Thursday, January 18, 2018

TO HEAR SOMETHING

Dear Spike:

The other day I was at a restaurant a few miles west of Boston. I was seated in a booth next to a boy and his father. The boy was about 14, I guess.

He looked terrified.

It wasn’t my business. I know it wasn’t. But I listened in on their conversation. I couldn’t really help it, actually. The dad was a loud guy with a thick Boston accent. He was talking about football. The New England Patriots were in the playoffs. Their quarterback, Tom Brady, had the rest he needed after coming off the injured reserve.

“This could be a really special year,” the dad said.

The kid kept trying, and failing, to break into the conversation, and I could hear his voice becoming more and more agitated. The dad, it seemed, was clueless.=

And then, finally, this:

“Dad… just… I need you to hear something from me.”

The dad shut up just long enough for his kid to blurt out:

“I-think-you-already-know-but-I-needed-to-make-sure-because… I’m-dating-a-boy.”

The dad fell silent. He was quiet for a really long time. An uncomfortably long time. A terrifyingly long time.

The boy said “Dad, are you OK?” and there was no response.

I peeked over the booth. The dad was looking down at his phone, tapping away at something. He wasn’t even looking at his kid. And I just wanted to stand up and punch him. Or maybe not to punch him but scream at him. Or maybe not to scream at him but to at least put my hand on the boy’s shoulder and say, “this is not what you deserve,” and "it gets better," and "I promise you that this is not how everyone will react." 

But I didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t but I didn’t. It wasn’t my business, I told myself.

“Dad,” the boy said again, and his voice was growing more desperate. “Are you OK?”

The man remained quiet. Kept tapping away at his god-forsaken phone. And then the kid said, “just say something, OK? It’s OK if you’re mad.”

And the dad finally replied, “just give me a second here, OK?” and then he said, “does the 30-yard line sound good?”

And the boy said, “what?”

Then the dad was crying. And he said, “Joey, that was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m really proud of you. And if we can get these tickets and leave right now, we can totally make the game tonight.”

“Because this is a big day. You’re… well, shit… I guess you’re a man today. Because men do brave things. And I’d really like to celebrate that with you.”

Then the kid was crying. And I was crying. And there was a guy at the bar, across from us, who had obviously also been listening in because he was crying, too. The server came over to my table; there were tears in his eyes.

And just like that, they were gone. I’m actually not even sure they paid for their food, which was sort of awkward, but whatever.

I can’t even imagine what last-minute tickets to an NFL playoff game must have cost. But I really hope they made it to the game.

I grew up rooting for the 49ers. I'm not much on an NFL fan these days, and I sure as heck am no fan of Tom Brady and his coach, Bill Belichick, but that night I watched the game and I cheered for New England. For Joey and his dad. 

The Patriots won, by the way. The score was 35-14.

Love,
dad

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

THEY DEFINE US

Dear Spike,

I’m sitting at a coffee shop across the street from one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals. I should be writing a book right now. But I’m distracted. I’m in awe.

Why?

Because of superheroes, that’s why.

A woman just walked in, wearing a bright blue jacket and matching pants, with reflective striping on the side. The patch on her sleeve said “children’s emergency transportation.” It might as well have said “Justice League.”

Another woman just came in; a doctor, I gathered, from the conversation she had with a colleague about a girl brought in last night. They didn’t know what was wrong. The doctor was heading back to keep working. She looked so tired.

Somebody just came in and bought all of the cake pops. For one of the kids to give to some of the other kids, she told the barista.

There’s a girl in an oversized coat and a knit hat. She’s probably about 13 or 14. I just struck up a quick conversation. She has appointments all day long. Her mom has to work, so the hospital has assigned someone to be with her today.

I’m at the window. Almost all of the people passing by have nametags hanging on lanyards. They’re doctors, nurses, techs, orderlies. They’re all part of this everyday fight for kids.

I remember Fred Rogers once saying that when he was a boy and he would see scary things in the news, his mother would tell him “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

I still follow Mr. Rogers’ advice when bad things happen. When there are attacks. When there are disasters. When there are terrible accidents. I look for the helpers and I know that the bad things don’t define us.

