For the most part, I take my parenting cues from my wife, Kate. Once a day, an email will appear in my inbox with the subject line: You really should read this. It usually contains an article from the New York Times or some en vogue mommy blog reporting on a new parenting study or technique.
Regardless of their overt passive-aggressiveness, and the fact that a pop quiz regarding the article's content is sure to make its way into dinner conversation, I find the email reminders both endearing and warranted. It's a tacit nod to our recognition that I am a high-risk parent due to the fact that I was reared by wolves. For example, the only piece of advice I ever got from my father was when I was 14 -- right after he and my mother divorced for the second time. We went for a walk to unwind, he sat me down on a park bench and said, "Now I'm going to teach you how to roll a perfect joint."
It is in that long shadow of that enlightened parenting wisdom that I became determined to raise our boys, Lucky (who is 3 1/2) and Georgie (who is barely 3 months), the right way. Whatever that means.
Kate, beyond being beautiful and smart and endlessly understanding, is a natural mother. Somewhere deep down in her mitochondrial DNA are the genetic instructions on how to parent. I did not get that gene. The way you can spot an actor in a movie holding a cigarette that was never a smoker, I've often felt like, to use a movie term, a Fugazi parent, an imposter.
Not only was I absent these atavistic child-raising instincts, but I'd fear at times that I doomed my boys' manifest destiny by potentially passing on a series of hereditary booby prizes like dyslexia and insomnia and a penchant for prescription drugs. It's for those reasons I secretly want them to be as much like their mother as possible.
So, last summer when Kate walked into our study to find me crying on the couch after Italy was knocked out of the world cup, I was deeply alarmed when she -- with a subtle flick of her head -- brought to my attention the fact that Lucky, who was also watching the match, was crying as well. What have I done? I thought to myself.
I was hit by a horrifying reality that, as if by osmosis, my boys were learning from me, whether I liked it or not. And that wasn't a good thing. Despite being dual Italian-American citizens, we are, make no mistake, a very American family. And for that I'm grateful because loving anything Italian -- cars or girls or politicians or especially soccer teams -- is much more agony than it's worth. As Don Vito said to his son Michael in The Godfather Part 1, "I never wanted this for you."
And it gets potentially more hazardous from there. When I met Kate, I was under contract to write a book about the 10 most dangerous recreational activities. I was almost halfway through -- I'd done a 200-foot deep-sea dive, surfed mammoth waves at Mavericks and done a cageless bullshark dive in Hawaii -- when I fell in love and decided that dying relatively young was, at that point, an incredibly stupid thing to do.
Recognizing that I possess a handful of insuppressible characteristics that were bound to worm their way into my boys' identities, Kate and I decided that I must provide a counterbalance by offering up some wisdom of my own. Now, I've been called many things in my life, but wise was never one of them. Choosing from my areas of expertise to teach my boys left us picking between high-stakes gambling (I wrote the book Poker Nation and was a professional poker player) and pornography (I wrote the movie Lovelace, about the life of Linda Lovelace).
Finding neither option appealing, Kate had another suggestion. "There is something else that you know more about than anybody else and it's something Lucky needs to learn." She said.
"What?" I asked.
"Your mother" she replied.
My mother, Christina Paolozzi, an actress and fashion model, died tragically when I was 19. A real-life Italian Countess, she has become a recurring character in Lucky's bedtime stories, oftentimes driving my college car, a Kermit-the-Frog-green, 1972 911T Porsche.
After one such yarn -- with Kate away on business -- Lucky asked me when my mother was coming to visit. He has always been wonderfully close with Kate's mother Susie, so it was a natural question. But it was one I was wildly unprepared for.
"She's not coming to visit." I said.
"Why?" he asked.
"Like when Susie missed her plane?" He asked.
As I scoured my mind for a rational explanation, I realized that I had unintentionally stumbled upon the "death" conversation that every responsible parent -- according to a number of articles Kate sent me -- should have with their 3-year-old. Thankfully, I took so long to respond that Lucky fell asleep before I could answer.
