating the holiday. Sunbeams cut diagonal lines across the thick trunks. Here and there, I stopped to lay my head against an old giant, receiving a few words of encouragement and support. But mostly, my attention was on my father. After months of hiding behind my own camera, it felt surreal to suddenly become a subject—to see myself clearly as a main character in someone else’s Story.

Who is this guy? I wondered, as I was told to pose over here, shift my body over there, smile! More teeth! just like I had been instructed a hundred thousand times throughout my youth. Who is the guy behind the Prick? Julian! My father’s name is Julian! It felt foreign just to voice the name on my inner tongue. Julian? My Dad’s name is Julian? Had Julian ever sang and dance among the redwood trees? Had Julian ever nearly died and came back to life? Had Julian ever loved, lost, yearned for love, tried to make things better, only to make them a hundred times worse? Of course he had—my whole childhood was written in the destruction of his personal Story. But how had it looked, what had it felt like to Him?

“Jordy!” he exclaimed, using the diminutive of my name that I hated, “look at this one! Isn’t it, like, uber-awesome?”

What are you, twelve? I thought. Then I caught myself and shook my head. Julian.


When the light started to fade, we got back into the rental car, covering the distance I struggled to walk over three wet days in a little less than thirty minutes. Pulling off the highway into Garberville, we took a room at the Best Western—by far the nicest hotel I’d stayed in for months. The drive plus the walk in the redwoods had tired my Dad out, and after a quick dinner, he splayed out on one of the two queen-sized beds in the room. Mythbusters was on the TV. Within an hour, he was snoring.

I found my phone and secluded myself in the bathroom. Stella’s text message was at the top of the list: Hey…Have you decided? I ignored the message and dropped a few down the list until I found Ashley’s name. We hadn’t communicated since she dropped me off at Jolene’s on her way to a date with her new beau.

I hesitated. Then, I thought, fuck it: “Back in town. What are you up to?”

I was shocked when she replied immediately. “Just down at the bar with a friend. You should join us!”

My eyes lingered on that exclamation mark. I think I started to salivate. I cracked the bathroom door open—my Dad was still sawing logs—and then I quickly typed an affirmative. I showered, I shaved my head, I tried to look as handsome and attractive as a Man can when he’s got a beard that he hasn’t trimmed in four months and the same clothes he’s been wearing 123 days straight.

The keys to the rental car were in my Dad’s jacket pocket. I stealthily lifted them, then eased my way out of the room.

I could feel myself shaking as I walked down the hallway.

Suddenly, I thought about Mushroom Sam: What’s the intention in this step?

Ashley. The intention in this step is Ashley.