I’d love to turn you on | Field notes from the Pacific coast

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 (#32 post). 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.


It starts with the father, for the boy. But it does for the girl too, Dawn says: they wind up marrying a version of their dad. For better or for worse, familiarity trumps change, or getting to root cause, even with the prospect of pain.

My first memories as a kid deal with pain: pain makes an impression, you kind of come out of the womb experiencing it for the first time, fallen from the tree, the nest.

The summer of 1976, I was 5 going on 6 and almost didn’t make it past that year, had a T-shirt with an illustrated Henry Winkler as the Fonz from the show Happy Days, his smiling, greaser, everything’s-going-to-be-alright way, the collar on his leather jacket turned up, his thumbs…and mom said there were blood stains on that shirt from at least three accidents I’d gotten in, we laughed: the worst was putting my arms through a glass window, running: that was a scary drive to the hospital in our VW bug—I remember the way the wound was bubbling in my arm, wondered if I’d die: that got me a scar like a three-inch worm on my bicep, and another on the same arm that looks like a suicide attempt, an “X” on the wrist where the glass just missed the vein…there was getting hit in the head with a rock (kids actually threw rocks at one another in my neighborhood) and feeling my scalp, gone wet…and getting chicken pox, falling out of a tree onto a freshly pruned limb that gouged my stomach, made a wound that looked like a mouth, I thought. I kept that last one from my parents, hid the wound, for fear they wouldn’t let me out again.

All that when I was 5, and as a parent now I wonder why we pamper our two kids (or perhaps, an argument they should be pampered?). Was it me being a boy, allowed to roam the apartment complex alone with sticks, killing slugs, vandalizing hood ornaments on cars?

There was the awful memory being found out as a shoplifter, my younger accomplice Stevey, a pathetic boy with curly hair, eternal snot-crusted nostrils, who resembled the brand of bacon “Hatfield” from our area, the cartoon pig on the package, the slaughterhouse where they made it off Hamilton Boulevard, driving between Allentown and Bethlehem, the odd stench there, the things you remember.

Stevey was cute and innocent looking and to that end, I exploited him: I taught him how to steal from the local convenience store, where we amassed petty fireworks (snakes, caps), dirty magazines, chocolates, baseball cards, pretty much anything we could fit into Stevey’s oversized winter coat, which was vast.

And the moment Stevey’s mom called mine and I could deduce what was going on from mom’s side of the conversation. And Stevey, his mom and dad, would be stopping by for a discussion on all this…and those moments I stood by the washing machine in the living room of our apartment, waiting. Time took on a new quality then. I learned it could slow down and stop, expand.

And then the memories to follow from our first house after we left the apartments and moved to 12th street: the Dugan family, their clan of Irish-American cops and laborers, the big picnics and volleyball matches, learning to play street hockey, to fist-fight. The rites of passage that snake out from childhood to adolescence, that circle around sex, drugs, alcohol, trying on the masks of our adults, what we perceive we need to grow up.

We moved from that first house to our final one together in Bethlehem, English Tudor style, what I later learned is called Fachwerk (framework), the exposed beams—across the street from a baseball field and a park, the bus stop where I waited before I had friends who drove.

That’s when I met my favorite teacher Mr. Perrett, the one with the lazy eye and male pattern baldness, who wore a denim jacket and smoked, would walk from his house to the pharmacy where I worked and buy Winstons by the carton—and I’d give him shit and he’d give me a smile like fuck you, and it was in his class I learned to write, had someone dedicated to reading my writing for the first time, and he liked it.

And I went to Mr. Perrett’s house a couple times because he lived near ours—he lent me a tent for the senior prom so my girlfriend Marie and I could sleep in it together in our back yard—and there were a couple young men like me who went to his house I knew, a kind of privilege because he was a cool teacher—he lived alone with two dogs, had friends he’d go see in New York: and looking back now I have to think he was gay, and there was some level of unease about him for myriad reasons I imagine now, having a student come to the house—but that one time he told me how he and another English teacher (Judy Smullen) would laugh and read my journals (probably drinking), and how they both thought what a great writer I was, and how much that meant to me. How that never seems to change as we age—the need to be, by what others believe.

