Friday, December 27, 2013

Self Discovery


I was recently searching for eponymous urls at godaddy.com. As one does. I was not surprised to discover that JessePearson.com was “already taken!” I searched a few other domain variants; jesse-pearson.com, jpearson.com, jwpearson.com. (I wanted something that ended in .com because I am old and frightened of newness and change.) I settled on jessewpearson.com. The “w” stands for Bill, which stands for William. I was satisfied with this result. I like to publish under my full name anyway. I think it sounds more writerly or, at least, more publish-y.

I spent a few minutes contemplating how many years I wanted to own this piece of virtual real estate. (I settled on three and saved a couple bucks. I could have saved more if I’d gone for five, but I’ve joined 24-Hour Fitness one too many times to fall for that trick again). Then I began to wonder. Who is the other Jesse Pearson? Do people find him when they are looking for me? And what do they find?

A few Google-moments later I made a shocking discovery. I am, in fact, not Jesse Pearson. Someone else is Jesse Pearson. And he is living my life.

Jesse Pearson is my age. He even kind of looks like me; the Jewish face to go with the gentile name.

The realization that you are not who you think you are can be jarring. But the awareness that someone else is is downright disturbing.

According to his website, Jesse Pearson, “is a writer, editor, and curator. He was the editor-in-chief of Vice magazine from October of 2002 until December of 2010, when he quit. Before that, he received unemployment benefits from the State of New York. Before both of those things, he was an editor at index magazine. Jesse is now the proud editor and founder of Apology, a quarterly magazine of culture and literature.”

What a clever bio! So clever, in fact, that with a single click, it can also be read in the first person or the self-addressed second person.

Then I found a New York Times article about Jesse Pearson and his new magazine venture. What an interesting and talented person! Sure, he has a whiff of douchey, Parliament-smoking, Brooklyn hipster about him, but hey, that could have happened to me if I hadn’t left Boerum Hill in 1999. And, if he’s to be believed, he knows this about himself and he’s trying to make amends.

And who wouldn’t have a five-day stubble of self-regard if he’d been published in GQ and Playboy, and interviewed David Lynch, David Simon, Elmore Leonard, Harold Bloom, and Michael Pollan, just to name a few?

I believe it’s fairly normal to want to wake up one morning and discover that you are someone else. Not permanently. Just for a day or two. We all get bored with ourselves. But it is strangely disruptive to find that that someone else is you, nominally speaking. 

The desire to live another life is not an indictment of the life I'm living. The longing for a new self is not a threat to the people – parents, partners, children, and friends – who love my current self. Everyone who knows me knows that if I could snap my fingers and become a successful writer, editor, and publisher, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I’m not sure what I would give to be Jesse Pearson instead of Jesse Pearson, but I’m pretty sure I’d give something.

But I did get to wondering. What is Jesse Pearson’s finger-snapping wish? Maybe he’s always wanted to try living on the West Coast. Maybe he’s sick of his cramped Manhattan apartment, of never seeing swaths of green or warm weather in January. Perhaps he’s tired of the insufferable sensitivity of the creative class, the relentless intellectual one-upmanship of writers and artists who, whether aspiring or established, always seem to be masking self-doubt with something-to-prove.  Maybe he wishes he had two kids, not babies, mind you, because dirty diapers and sleepless nights are for suckers, but a six-year-old and a nine-year-old with wild imaginations, irrational fears, and blind optimism. He might even contemplate earning a living as something other than a writer. The relentless grind, the pressure to produce, the income unworthy of the effort. No, he could never be strapped to desk, but what if he could make good money doing something else and just write because he loves to write, for the pure, original joy of the art form? God, wouldn’t that be refreshing?

Maybe he regrets his tattoos.

And then I got to wondering some more. Would I trade? If I could be Jesse Pearson instead of Jesse Pearson, would I do it? Would he? Can I take anything with me – my wife, maybe, or my dog – or is this an all or nothing proposition? Can Jesse throw a baseball as well as I can? I’d hate to give that up. What if Jesse is a swimming pool guy instead of an ocean guy? Man, that would suck. I wouldn’t mind being able to smoke cigarettes, but dear God, what if Jesse is a vegetarian?

Jesse Pearson may be living the life I want, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to give up the one I have.