But lately, God, you know, it’s felt like the whole world is a bad thing happening. I wonder what’s happened to my country. I don’t recognize it. It feels sad. It feels scary.

We don’t have to wait for acutely bad things to happen to look for the helpers, and to be comforted when we find them. That doesn’t change the bad things, but it gives me hope.

There are superheroes all around us. And THEY define us.

Love,

dad

Sunday, September 3, 2017

MORE TO WIN

Dear Spike:

When you asked to run for student government, my consent came with just one stipulation: You needed to be prepared to not win.

"I understand," you said. "Some of my friends are running, too, so probably at least one of us will win, and we can feel happy for that person."

"And if none of you do?" I asked.

"Then that's just the way it goes," you said.

Good enough. God speed. I did student government as a kid. Heck, in a bit of Machiavellian political maneuvering that would make The Prince himself proud, I somehow managed to get myself elected as student government president at my high school. I'm not sure how formative that experience was (and I wasn't very good at it) but it wasn't a bad experience.

You practiced your speech for days. It was quite good.

You and your friends all lost. To a girl who ended her speech by doing a back-bend. And of course you lost. How do you compete with a girl doing a back-bend?

It was a tough loss. You cried. Your mother took you out after school -- to the same diner, as it happens, that we all went to when it was time to tell you that Secretary Clinton had lost the presidential election.

By the time you'd gotten home, you'd put a brave face back on. But you admitted to me that you were disappointed, and wondered what more you could have done.

Here's the honest answer, kid:

You could have done a lot more.

That's always the answer. In student government elections. In soccer games. In job interviews. In love. It is rare, in my experience, to come upon a person who could not have done more to reach a goal they missed reaching.

You don't know how to do a back-bend -- at least I don't think you do. But of course you could have done more. Vote For Spike signs. An old-fashioned campaign ballad. Promises to put chocolate milk in all of the drinking fountains.

Likewise, when your team suffered the rare experience of losing a soccer game last week, you could have done more. You could have taken a few more early shots. You could have sent more passes across the box. You could have run just a little harder, kicked just a little harder, gone shoulder-to-shoulder with those twice-your-size opponents just a little harder.    

Yes, you could have done more to win. But that doesn't mean you would have won.

The self-evaluation that comes after any sort of loss is important, and it demands of us two different questions.

"Could I have done more?" is a question we should always ask. It asks us whether we performed at the peak of our capacity. And it almost always ends with the answer "yes," because there's always something that, with the benefit of reflection, is clearly something we could have improved upon.

"Could I have won?" is a question that we should only ask if the result was a close one. A tight vote. A one-goal game. A job interview process that goes to the very last round, but in which the employer decides to go with the other candidate. And the answer to this is even more likely to be "yes," but that doesn't mean we should have done what would have had to have been done in order to win.

Because (and you'll hear this a lot in life) winning isn't everything. And sometimes what must be done to win isn't worth doing, because it comes at a cost that is too high to pay for what is being won.

There are, my child, some things that are worth just about any price. There are times in which we must win regardless of what must be traded away in the deal. I pray you face these situations infrequently, if never at all, for they most often come in matters of life and death.

In everything else in life, we can say that winning -- while certainly desirous -- isn't everything.

That shouldn't make losing easy. And it should never prevent you from asking that first, all-important question. But it should help keep winning in perspective.

Maybe you could have won this one. Maybe you even should have.

More likely, it was an opportunity to understand the power of bending over backward for the electorate. And, of course, a chance to know what it feels like to lose.

That's not a feeling I wish for you to have often, but you'll have it. And next time, when you say "that's just the way it goes," you'll know better what it means.

Love,
dad

Thursday, June 1, 2017

YOU ARE 10

Dear Spike,

Now you are 10.

I'm not sure that, when I wrote you for the first time many months before you were born, I could have so much as imagined what this day would feel like.

Pressed to guess, I reckon, I might have said a child's 10th birthday must make her parents feel overwhelmed with a mixture of pride and sadness. With hope and nostalgia. And certainly, most certainly, with some bewilderment over where the last 10 years went.