I tried to reach him before I moved to France, and sent him a letter but I don’t know he got it. It’s funny how we perpetuate who we are by being with those who see us that way. Or we “un-become” by being with those who don’t.

Mr. Perrett was friends with Mr. Midway, the sociology teacher, and Midway had us do a project where we wrote a letter to our future selves: we spent several weeks documenting our lives then, as 16-year-olds, who we wanted to become, and gave it to him with postage, so that five years later he’d mail the journals back to us.

I got mine finally, well into college, but couldn’t open it. Like something precious you’d put in a jar and save, those things often change form or go off when you open them.

When I finally did, there was my handwriting, that sad, old journal where the spine broke off but the glue still kept it together, yellow and sickly looking, and the title was from a Beatles song, A Day in the Life, by Bill Gibbard.

 

 

Posted in identity, Memoir, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

The ‘kill your idols’ concept | Field notes from the Pacific coast

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 (#31 post). 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.


In the morning the only sound was the surf clapping the shore, going out. I survived a restless night with a mouse trying to get into my bivy sack, was reminded of the Belgian girl in her tent next to mine, never got her name. I climbed the trail above Mosquito Creek camp, just a few primitive sites and a pit toilet, asked two guys which way to the loo and they said it’s hard to miss, there’s a fallen tree on it. Coming out I paused by a camp site where some other people pitched their tent, imagined Dawn and I used the same site 15 years ago, tried to picture us in it, but couldn’t.

And the morning light came through the tall trees at cool angles, I often made myself stop to look around, trying to slow down, but was worried about the rock scramble at the end, wanted to get there by low tide to see if I could make it easier by going below, along the sand.

And back at my car about a half an hour later than planned, another half an hour on the unpaved road, then the 101—a half an hour further still to the Kalaloch Lodge, where it was all socked in with fog, kind of cold. I debated stopping at the lodge or pressing on to Aberdeen to the Starbucks to book-end my time, to see if the same people were working there as before. I was already back home in my mind on a foldout lawn chair in the driveway, drying out my gear: the kids and Dawn would be extra glad to see me, having been gone for a few days now. A long holiday weekend with no plans.

They’d played a song by The Cure on the radio before I left, the thirtieth anniversary of the Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me release—one of two cassettes I had for the drive out west with my dad that summer, 1987—the first time I’d really come out west—and I’d fallen in love with the scenery, decided I had to move here one day.

Then we returned the following summer (my dad was a school teacher), just the two of us. And by late August, dad was driving me to college in Erie, PA: about as far away in the state as you can go, from Philadelphia. My dad was not emotional about things but was, saying goodbye, that time: and knowing what I know now, it’s likely the fact my mom was going to leave, he must have known—that she’d stayed with him as long as she did until I left for school because she didn’t want to disrupt the home-life. He lingered longer than normal saying goodbye, and I’m sure I didn’t thank him as much as I could for driving me so far. I was already moving on in my mind, excited at the thought of living alone for the first time, starting school. That idea the life you really want is somewhere else, you have to disavow anything/everything you had before. There must be some classic story of father-son betrayal that supports the son’s desire to self-realize—you identify by destroying what you most identify with, to assert your presence over it. And then the long, sloppy reconciliation that comes again, from identifying. From seeing your sorry-ass self in the mirror the same as your sorry-ass dad, realizing you’re no different. The backbone to the Star Wars franchise. Or a lesson for how we see others, acknowledging we’re all the same.

Even famous people were like that, consistently disappointing in their normalcy, their flaws. Carrie Fisher, Prince. Superstars with super problems. The rare times I met famous people they would slouch or shrink away from the imagined awe I put upon them. And I would have to reflect on my own self, as the camera turned around: tell me about you, what do you do? And then, I’d feel so small in comparison, when really I wasn’t. I was just a fan, believing I could be more than myself, like them.

I felt that way with Seth Godin, the writer and marketing guru who’s posted a blog every day for like 15 years now. I started following him and instantly wanted to connect with Seth, to say how much his posts resonated with me. But I imagined the interaction, if ever it came, and how I’d frame up who I was by what I did, and wasn’t proud of it. It was smaller than what it could be, I knew that. So I took Seth’s lesson to dedicate myself to writing and posting as often as I could, and his advice the work is really work, it takes time and practice, but it will come. Lower your expectations for monetizing it, and you’ll be happier. Go for a super small audience and please them. More is not better, it’s just more (can actually dilute you).