There are four days left in 2013. Another year is almost over and I am still Jesse Pearson. It is easy to be unproud of myself, the lack of goals reached or dreams fulfilled; even easier now that I know there’s another Jesse Pearson who is living the life I thought I’d be living. Maybe I’ll write Jesse a letter and ask him if he wants to trade. Just for a couple days or maybe even a week. I wouldn’t even be surprised if he wrote back. He’s a creative guy, after all. Let’s do it! he’d probably say. Let’s be each other for a little while. But I bet when push comes to shove, we’ll stick with what we have. And it’s probably for the best.

I suppose I’ll just resolve to be a little bit more Jesse Pearson next year.         

Monday, December 9, 2013

Brown Paper Packages

It was the first week of school. Our car crept through morning traffic in the school drop-off chute. To my pleasant surprise, my nearly-nine-year-old daughter selected My Favorite Things from a playlist on my iPod; a jazzy, scatting rendition from an obscure, 1965 Al Jarreau record. She’d have probably preferred Julie Andrews, but I like my show tunes with a little soul.

She’d been obsessed with the song for a over a week, since we watched a rousing performance of The Sound of Music at an outdoor amphitheater in the mountains above our California home. Her younger brother watched her worshipfully as she sang along in the backseat.

“Raindrop in roses and whisperon kittens, bricoppaettls and warm wooom mitten, round paper packages tied up wiffstin, thee or a few of my favorite things.”

A double smile crossed my face. Nothing amuses me as much as my normally shy daughter’s willingness to mangle songs in the backseat when she doesn’t realize anyone’s listening. But my smile also contained selfish pride that, in singing along to this particular song, she showed evidence of good taste. Or, more specifically, of my taste. As the kids hopped from the backseat and ran to their classrooms, I felt like a successful parent.

Parenting has presented me with many challenges, more than a few of which, if I’m being honest, I’ve failed to meet, because of lack of ability or, occasionally, interest. But if there is one parenting goal I’ve embraced – my fatherly raison d’etre – it has been my mission to teach my children to value what I value, to appreciate the things and experiences that I deem important or worthwhile. I have tackled this cause with vigor. I have seeded their bookshelves with timeless classics, dragged them into the garden to grow our own vegetables, spun scratchy Lester Young records on a 30 year-old turntable, taken them camping, openly lobbied for Obama, denounced war, brewed my own beer, caught-and-released spiders, and apologized when I’m wrong (and occasionally even when I’m not).

By and large, my lessons have gotten through. My son ardently insists on air-drying his hands because “paper towels come from trees.” My daughter, who generally avoids green food, will gladly eat just about anything that comes from our garden. They can quote A. A. Milne and John Lennon. And they know that Han Solo is cooler than Luke Skywalker.

For the most part, my efforts have turned my children into people that I not only love, but like. I’ve imagined that when they grow up, we will genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

But for all my guiding and shaping, I’ve been left to wonder just how happy they are, especially my daughter, who is quick to cry, slow to recover, and sorely lacking in self-confidence.

She is a unique child, but not outrageously so. She wears her hair short, prefers sports to princess dolls, gym shorts to pink dresses. She bravely marches to her own drummer, even while knowing that her beat has an isolating effect. She wants badly to belong, but, to my pleasure, she seems unwilling to conform to the popular opinion of what’s popular.

But her individuality has made her insecure, or so I’ve always believed. And the intransigence of her insecurity has been my most galling experience as a parent.
Her mother and I routinely remind her of her many attributes, carefully naming all the ways she is special. She is surrounded by a gaggle of adoring grandparents in whose eyes she can do no wrong.

Still, she has struggled. I have seen her suffering. And the origin of her suffering has eluded me.

A week or so after our musical drop-off, I arrived home late to an unhappy house.

My wife and daughter were not speaking. Something had gone wrong. The girl was crying dramatically in her room. My wife was doing dishes and telling me that she’d had it with “your daughter.”

“I know she’s tired and I know she just needs to go to bed. I try to be patient, but the attitude is just too much sometimes, you know?”

“I do.”

“It is not okay to talk to your parents that way.”

“It is not. Do you want me to talk to her?”

“You can do whatever you want. I’m done.”

I went down the hall and opened her bedroom door. She was on the floor, heaving. She had reached that point, unique to young children, where she’d decided that it might actually be better if things got worse.

I held her and petted her snotty hair until she calmed down. There was no point in asking what happened. I already knew. She’d gotten snarky with her mother. Her mother told her to watch it. She pushed her luck. And it all went downhill from there; a tired kid and an exhausted parent at the end of a long day, both exercising understandably poor judgment. It had happened before – usually with me, not her mother – and it will happen again. Asking her to rehash it would only reactivate the Sarah Bernhardt routine.

