You have to learn the lesson twice | Field notes from the Pacific coast

“Make an effort to present your work neatly”

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5 (Day 28!). It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.

When I got back to the car at the Oil City trailhead the parking lot was overflowing with hikers, dogs, anglers, people stretching. It’s not a “parking lot” as much as a muddy open area with a pit toilet. The toilet, its creaky door and horror show when you lift the lid that freaks my kids out. Normally I try to leave a can of beer in the car for when I end a hike, a trick I learned from Brad’s friend Eric—but it’s dangerous being so tired, having a beer before driving home. I’d made that mistake coming off St. Helens once and had to pull over at a campground to sleep a few hours in my car. And this time I’d make the same mistake, nodding off between Kalaloch and Aberdeen.

And the nature of faith I thought about, that climb out of camp with the Belgian girl, by the mouth of the river at Mosquito Creek: the nature of faith, its paper-thin wings. It reminded me of a dragonfly, those iridescent wings. It was belief in your partner they’d be faithful to you in return, belief in god, belief you could be an actor…all of it, just credence in the unknown that keeps you afloat.

Even the name Oil City was like that, someone’s vision to make it rich, to lure people to this corner of the world for the prospect of wealth. The name stuck but the vision didn’t. “No oil, no city.” Guys out fishing with their coolers and cans of beer, their bait.

I had that going on with my name, too. I changed it in hopes it would change me but that didn’t work. My birth-given name was Gibbard but I didn’t like having to repeat myself when people said it back. Then Ben Gibbard came along, the singer for Death Cab for Cutie, and brought some credibility to the name, I thought. I ran into him at a record store once and introduced myself, said we’ve got the same name, showed him my driver’s license—and he laughed, was nice, wasn’t a total star then (was, locally)—said he was from the midwest, unlikely we were related.

I changed my name to Pearse when my mom and John married, and John didn’t have kids of his own, always wanted a son—but that posed an obvious conflict for me and my dad, how to resolve? There was no overt problem between the two of us (arguably, until I changed my name). But I came to that decision over time, through discussions with my then-girlfriend Shana: we were reading the Richard Bach book Illusions, a kind of neo-spiritual book. Somehow I believed one of the stories held parallel meaning for me, substantiated a name change to assert my identity, to break away from my dad so I could be the person I thought I’d be, that I didn’t think he saw or supported. And we could have talked about it then but that was too hard, it was easier just to act.

John wanted a son but didn’t have kids, even though he’d been married twice before. There was his first wife in England: he had to annul the marriage after she went into a catatonic state, raped by a guitar student of hers when John was out of the country, in Europe. And then Mary Faith, John’s business partner: she was running the company they’d started together when John left Martin Guitars, a business in musical strings they called Breezy Ridge.

There was the desire for the three of us (my mom, John and I) to form this new family, and we did. But in that, it alienated my dad and hurt him, and I didn’t know the saying then but it’s appropriate: adding insult to injury. A saying, I think, that comes from fencing, to maim your opponent after their defeat, so they’d remember.

But I did it because I wanted to be a writer and the name Pearse sounded more legitimate than Gibbard, and I was willing to try anything. John was an artist and understood that, encouraged me to write: my dad was a science teacher and more pragmatic, he didn’t seem to understand, and we didn’t talk about it. And to some extent, the failure in their marriage I assigned to him, siding with my mom, though she precipitated it. He just didn’t try hard enough to keep her, she thought.

When I told my dad the news it was at our old house in Bethlehem, across the street from a baseball field, where my dad tried to get rid of all the coal he hauled on his daily jogs down by the railroad tracks, then discovered the coal didn’t burn and had to get rid of it by throwing a chunk here, a chunk there, into the outfield.

I said I was changing my name but keeping Gibbard in the middle, though I would be going by Pearse. And it was because mom was getting remarried John offered that. My dad didn’t know what to say, it was a quick discussion. And then I moved to Seattle with Shana and thought I wanted to reconnect with him, probably regretted it—and I bought an airline ticket but only for my dad, not his new wife—and on the phone dad asked, would I consider changing my name back? And for the first time I think, I heard my dad’s voice crack: he said, wasn’t I a good enough dad? Didn’t I practice soccer and throw the ball with you enough, growing up? Don’t you remember those times? But I refused, I couldn’t, wouldn’t change back. We hung up and didn’t talk again for a while and the next time we did, didn’t mention it.

I was cleaning out the garage finally, getting ready for our move to Germany. We had to sort things out, to make room for our friends who were moving in. There were all these boxes to go through from John, stuff we took in after they sold their house in Pennsylvania and put everything in storage. They were paying on the storage now for four, five years—and I offered to mom to ship it out to our place, we could hold it for her if she ever moved back, maybe use some of it, the art.