The famous thing is funny because I think a lot of people who are famous maybe imagine that for themselves. They have the nerve and audacity to believe they could be that person on stage. So few of us do, though many of us could, it’s just that we limit ourselves.

It was that strange crossroads of thinking that came to a head in the Kalaloch Lodge my last day out, when two couples got seated next to me and with my journal out, one asked are you a writer—and asked with such belief and hope, and interest—and I said without hesitation yes, but there was the follow-up, have you published, and then I had to back down some. There was still that need for outside authentication you couldn’t pretend away.

 

Posted in Memoir, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

The Tower card, reversed | Field notes from the Pacific coast

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 (#30 post). 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.


That last night Dick was at the house none of us knew it would be the last night. It was my birthday, the last day in November, and Dawn and I were supposed to have a date night, the first one in months, Charlotte about 10 weeks old. We took separate cars for some reason and Dawn got there first, said her dad was in the hallway in the dark just standing there. We were all worried he was coming down with dementia or Alzheimer’s, he’d been forgetful. Only 67, about to turn 68 in January I think. We had a party for him in the hospital after he had the surgery but couldn’t stay long, he really wasn’t up for the company, and the risk of young kids carrying germs was bad.

We’d just put Dawn’s cat Phyllis down, whose kidneys crapped out and the vet said we could manually drain her in the shower with a catheter every day, that was the only option. We didn’t take too long to decide, though it was hard still. Dawn was trying to breast feed and Lily was only two. The house in West Seattle was small: we’d recently put two and two together, deduced the reason for Lily’s late night freak-outs (her screaming and crying in bed, whipping off her diaper and pissing in the crib) was her trying to communicate we had rats. The rats were coming in from the basement through a hole behind the refrigerator and the closet in the nursery, drawn by the scent of breast milk on linens. The droppings were mixed in with the excess birth announcements from Lily in a shoebox, all the photos we made but didn’t send, it felt strange to discard.

And with traps laid in the basement of that old house it was a phantasmagoria of horror throwing open the door every day to check status. Now it was clear, the greasy smears along the walls were rats skittering around the edges—it’s how they scurried, in the dark: and the dead in the traps, lured by a dab of peanut butter, now headless, larger than you’d think: I put two and two together, it was the other rats eating the heads off the dead, all of it. Same as our cat Roxy, with the baby bunnies: just eats the heads off, all of it. The same phrase (“all of it”) I got from my VP at my last job, the day he said he wanted the process decomposition for the end-to-end phases defined down to a gnat’s ass level of detail to expose everything, all of it.

Dick was a big man in spirit and form. It would not be easy convincing him to go to the hospital to get checked out. Dawn said when she got to the house he was in the hallway between the rec room and main level just standing there in the dark, the hallway with all the photos of them as kids, the ’80s.

The phone rang and Dick answered. It sounded like Dick’s boss from the steel factory, Jim Bloch. I could tell by the somewhat formal (employee to boss) tone it was Jim—Dick just kept saying thanks, I’m fine. No really, I’m fine. (Starting to get frustrated now), I’m fine. Thanks for calling.

I took the phone and checked the caller ID, called back. I asked Dick’s boss what was going on, and he told me. Dick was acting strange, Jim was concerned. He’d come in on days he wasn’t supposed to (he was semi retired, part time) sometimes wearing business attire which wasn’t needed or appropriate in the shop. Like outfits Dick probably wore earlier in his career, with his briefcase. Would disappear for long periods of time over lunch. Jim wondered if Dick was lost, forgetting how to find his way back. He thought Dick should get checked out.

I asked Dick if he wanted a drink but he said no. He’d stopped drinking which was odd, having a Scotch now and then was one of our things. He just looked away, said he couldn’t anymore.