“I listened to My Favorite Things on the way home,” I said, subliminally informing her that whatever happened was over.

“The version with the boy singing?” she sniveled.

“Actually, this was a different version with no one singing,” I said, happily introducing the Coltrane rendition.

“How do you know what song it is?”

“Well, there’s a saxophone and a piano and they both play the melody. I can play it for you tomorrow if you like. I’ll bet you’d recognize it right away.”

“Okay.”

She lay silently with her head in my lap, looking up at the antique light fixture that hung unfittingly from her ceiling. I could see her mind working.

“Dad?”

“Yes.”

“Were you popular when you were a kid?”

“Oh, no.”

“Did you have a lot of friends?”

“I had friends. I don’t know if I’d say I had a lot. About the same as you, I guess.”

“I don’t feel like I have friends.”

“Really?”

She began to cry lightly.

“Honey, what about…?” I listed four or five kids that I knew she played with every day at school.

“But I don’t know if they really like me,” she said thoughtfully.

“What do you mean?”

“I feel like I have to be someone else when I’m with them. Like I have to pretend to be someone I’m not.”

I looked down at my nearly-nine-year-old daughter, not knowing whether to honor her feelings or offer her platitudes.

“You know, Sweetheart, I visit your school a lot and it sure seems like the other kids like you. I think they like you because you’re your own person, because you don’t try to be like everyone else.”

“But it doesn’t feel like that.”

“I’m sorry. But I have to tell you that you are an amazing kid. You’re smart, you’re beautiful, you’re funny, you’re athletic, you’re kind, you’re a good big sister, you like to be outdoors, you like to try new things, you like good music, you like to read, you’re one heckuva kid.”

“Then how come no one outside of my family thinks that?” She fought back tears.

I didn’t have an answer for that.

She slowly got to her feet and climbed the ladder to her top bunk. I sang her special song and did the thing we do with the magic wand.

“Daddy?”

“Yes?”

“Does it make you happy that I like that song?”

My Favorite Things?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, Sweetie. I’m glad you like it, but you don’t have to like my things just to make me happy.”

“I know.”

But I wasn’t sure that she did.

I rested my hand on her head and she closed her eyes. In the darkness of her room, I thought of all the books I’ve shared with her. All the healthy food I’ve tried to make her eat, all the music, art, hiking, plays, vegetable gardens, baseball games and a hundred other things that I value. She has tried them all. And with each one she tries, I tell her how proud I am.

But pride is a sin, as I recall, and a deadly one at that. What if what I’m doing is not exposing her to the things I value, but, in fact, preying on her desire to please, and to be liked, in order to shape her into something she might not have chosen. What if, just like with her friends, she feels like she has to be someone she is not? And what if the only difference between me and her friends is that I tell her I love her for it.

I’ve told myself that I love my children unconditionally. And in the strictest sense, that’s true. But is it possible that that is not how they’ve experienced my love? If I’m honest, I’ve made all sorts of judgments about my children. I want them to like what I like. I want them to value what I value. Have I not subtly told them, “I’ll love you no matter what, but I might love you more if you were more like me?”

What if our children are not lumps of clay to be molded? What if they can’t be shaped and sculpted? What if they are born kiln-fired? What if the pressure applied by our loving hands is more likely to cause them to crack or shatter? What if our job is merely to give them a protective glaze and hope for the best?

What if all my loving encouragement can sometimes feel like judgment?

In the weeks since that night, I’ve made a conscious effort not to judge my daughter. This has not come easily, in part, because I have become aware that I am always making assumptions about who she is and how she should be. And when she fails to meet those assumptions, I’ve allowed my love to be replaced with judgment.

Now I am trying to replace my judgment with love. I am letting go of my assumptions. My approval no longer has conditions. At first, I feared that I would become one of those parents I dread; the type whose children can do no wrong, who don’t correct or discipline their children even as they are poking puppies’ eyes with sticks.

But it turns out that I don’t have those kinds of kids. It turns out that my kids return kindness when they receive it. They forgive when they are forgiven. I’m not sure why I expected my children to be more generous with their love than I was with mine. I’m not sure why I expected my daughter to give herself unconditional love when she wasn’t receiving it from me. It turns out she is not unique. It turns out she is just like everyone else. She just wants to be loved for who she is.