When Kate got home, we anointed "the big question" conversation as my mission. I decided to take Lucky up to my father's country house -- about 90 minutes north of New York City -- where all of my late mother's things are stored. I thought I'd show him tons of pictures and some of her favorite things, like her collection of stuffed elephants, and that way, he might gain a little insight into who she was.
We hopped in our super-sturdy, safe and reliable BMW sedan, I strapped him into his car seat and we were off. I told him a ton of stories on the way, mostly about my childhood, in the hopes that he'd ask about my mother again.
When we arrived, I took Lucky down to the basement, where everything from my brother's comic book collection to my father's med school textbooks is stored. He started wandering around and instantly became fascinated with my college stereo equipment. I used that time to read the email Kate sent me titled "how to talk to your preschooler about death." (See, honey? I read that one.)
The expert on this website advised, "Avoid euphemisms. Tell them exactly what death is and exactly how you see God and heaven."
Well, jeez, lady, I've been thinking about this stuff for 40 years and I have no clue how I see God or heaven. It's a total black box to me. And as I sat there wondering if "black box" was a euphemism, Lucky came running up.
"Daddy, Daddy! This is the coolest thing I've ever seen."
He grabbed my hand and led me through the basement door that connects to the garage. In it was parked my college car, the magic green Porsche from my bedtime stories.
If anything symbolized the reckless aspect of my personality -- the aspect of me that I feared made me a bad father -- it was this car. I've driven cross-country in it five times. Blown three engines. Gone to jail in it twice, and perhaps my best memory, I made out with my wife in it a week before asking her to marry me. Of all the glorious things that had been and will be done in that car, the only thing I swore I'd never do was let my son drive in it.
"That's just like the one Countess Christina drives in the story. Can we go for a ride?" Lucky begged. "Please, Daddy, please."
"No," I said. As much as I feared doing psychological damage to my son, I feared doing physical damage even more. I wanted to make him wear a helmet around the house when he was learning to walk.
I was about to say, "it's too dangerous," when I realized that for all of my irresponsible audacity, I'd never wrecked the car, never been hurt in it or hurt anybody. The most dangerous thing about the car was that it didn't have airbags. But there was nothing inherently hazardous about driving it.
So, I moved his car seat from the BMW into Kermit. I strapped Lucky in and we were off. After a few minutes, Lucky asked, "Why is Kermit so slow?" I looked down at the speedometer and we were indeed going seven miles per hour.
"Because he's old," I replied.
It was as if Lucky could sense the lie because he then said something to me that I will never forget: "Please, Daddy, let's go faster."
Now, for all of my shortcomings, and there are many, one thing I can say for sure is that I am an excellent driver. My father made me become one -- sending me to Bob Bondurant racing school -- as a condition of getting my first car. Lucky was more safe in a car with me than he was doing a thousand things he did every day.
"OK," I said, throwing the car into first gear, "but you have to promise me something. This is going to be one of those things we won't tell your mother."
I put my foot down on the gas, Kermit lunged forward, I blew through second gear, then third and got us up to 60 mph in a little over five seconds. Lucky's face lit up like I've never seen. "Faster, Daddy, faster." We both started laughing. Lucky and I spent that Fall afternoon in a state of near bliss.
For the most part, we are a very happy family. But I realized then that my fear of doing some indelible future damage to my boys had put me on permanent guard. I overanalyzed every decision, action, statement to the point that, yes there was happiness, but very little joy. This was the first time Lucky had seen me in my natural state.
"What's so funny?" Lucky asked -- because I hadn't stopped smiling for nearly an hour.
"I'm just so happy," I replied.
"Because we got to drive Kermit with Countess Christina?" He asked.
"Exactly." I said.
I just had the "big question" conversation with Lucky without ever saying a word.
On the way home, we picked up Kate. She got in the passenger seat, kissed Lucky and then turned to me: "Wasn't the car seat on the other side?" she asked.
Lucky and I made eye contact in the mirror. "I don't think so." I said. Lucky smiled.