Dawn called her brother Rick, and asked Rick to come meet us at the hospital. I’d drive Dick there and Rick could talk to him; Dawn would stay home with the kids. We broke the news to Dick it was time to go to the ER. He should go upstairs and pack a bag, Dawn said. Beth (Dawn’s mom) was in Colorado visiting family, away for a long weekend. I left them alone for a time, listening, trying not to: Dawn’s voice was shaking, Dick wanting to please her, but not wanting to go.

We were out in the driveway in the dark by Dick’s pick-up truck when he yelled at me, a guttural growl from deep inside. He said get in, let’s go. I drove and Dick navigated, looking smug as he did. I didn’t know the way to the ER, didn’t get over this way often. We made small talk, but going to the ER there isn’t much to say.

And then we got there, a Friday night at the hospital waiting area, and waited. And Dick patronized me and his son Rick, sat with arms folded over his chest. And I felt sorry for myself and bitter, here on my birthday, a Friday night at the ER with my father-in-law and Dawn’s brother, Rick. And the woman at the desk who checked us in was horrid: she patronized the three of us for being there, said look around at all these other people who really need help and here you are you three fucking jokers wasting my time with all this. I was so angry I couldn’t speak. All that came up was fuck fuck fuck. When we finally got seen by someone proper they started the interview with Dick, to check him. They asked what year it was, the president: we joked, made light of it, waited. Dick rolled his eyes, but got the year wrong. And then he went the wrong direction when they asked again, he kept going too far back. And in a very strange way I felt vindicated by that awful woman at check-in who challenged us—I thought, so there…see?

There was a problem in Dick’s brain, a tumor, from the time he’d been sick before, gotten treated for a form of Leukemia. It was impinging on a part of his brain governing reason and memory. They wanted to operate Sunday. Dawn’s brother Chip flew in from Colorado, and we all met in the waiting room—and the surgeon came out afterwards to say it had gone alright, but it was a long recovery period to follow. We got a Christmas tree for his room and went to see him, and then they moved him in January to a transitional place with a name like Spiritwood or something. But he never made it home, though his kids were all with him the night he went. And so was the church pastor, the same one who married me and Dawn: and I thought I could see the value of faith for the first time, this guy who came to be with Dick all those times to sit by his bedside and talk, to give him comfort. That’s faith, love. But then Beth went to a small-group grieving thing from the church and they told her, don’t expect to see your loved one in heaven. It didn’t work like that. They were with you on earth but it was different in heaven. None of us understood, were angry. Beth was shaken by it, couldn’t understand. Belief she’d see Dick in the after-life was all she had to help her get through. But I guess it’s because for people who remarry, the logic gets muddled in the after-life. Like, how do the new partner and former partner reconcile things, in heaven (the three)? It was easier to just coach those in grief to accept they wouldn’t be there. That’s the flaw in relying on people to translate faith, some are just assholes. Or faith doesn’t map in a clean manner, has no logic, doesn’t need to.

They were operating on Dick that Sunday and I had nothing to do, couldn’t sit in the waiting room any longer, so I went to the office to get my laptop. I never went in on weekends, it was dark and quiet. It must have been before the layoffs because I still had a desk by the window, had more status. And nothing looked the same to me then, it’s like I saw things in a new light. The photos of my kids, my family: keepsakes I scattered around my small cube. Faced with the prospect of death everything looks much different. It’s not a bad way to look at things either, it’s not as much a prospect as it is reality.

 

 

 

 

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The day I turned purple (ghost theme) | Field notes from the Pacific coast

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 (this marks the end of “week 4!”). 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.


My last day at work I documented and posted on my blog. My friend Ross said it read the same as it would for someone who’d died. It wasn’t meant to be so dramatic, but why not? I’d been there since 1996 and now it was turning 2015. I still remembered my first day on the job—I’d been a store manager for Starbucks before I came to corporate, conditioned to tracking every minute of my time, working in the stores. It was going on 2 and I hadn’t eaten lunch, asked, does anyone mind if I did? And they looked at me like we don’t care when you eat lunch.

On my last day there was an after-work party at a venue down the road, the company Christmas party, for lack of a better name. And I was invited, which was nice, because the nature of my leaving was dubious, not altogether good. To say you were leaving but not for anything particular, for any real reason, was weird. People asked, what are you going to do? And I said I’m going camping, with my kids. Or alone.