There's some of that with me today, I suppose. But not much. For I am proud of the woman you are becoming, and I am saddened by the realization that we're likely past the half-way point of the years in which we'll live together. And I am hopeful, for you have given me no reason to feel otherwise about your future. And I am nostalgic, for who is not when a benchmark is reached?

But I'm not feeling any of those things overwhelmingly right now. And I'm not wondering at all where the past 10 years went.

It went on car trips to the West Coast and stroller rides around the park, to soccer and baseball and football games, to banjo music and broken dishes, to New Year's celebrations and Halloween costume making, to first steps and first meals, to tree planting and poker playing and M*A*S*H reruns.        

It went to weddings and funerals, to sleepless nights and trips to Disneyland, to times in which we were together and times in which I went away. To silent movies. To outdoor concerts. To splash in fountains and dig in sandboxes. To playing silly games and singing silly songs.

It went to China and Mexico and Canada. To the World Cup Final. To the Grand Canyon and Yosemite and Yellowstone. It collected Young Ranger badge after Young Ranger badge. It went on hikes and climbs and floats. It went by bike and horseback.

It went to swine flu and broken bones and scrapes and scratches and scars. It went on motorcycle rides. It went to school. It went to your grandparents' new home. It went to memorizing the Bill of Rights. It went to learning Chinese. It went snowboarding and snowboarding and snowboarding some more.

It went to ice skating and roller skating. To soccer and indoor soccer and beach soccer and more soccer. To braces and hat tricks and hauls.

It went to watch the sun hide behind the moon. It went to see the ocean. It went on roller-coasters. It threw up a lot.

It went to loss and heartache. It went to new beginnings.

It went to new elections. To understanding that the world is a very, very complicated place. To worry for hurting friends. To hope. To relief.

It went to Star Wars. To Phineas and Ferb. To Psych.

It went to building independence. To making new friends. To big decisions. To changing schools. To our favorite bakery, again and again. To reading books with your mom. To reading books by yourself. To school plays and college lectures. To drawing pad after drawing pad after drawing pad.
 
It went to us. And it went to you becoming you.

Love,
dad

Saturday, May 27, 2017

THAT MAKES 100

Dear Spike:

Since the first time you scored in a soccer game -- on May 5, 2012 -- we've been keeping track of your goals.

With each new score, we make a note on your soccer ball. And this is how I know that you scored your first brace on Sept. 15, 2012, and that your first hat trick came just under a year later, on Sept. 7, 2013, and that you scored four goals in a game on Nov. 25, 2014, and that you tallied five on Oct. 15, 2016.

You may chalk up your prolificness to youth soccer being youth soccer. It is and it is not. You are prolific, but you are not a prodigy. You do not score at will. For God's sake, you are consistently the smallest player on the field. Every score is a fight, and multi-goal games, as opposing coaches re-arrange their defense to account for your presence of the field, are an even greater fight.

Upon those fights you and your teammates have built victories. Most of the time.

Alas, today's match was a struggle. It was the morning of your 10th birthday, and you started at right wing. Your opponents scored on the opening sequence and you came out a short time later with a bloody nose. (I didn't see how it happened, but I commend whichever kid gave it to you.)

You and your teammates were down 2-0 at the half, and ultimately lost 4-2.

It's never fun to end a season with a loss, lest of all on your birthday. You're learning, though, that this is part of sports and part of life. The last time your team lost you cried; you felt as though you'd let your teammates down. This time, as we walked back to the car, you told me that you were quite sure you'd done your best, and that you felt your teammates had, too. That, you said, was the most important part.

Soccer is hard. And to steal a phrase from a movie about another sport in another time that was, in fact, about every sport in every time, it's supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great.

At the end of the day, as I always do, I dutifully Sharpied the goal you scored -- a blast that split the keeper's legs -- onto the ball you've lovingly named "Cat," and I marveled at how marked up she has gotten this season.

And then, late in the evening, I went to the basement to fetch "Kitty" and "Mao" and all of your other soccer balls. There have been five of them.