I still make mistakes. I still miss my mark. I get short and impatient. I bark at her when I shouldn’t. I try to get her to see things my way, to care about what I care about. But more often than not, I catch myself. I remember that she is not me. For the first time in nearly nine years, I am seeing my daughter for who she is; not for who I’d like her to be. Not a jazz-loving, vegetable-growing, baseball-throwing, nature nugget. Instead, she is becoming the one thing I’d always hoped for (even if I didn’t realize it).

She is becoming happy.

People say that our children teach us more than we teach them. This has always sounded trite and hopeful; the kind of thing you write on a graduation card. Now I’m beginning to believe that it may be true.

My children are teaching me every day. If I am willing to learn.

They teach me never to make assumptions.

They teach me that expectations are the enemy of joy.

They teach me that judgment sometimes masquerades as encouragement, and that unmasking my judgment helps me unveil my love.

Parenting exists in the space between the experience you thought you were supposed to have and the experience you're actually having.

I am slowly learning that the joy of parenting resides in that space. It does not lie in happy memories, hopes for the future, or fulfilled expectations. It exists only only in the moment, in acceptance of your children as they are in the present.


My daughter is teaching me. I am becoming the father she deserves. And I am trying not to wonder if she appreciates it.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fastpitch


“Run! Goddammit. She has to run in that situation. What the hell are these coaches teaching them?”

A woman shouted these words from the bleachers of the Benecia youth sports complex. It was 9:00 a.m. My daughter’s eight-and-under fastpitch softball team, the Tremors, was playing the Vallejo Hurricanes in the first game of “pool play.” It was already 92 degrees outside.

I’ve heard it said that being a parent brings out the best angels and worst devils of our nature. If this is true, then watching your child compete in a sporting event places those angels and devils under a neutron microscope. One moment you are blithely clapping for your child as she runs the bases in the wrong direction. The next moment you are angrily defending yourself to child protective services. 

There were 16 teams at the Benecia tournament, the first of the summer. The Tremors, like all the teams, played three games on Saturday to create the seeding for Sunday’s medal round. After a lackluster Saturday showing, our girls went on an improbable four-game winning streak to make the championship game in which they were thoroughly trounced by a group of eight-year-old girls who looked like they’d been created in a Soviet laboratory. There were tears. There was heat exhaustion. One girl threw up. Twice.

After a summer of 8-and-under girl’s softball tournaments, I have reached the conclusion that we need a special Amber Alert reserved for the unique brand of parenting on display at youth sporting events.

“For Chrissake, Mackenzie, you have to swing the bat. There are two friggen strikes! How do you stand there and watch strike three?” a father shouts through a chain link fence.

“(Holding back tears.)”

“Now drink some water and get out there.”

“I’m not thirsty.”

“It’s a hundred degrees out there. You gotta hydrate!”

“Can I have Gatorade?”

“No. It’s full of sugar. Now drink some water and get out there with your team.”

(Drinks water and starts walking to right field.)

“Left field, dammit! Left field!”

(Wandering dizzily in the direction of left field.)

“Hustle!”

I imagine the flashing freeway signs. Deranged man seen shouting at eight-year-old girl to get her butt down on grounders. Girl last seen wearing a sleeveless jersey and over-the-calf socks with bumblebees on them. Man wearing a Cutter & Buck golf shirt with Oracle logo. If seen, do not approach. He may be an asshole.

Did I mention this was the best summer of my daughter’s life?

By and large, girls who play competitive softball are not like other girls. My daughter is no exception. Though there is not a “type” and their personalities are far from uniform or universal, there are certain traits among softball girls that seem to come up again and again. They are largely uninterested in traditional little girl things. The eschew dolls and princess dresses. Wearing a ponytail constitutes “doing something with your hair.” They generally prefer eye black to make-up.  And they like to win. Which is not to say that these girls are tomboys; a thickly veiled descriptor from my childhood that now sounds as outmoded as “confirmed bachelor” or “crippled.” Softball girls giggle and skip. They talk about Disney channel shows and what color they wish their hair was. They do not pretend their bats are guns or swords. They worry about how their uniforms look. They also worry about how their clothes look. They like sports, but not to the exclusion of other interests, which include fashion, bad pop music, looking pretty, and, at higher levels, boys.

But the one thing all the Tremors seem to like is softball, which, to a randomly assembled and geographically diverse group of preteen girls, each of whom, presumably, feels ever so slightly out of place at her elementary school, is an absolute revelation.