I left work so I could get a good parking spot for the party, get there early. There was nothing else to do at work, there hadn’t been for a while. When they start to taking away the work, that’s a bad sign. It’s funny, but the work identifies you. You take away the work and with it, a person’s self-esteem. Maybe it shouldn’t be like that or it’s worse for us in America, but that’s how it is. If you’re going to identify with the work make sure it’s work you love or don’t identify with it, if you can.

I’d been there longer than anywhere else in my life, longer than any house I’d lived in or school I attended. I’d fallen in love with the hallways, the routine. Even climbing the emergency exit stairwell every morning, I got to know the nooks and crannies. There were parts in the cinderblock with damage still from the earthquake. I climbed those stairs in my dreams afterwards trying to get back, but my access badge didn’t work.

Most days for almost 20 years I walked Utah Avenue, a sorry-ass side-street that runs off the backside of the corporate office and peters out around Hooverville, a bar named after the neighborhood: a popular place for the homeless under President Hoover, still was. There was a guy who lived out of his car I got to know over the years. One time, he said he’d worked on our office building after the earthquake, replaced something like a million bricks. And I thought there was something poetic about that, this homeless guy working on the Starbucks corporate office. The unseen hands of the world, its laborers.

I went on walks trying to disassociate from work, to think creatively, to dream up story ideas. Other times, I rehearsed presentations. My friend and former colleague Doris gave me advice before I left, was trying to help: she got on the whiteboard and started with, what would you do if you could do anything at all? And I didn’t know, couldn’t say. She asked if I’d seen that Walter Mitty film with Ben Stiller—I should watch that, she said. They had it on the inflight entertainment going over to Germany, the visit we decided to move there. I thought in a sense the film was talking to me. It was time to pick up and go. Sure, I was a dreamer but I could make something out of my dreams. Then they’d be real, and so would I.

In that film there’s these corporate jerks Ben Stiller’s going up against, like they’re trying to belittle him. He lets them. And then there’s the scenes with Sean Penn, the big shot wildlife photographer. You get the feeling Sean Penn’s a kind of spirit guide to Ben Stiller, that real life is in nature, not the office. That Walter Mitty’s daydreams of his imagined life and travels are the passageway to happiness and fulfillment, I thought the same for me. But it never works that way exactly, you have to come back.

I pulled out of the Oil City parking lot, the 11-mile, unpaved road back to the 101: north to Forks, south to Aberdeen. You pass a homestead with a trailer, a sign saying Congested Area, then it opens up and you can see the Olympic mountains; I think one is Olympus, that flows into the ocean as the Hoh river. I was already calculating my arrival time home with Dawn and the girls—if the Kalaloch would be serving breakfast. I flipped back to the drive coming out, Thursday two days ago, picked up where I left off with the music. Seemed like I’d been gone forever, “a lifetime in three days.” You could go away like that and be the same but different, maybe the experience made it so.

To think, when I started at Starbucks as a secretary it was before we had Outlook. If you wanted to schedule a meeting you had to send an email or contact everyone individually, to write down their availability on a Post-it note, then send an email asking they jot down the time and location in their planners. Crazy. Now you can see if a person’s time shows as blue or purple they’re either busy or out of the office.

I went back to my workplace every eight weeks or so, to see my hair stylist Donnie. I didn’t realize Donnie gave such good cuts until we moved to Europe and I had to go elsewhere. I kept going back, even though it was a half hour drive and arguably strange, to go back to my office—which I only did on Saturdays, so I wouldn’t see anyone.

And it’s true, there was a ghost-like quality to going back. I did that at work and other places from my past: once, the spot on a dead end road where I’d parked with my first girlfriend, and then we split up but I kept returning to that spot, brooding. There’s nothing cool about ghosts, really. Most people don’t even see or believe in them. I wanted to be the kind of ghost that helps people rethink their lives, though: I could do that. They just keep skipping like a record, like a hiccup on the same pocket they can’t get beyond, ghosts. For me it was the need to re-experience or resolve something, and neither could I do for some reason.

 

Posted in identity, Memoir, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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.