Goal by goal, panel by panel, I tallied your scores. Three goals in a double-header on Oct. 27, 2013. A season-opening hat trick on April 2, 2016. Four goals and an assist in the second-to-last game of this season.

And this one.

That makes 100.

It was late and you had gone to bed. But I crawled up your ladder and peaked my head over the pile of blankets and stuffed animals.

"Are you awake?" I whispered.

"Yes," you replied, "I just can't sleep."

"That's okay, because I have something to tell you," I said. "I went back and counted up all your goals. Your latest one was your 100th goal."

"100," you said, as plainly as one can say that number.

"Yes," I said, as proudly as one can say that word.

"Oh," you said. "Okay."

And that was that.

For five years, we've been tracking your goals. I know you're glad that we do, because you often check to make sure I've added your latest score onto your latest ball. But the total number doesn't seem to matter much.

It's the next one that you covet. And then the one after that.

For it never comes easy. And the hard is what makes it great.

Love,
dad

Sunday, March 26, 2017

NEVER BE DONE

Dear Spike,
I don’t have many heroes. Life is just simpler that way. It’s hard work balancing fellow human beings on pedestals, after all. And when they fall, as humans are wont to do, it always feels as though everything else in the world has been thrown out of balance.
But I like balance. I thrive in its embrace. So the people I look up to — the people I really, really look up to — have always been few and far between.
This week I learned that I had lost two of them. Not because they fell, but because they passed. And while this is the way heroes should go, everything feels out of balance for me right now.
Let me tell you first about Jack Pearson. I was your age, or perhaps just a little bit younger, when we met at Mt. Hermon, the camp in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains that my family attended during the summers.
Jack was a singer and a songwriter and a storyteller, and he was brilliant at all of those things but especially the latter. He was tall and skinny and he wore sort of funny clothes and sang really funny songs. He told stories around the campfire and strummed a guitar and forced us to sing along.
And yes, when I say “forced us” I really do mean “forced us,” because as much as my memory tells me there was no gun to my head, it also tells me that I really didn’t want to sing, for summer camp is a time in which you get to pretend that you are a very cool kid among other kids who only know you for a week and thus might not realize it is not humanly possibly that you are, in fact, a very cool kid.
And singing? When you’re 10 or 11 or 12? Not really cool.
Yet sing I did. Loudly and elatedly, much as I did not want to. For when Jack began to sing of Eeekebee, the mighty mouse, and Old Blue, the loyal dog, I could not help myself.
It has been two decades since I last hiked the Santa Cruz Mountains, and longer than that since I last saw Jack, but I cannot think of family camp without thinking of him, and his songs and stories have stayed with me in all the years that have passed. That’s what stories do, after all.
About a year and a half ago, a song entered my head and would not leave. It was a song Jack had sung, long ago, about Velcro (yes, Velcro) and I could remember almost all of the words — but not all of them. That’s what happens when you get older, I suppose.  
But we live in a magical time, so it was just a matter of moments before I’d found Jack’s website and ordered the album online. A few moments later, I found Jack’s email address, and shot him a note to let him know how excited I was to be able to share his songs with you. Jack wrote back the next day, thanking me for the order and offering his assurances that the CD would arrive shortly.
“Interesting to see that your path has led you into journalism,” he wrote, apparently having taken notice of the signature line in my email. “We’ll never be done telling stories, so I think you're safe there.”
This is not what people usually say when they learn I am a journalist. In fact, I can remember only one other person who had ever equated this career with anything resembling job security.
That was Alex Tizon.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s work for The Seattle Times, and later for The Los Angeles Times, inspired me to think about the possibilities inherent — in everything. Alex’s view, which became my view, was that there is no event, no issue, and no moment in the human experience that could not become a compelling story if only we studied it closely, honed our focus deeply, and then committed to making it so.
Alex and I made the move to teaching in the same year — him at the University of Oregon and me at Utah State University. We met up in Eugene in 2012, when I inexplicably was a recipient of an award for ethics in reporting that is sponsored by his school.
“You know what I’ve already come to hate?” I said as we discussed the challenges of our career transitions. “I really dislike how many people question the ethics of encouraging younger people to go into journalism.”
“Yeah,” Alex sadly agreed. “People act like we’re telling them to flush their futures away.”
Indeed, I’d heard those sorts of comments enough that I was beginning to wonder if I was simply ignoring a reality that everyone else in the world could see.
“But… we’re not… right?”
“Our species, you know — we’ve always been storytellers,” he told me. “And we always will be.”
Jack’s memorial will be in California in May. Alex’s will be this Saturday in Washington. In both instances, I will be off telling stories.
I reckon that’s a good way to honor my heroes. And I reckon that’s where I’ll find balance again.
Love,
dad

