Sunday, September 3, 2017


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.


Thursday, June 1, 2017


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.


Saturday, May 27, 2017


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.


Sunday, March 26, 2017


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.