 

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The Cascadian fault | Field notes from the Pacific coast

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 27!). 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.


The earthquake came the last day in February 2001, named “the Nisqually” after a delta on the southern end of Puget Sound near the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. Our office building was in the SODO neighborhood (“south of the dome”), named after a sports complex they imploded in the year 2000. People held implosion parties to watch the footage as it blew up (or “blew in”), but underestimated the amount of dust that would come shooting out, causing panic to early morning partygoers near the blast site, that Sunday.

It was the first time I heard you could mourn for your own death, which seemed strange to me. It wasn’t the earthquake that did that to me but the accident my friend Chris’s wife Wendy got into a few weeks prior, the combination of the two, to where it seemed like things were caving in, and we were so young, just 30.

Chris called me at work that Monday saying plans were off for Dungeons & Dragons, he’d just gotten word Wendy was in an accident and getting air-lifted out. He was hurried, asked could I look after their place for a while, didn’t know when he was coming back.

Wendy worked for the park service at Crater Lake in Oregon and was on an icy road driving in to work when an oncoming car lost control and hit hers, and the force of the impact caused her head to snap forward and break an artery in her neck, causing a stroke. She was in a coma with part of her skull removed, on ice.

When the earthquake came I was at my desk but soon got under it, the eighth floor of a building from the year 1919, the year my grandfather was born, shaking like a wonton on landfill put there by the Denny regrade project, to extend the shorefront of Seattle into the Duwamish, an industrialized estuary with abandoned railroad tracks criss-crossing the macadam, boxcars beneath cranes like Star Wars AT-AT Walkers, tiny men in pods operating them hundreds of feet off the ground.

It was my first major earthquake, where we had to evacuate the building. Because of the dust from the mortar and the rubbing of all the bricks, we couldn’t see down the emergency exit and there was a sense of panic, everyone congested, in shock. I led a party across the creative studio on the seventh floor to another exit sign, glowing mint-green: and when we got outside in the parking lot by the Sears and Home Depot my colleague Doris was standing there ashen, reduced to a 12-year-old, crying: and a guy in a vest ran over and yelled at us to get away from the building, get away now.

When I got back to our apartment in Wallingford there were messages on the machine but I couldn’t remember the access code to hear them. Nothing looked damaged, just a rubber tree frond on the floor, looked like a picture fell off the wall but the rubber tree broke its fall, still intact. The cats were burrowed into a crack in the bedroom closet, and after some time Dawn and I finally talked: she said a local news station had reported the SODO building collapsed, and assumed I did, with it.

But on that day Chris was ecstatic about the earthquake. Wendy had been in a coma for three weeks but the movement roused her—he thought it was a sign, possibly saved her life. She was coming around, was going to get through this, he said. And he said it loud and with conviction, to make it so.

I started seeing a therapist through a program at work they funded called the EAP (employee assistance program): the therapist, when I told her I couldn’t understand why I was so sad by all this, said it’s because you’re mourning for your own death, and I thought how strange, how selfish.

And by the time 9/11 came the company had emergency procedures in place, at least a function set up to formally respond to disasters like that (“Business Continuity”), and my friend and former boss Jim Morgan was heading that up, he seemed to have a taste for things like that. It takes a kind of personality to spend most of your time planning for things that could go wrong.

And then there was the threat of anthrax poisoning by mail, of avian flu, of running short on respirator masks if a pandemic broke—and I started having strange dreams about Osama bin Laden, his face a spider or vampire, and I’d wake feeling bitten, cold, a patch on my skin dead, spreading…

I dreamt the sensation of falling through time and space, reliving the earthquake. In my dreams I saw nothing, it was all dark, but I knew what was happening: it was the same motion from a child’s toy structure stacked too high, buckling on its side, the slow, inevitable conclusion, my death, at the end. It was the same sensation I had under my desk feeling the building shake, the sense it wouldn’t stop, the back and forth swinging and shifting, of glass breaking—thinking wow, I’m going to die at work, surrounded by work-things. How sad and foreign, it seemed.

The film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out that year and Travis and I went to see it; I imagined myself on screen like those characters leaping from roof to roof, swinging through the jungle on high tree tops, flying. I got deeper into my yoga practice and learned to stand on my head, to flip my legs over backwards like a scorpion. I thought I could be a superhero too if I trained long enough, believed I could.