Thursday, December 29, 2016

LEIA SHOT FIRST


Dear Spike:


I don’t think I fully appreciated how much I wanted to be sitting next to you at the latest Star Wars movie until I wasn’t. 

My friend Robert and I had left the ski resort with three hours to spare before show time. Three and a half hours later we were still stuck in a long line of traffic as emergency crews cleared a multiple-car pile up at the bottom of the canyon. We sang Christmas carols to pass the time. And for my part, I suppose, to keep from crying.

One of my earliest memories is of walking past a row of movie posters outside a theater with my father. This would have been around 1984, I suppose. “Let’s peek inside to see if there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out,” he said.

There wasn’t. And there wouldn’t be for many, many years to come. By that time I was in college, and on opening night I brought Casey, a young boy I was mentoring. He spent most of the time fidgeting on the floor, but he perked up when Jar Jar Binks came on screen — as, for the record, do you.

(A quick side note: Everyone cheered and applauded at the end of "The Phantom Menace" on that night. These days most folks will tell you that Episode I was a complete disaster — and they’ll trot our poor Jar-Jar as exhibit A — but unless that theater was an absolute outlier, most of those naysayers have significantly changed their minds over time. They all loved it until they found out it wasn’t cool to love it.)

So, yeah, I love me some Star Wars. Always have. 

Now you’re old enough to share this joy with me. It’s a nerdy joy, for sure, but that’s OK. And I suppose that there was something kind of great about the fact that your mother didn’t think twice about whether or not you two would go to the opening night of "Rogue One" without me. Of course you were going.

It would be several more days before I could score the time and tix to see the flick. To your credit, you didn’t spoil the oh-my-God-did-Disney-really-do-that ending. But you did mention that Princess Leia shows up. You just couldn’t hold that in.

And I understand.

Last night our family snuggled up together to watch "A New Hope." I don’t think you’d caught on that it was a memorial viewing, and that’s fine — for all I know you might have already assumed Carrie Fisher was dead.

I’ve seen Episode IV hundreds of times. I know every character. I know every line. But I noticed a few things for the first time last night.

First of all, forget the controversy over Han and Greedo. Who cares? Because you know who actually shot first?

Leia. Leia shot first. 

Long before we meet Han and Chewbacca. Before we meet Luke and Ben. Before we set eyes upon the twin setting suns of Tatooine or feast upon the bureaucratic squabbling of the Galactic Empire or have a bad feeling about this, Leia unloads her blaster on a storm trooper.

She’s a teenager. Entrusted by her adopted father with the most important piece of information in the history of the rebellion. And she’s taking out frickin’ storm troopers. 

Oh, then she’s tortured, and she doesn’t give up the location of the hidden rebel base. And then her home planet is threatened with complete annihilation, and she doesn’t give up the location of the hidden rebel base. And then she’s threatened with execution, and she doesn’t give up the location of the hidden rebel base.

Then we meet Luke — who is all of 32 seconds older than Leia and ostensibly the hero of this whole saga — and he’s whining about power converters, losing his uncle's droids and getting the crap kicked out of him by sand people.

Who's the hero here, really? I think it's pretty clear.

I certainly don’t need to tell you how I feel about the princessification of our culture. We’ve. Been. Over. That. 

But as princesses go, Leia’s pretty much a bad ass. And today I’m feeling thankful to Carrie Fisher for bringing her to life and, in doing so, setting the stage for Star Wars heroines to come. You live in a world of Rey and Jyn because of Leia. 