These are the girls who play sports with the boys at school. Not because they want to be boys, but because they want to play sports. And Title IX notwithstanding, this choice seems only to guarantee that they will not be fully accepted into any social group. This is elementary school, after all. Eight-year-old girls can chase boys on the playground and still be considered “one of the girls.” But playing side-by-side with the boys has an alienating effect. By unwritten rule, they are never fully accepted as “one of the guys,” yet they their public declaration of interest in basketball, kickball, capture the flag, and soccer cleats places them subtly yet firmly outside the invisible circle of girlness. They are looked upon by their female classmates as “nice but kind of different.” Thus they are left in a nebulous state of non-belonging. They are not so much uncool as un-anything. Gender roles are defined early. And when an eight-year-old girl doesn’t accept the definitions, she is left to occupy the vast and lonely space between Cinderella and Optimus Prime.

Or, at least, that’s how it seems to me.

My daughter was one of the better players on the Tremors. Far from the best, but good enough to start and play every inning of every game at first base. She is a better hitter in practice than in games, but still managed to finish third on the team in RBIs. The fact that I know this may be an indicator that I am one more tournament away from my name appearing on a flashing freeway sign.

Irrational parenting aside, her transformation over the summer was remarkable. For the first time in her life, she felt as though she completely belonged. Her coaches were exceptional and consistently positive. She was praised by teammates and adults for doing something that she liked doing, which, as it turns out, has a much different impact than being praised for eating vegetables or reading a book. I sensed a relief in her, as if she could finally exhale.  After years of trying to be like something that other kids would include and respect, she was, for the first time, able to just be.

And so the Tremors again found themselves in the championship game of the final tournament of the summer. It was the fifth game of a blessedly mild weekend at a lovely field complex near downtown Sonoma. It had been a tight, back-and-forth affair, but the Tremors were trailing by a run heading into the bottom of the last inning. With only three outs remaining before defeat, my daughter was due up first.

I played baseball in high school and briefly in college. This summer, I learned that baseball and fastpitch softball have very little in common. Strategically and mechanically, the games are completely different. But one thing is absolutely true of both sports. If you are leading off the final inning of the final game and your team is losing by a run, you have only one job: get on base.

I recall my gruff, ex-marine, ex-cop, college coach barking at whichever player was in the on deck circle, “Find a way to get on.” Then a chorus of wintergreen Copenhagen scented voices would echo, “Take one for the team. We got ice!”

For the uninitiated, when you receive these instructions, you are expected to lean your shoulder into a 90-mile per hour fastball and deliberately get hit by the pitch.

I watched from the far left field line as my daughter took practice swings while the pitcher warmed up between innings. I knew how much it would mean to her to score the tying run and keep her team alive. Some of the pitchers at her level throw surprisingly hard, but none throws hard enough to do any lasting damage. I knew what she needed to do.

As the pitcher completed her final warm-ups, I got up and jogged toward the dugout. I reached the fence near the on deck circle where my daughter was timing the pitcher’s motion. She looked focused, yet surprisingly calm.  I called her name. She did not hear me. I called again, but she just walked toward the batters box filled with determination. I watched her with admiration. Suddenly, a thought flashed through my mind: What kind of a maniac tells his eight-year-old daughter to deliberately get hit by a pitch?

I called her name again.  Louder. This time she heard me. She looked at me from under her batting helmet. She was stone-faced.

“You got this, kid,” I said. “You can do it.”

A smile suggested itself, but she ignored it and took a final swing as the infielders threw the ball around.

I jogged back to my lawn chair down the left field line, proud of my better judgment, but ashamed that the thought had occurred to me. I sat under a shade tree, yelled her name, and clapped as loudly as I could. The pitcher went into her elaborate windup. The ball shot from her small hand toward home plate. My daughter turned her front shoulder and loaded her hands as the ball came closer to her. Her feet began to move. She leaned back desperately. But there was nothing she could do. The ball hit her straight in the head.

The large crowd emitted an audible shudder. The ball bounced off her helmet and she stood frozen at home plate. The kindly umpire said something to her and she trotted casually to first base where her coach put his arm around her and she nodded.

On the drive home, I asked her if it hurt.

“No,” she said, as if the question didn’t make sense.

She sat in the back seat, her second place medal around her neck.

“Dad?” she asked. “When are the tryouts for next season?”