And there was the art John made as a student in the English public schools, the drawings, comments from his professors, the critiques, so harsh. There was a birthday card from John’s dad with a 10 pound bank note, the queen: and all that was written at the bottom was “Dad,” a scrawl. I thought I’d spend that bank note somewhere in the UK on a pint, for John. And a book on Pearse genealogy John gave me once, that got thrown in here with his things, left behind. It had all the detailed records going back to Shakespearean times mapping the Pearse name, they were related to a famous actor I think. Theoretically it was my history too, though it felt artificial. There was nothing like that for Gibbard—though I could create it myself, I was at the end of the line. Our kids carried the name in the middle, it wouldn’t extend any further.

And all the letters my stepmom wrote back in the ’90s, when she and my dad first got together, the same time my mom was getting with John. I read the letters again, but it’s like I read them for the first time, I didn’t remember any of it. I could see she was really trying to connect with me then, though I doubt I wrote back. Going through shit like that in the attic or garage, there’s a reason people leave that to their heirs, it sucks.

Those last couple weeks at Starbucks, it was my dad and Ivanna I called when I needed to talk. They didn’t know what to say, they told me that, but they were listening, they cared, I could tell. One of the last emails I sent from my Starbucks account was to my dad, a kind of sign-off, announcing we were moving to Europe the following year, and I was ready to make a go of it as a writer. He wrote back something like, “I believe you can,” and I said you have no idea how much that means.

And the VP who ousted me, looking back I wondered if there was a father figure thing going on with him too. Like, this need for acceptance from an older male. That when I left, and he extended his hand for a shake I forced a hug instead, I needed a proper goodbye. Now I was that older male, I was that dad for my kids. They’d be going through the same as I did at their age, receiving all I was to them, good and bad.


Categories: identity, Memoir, writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

19 replies

  1. I know what you mean about going through all those old letters and memorabilia. It’s a risky proposition.

    So much pressure we put on people, attached to the word “father” and “mother”, and to ourselves as well, to be a certain way, to prove something. Like the entire trajectory of this other human and their relationship to you depends on whether you did your job right. I have an advantage there, as a sociologist: knowing so many other factors that affect other people, that it’s not me, or not just me.


    • Nice to know, the sociologist bit. That makes sense, thanks for sharing that. I sometimes think I would be happy doing that, my interest in people and cultures, what drives them to be who they are…so much influence from the family, the father…and the work thing. Interesting. Thanks again for coming by yesterday Joy! Joyful! — Bill

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was a joy to do so! 🙂

        And yes, I think you’d enjoy studying the social sciences – sociology, psychology, anthropology, all wonderful in their own ways. They help give insight into writing, too.


  2. Awesome stuff here. Your dad’s reaction to the name change. What a story. And the stuff about going through old letters has been on my plate for a while now. Julian Barnes touches on this in his The Sense of an Ending. The protagonist forgot that he’d written something that gets thrown back at him fifty years later … Boom. Skip the movie, but read the book. It’s short.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the tip on the Barnes…I need to read yours first! Once I finish this. Some advice from Chuck Wendig I follow, not to read in the same genre you’re writing. I know I’ve read Julian but can’t remember what exactly, really exquisite writing but I think one of his stories bothered me such that I couldn’t finish it. Maybe confusing with Ian Mcewan, not sure. Now I’m wondering if I’m confusing the name with the actor. You know, I think along with my mom you’re the only one who’s read like most or all of these posts. So thanks. You should come visit next month, with my mom. And then you guys could talk about how great I am.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wowee. Change your name — change your fate… very thought provoking!


  4. Ah yes, The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. I went through a Richard Bach phase back in the day, what with your JLSeagull, and Illusions, and One and A Bridge Over Somethingorother. That bit about your dad and the name change is one I can definitely relate to. Reminds me of some things I went through with mine. I’m getting the sense you’re ahead of schedule with this project, with the July 5 date. I think it was originally later, or am I smoking something?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you can relate, that’s neat. Yes, you might be smoking something, I can’t say, but it was always July 5 as a target, though not really thought through or planned. So I’m lucky it looks like I’m going to hit that, possibly coming in a day or two early and a bit past the 50k goal. But man I’ll be happy to take a break. Has taken me a good 2 hours a day, some days more, and now 29 installments without missing a day. Working 40 hours/week now too! Nuts!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. wow, the power of a name.


  6. My throat got all lumpy when I read these four words, from your Dad, “I believe you can.” It’s one of those lines, I imagine, that really stick in your heart because it came from someone who never said much. Pearse works for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, yes. That’s it Angela Maree. Thank you, I guess that lump in your throat is what we might call a good lump. Cheers, my sister-friend! Bill


  7. Fabulous. Moving. Sons and Dads and Names.

    Fun and Learning. That’s what I remember from Illusions.

    That Tenner: Engraved by my partner’s Father. They visited the Bank of England Museum this week and saw his photo. Our Fathers died a week apart in 2001, one There, then one Here. Today They are There and I am Here. But they’ll return. Soon.


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