I really do wish I hadn’t missed out on the Rogue One opening. But you and your mom didn’t need me to be there to validate your love of Star Wars. 

Because it’s your galaxy, too. And it always has been.

Love,
dad

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

LOOKING RIGHT BACK

Dear Spike:

Your great grandfather was your age when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

I can't imagine what it must have been like for a child of that age to watch his country go to war — chiefly because I never asked him. When did he hear the news? Did he know what it meant? Did he remember hearing President Roosevelt's speech the following day? How did life change? How did childhood change?

I don't know. And today, on the 75th anniversary of the bombing of the attack that drew our nation into World War II, I am feeling regretful.

And determined.

Your grandfather was your age when President Kennedy was killed.

I can't imagine what it must have been like for a child of that age to learn his nation's president had been murdered — I've never asked him. But the next time we speak, I will. I'll ask him how he heard the news. I'll ask him what he remembers from that day. Did he remember watching Vice President Johnson take the oath of office? Did he recall Lee Harvey Oswald's murder, two days later?

There's so much more to learn, of course. And not just about days that will live in infamy.

Your grandmother wasn't too much older than you are now when Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind.

I can't imagine what it must have been like to look to our moon and know that someone up there was looking right back, for it has never happened in my lifetime. Does she remember watching the landing on TV? Did she remember when the Apollo 11 crew splashed down, a few days later?    

We should ask, don't you think?

Love,
dad

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

ANOTHER PROMISED LAND

Dear Spike,
We stopped the car in the café parking lot, six minutes before the restaurant would open. Your mother looked at me and nodded.
“So,” I said, turning to face you in the back seat, “there was an election yesterday.”
You knew that, of course. You’ve been paying attention. We’ve been talking about this. You knew history was at hand.
As plain as I could, I told you what had happened. It took all of 10 or 20 seconds to do so. Your mother reminded you that you would be OK; it was important to us that you heard that.
Your eyes did well, if just a bit, but you did not cry. You did not complain. You did not give any hint of anger. You listened and nodded and laughed when I told you that, if nothing else, this leaves open the possibility that you could be the first woman president of our country.
“Of course, you’ll have to be older than I am now,” your mother noted.
Ah yes, that. I did some quick math in my head.
You could run…
… in 2044.
My God, let it not be that long.
It wasn’t until 144 years after our independence that women won the right to vote. Nearly a century later we still haven’t put a woman in the Oval Office. We’ve waited long enough.
Women make up 51 percent of our nation’s population, but just 20 percent of Congress and 25 percent of state-level elected leaders. There’s no sense in this. There’s no sense at all. The halls of our capitol buildings don’t have to be a faultless microcosm of all of the different kinds of diversity in our nation — we enjoy such diversity that this would not be possible — but it should be close. And, particularly where gender is concerned, there is no reason for it not to be. There’s no good reason at all.
But nothing our people have ever done for the cause of equality has come easy. Not human rights. Not voting rights. Not civil rights.
Pray to ask Frederick Douglass. Pray to ask Susan B. Anthony. Pray to ask Martin Luther King. Pray to ask Harvey Milk.
They all saw their promised lands. They may not have gotten there with us — but they knew we, as a people, would get there.
We, as a people, are nomadic by nature. It is among the most defining attributes of our species that we journey, settle, become restless and journey again. There is always another promised land.
There is always another ceiling to smash through. And yes, this one has proven tough to crack, but our people will break through. And it will happen soon. And then we will settle. And then we will become restless. And then we will journey forth again.
There was an election yesterday. And it did not go the way you wanted. But next year, at this time, there will be another vote. And the year after that, there will be another vote. And the year after that, there will be another vote. For school board members and city councilors and mayors and legislators. For senators and representatives and attorneys general and governors.
The cause of creating a government that better reflects our vast diversity — not just in the Oval Office but in every office — will never be our only concern. But it’s clear today, more than ever before, that we can do better. And we will. We will soon.
Mark my words, my child: By the time you’re old enough to be president, it won’t be a big deal that you are.
For history is still at hand.

Love,
dad