And so it was, when Chris Cornell died and they said it was suicide it hit me hard for some reason—it was similar, unexpected, a trigger for something personal I identified with but couldn’t understand—thought I might if I could get out by myself for a few days on the coast, it was supposed to be nice finally, I could get away from work for a day.

We realized it was the same when we told people we were moving to Europe, they always imagined first if it was something they’d do—like they took our experience and turned it into a consideration for themselves first, in how they reacted. We relate to others by imagining ourselves doing the same.

Something about suicide, such a deliberate thing (some would call it “selfish”) triggered deep reflection for me. Like, how could you take this gift of life and destroy it so willingly? And to have such a good life on the surface, that seemed sadder. It’s not the surface where things happen of course, it’s beneath…like those plates shifting underground.

I thought myself selfish when the therapist told me that. To consider, I was more sad for myself than I was for Wendy and Chris. That I’d internalized her accident, put myself in her shoes. Growing up, my dad often accused me of that: he’d say you’re selfish (and was probably right) and over time I believed it, it was hard to separate the two (what’s true vs. what you’re made to believe)—and as I grew to be a man I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d learn to use that selfishness like a weapon. Like I’d been made to believe that, so…I would be that. It wasn’t his fault or mine, it just was. Or maybe it was our fault.

 

 

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Existential work theme | Field notes from the Pacific coast

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. 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.


By the time we got to 2009, both Dawn’s dad and my stepdad John had died, and Starbucks was announcing layoffs. You could map the decline in company sales and profit against rising gas prices or competition, the economic collapse: and now it was time to close under-performing stores and reduce headcount at corporate. We all knew the date of the layoffs, a Tuesday in early February. Not much work was getting done it seemed. To consider if you’d have the same job in a few weeks forced the existential question if the work mattered so much, or if you did.

On that morning the conference rooms were all booked for that purpose, for talking to people whose jobs were either changing or going away: sitting on a bench in the hallway you could see who was on the other side through the opaque glass, each conference room with a box of tissues stowed in the corner, for the moments people cry.

And some were shuffling past pushing house plants on Rubbermaid carts, gathering their things—the news of who’d been let go seeped out, what happened to other groups. With the way it worked, you got a meeting invitation the night before if there was going to be a change to your job—but it was the kind of invitation you didn’t want, and came with a cryptic subject line, but you could infer by who was on the invite what was going to happen. For me, I deduced I’d be changing from one small group to another but still retained. And that’s what happened.

At noon our director called a meeting and we stood in a semi-circle around our workspace: a few from our group were now gone, their desks empty. There were new people from other groups who’d joined ours and a sense of relief probably, but a startled feeling too: the reminder that anyone’s replaceable, that job security (like control) is an illusion that can be pulled down at any time like a theater prop. If you equated your life to work or confused the two, then you had to accept that, it was a prop. And you’re not directing!

I liked my new manager; he was supposed to lead a meeting with our team but didn’t have anything prepared. So I rode the elevator down to the main lobby and walked outside to catch the north or southbound bus, whichever came first, to go somewhere and clear my head.

Dawn and I had already planned to take a sabbatical and move to Germany that summer, to be with my mom for the first anniversary of John’s death, on Halloween. I’d been with Starbucks 10 years which made me “sabbatical-eligible,” but we could only afford four months off, without pay. We weren’t paying a mortgage then—we were lucky, we’d just sold our house before the economy collapsed that September, living with Dawn’s mom Beth still, waiting for things to improve, but it didn’t seem they would. A few months in Europe sounded great: Charlotte was still in diapers—we had no pets, no plants to speak of.

And so I decided to do all the things I’d never done before or didn’t have time to do, like a solo backpacking trip, another big mountain climb, maybe start a blog. I did all that by August, by the time we drove down to Italy for a week, and back through Innsbruck. I posted blog journals but didn’t tag them, didn’t get a visitor for three years, according to my stats. I let the blog go for a while and went back to work, changed groups, got a promotion to a higher level. And by 2012 I realized I was depressed (it may have just been the weather) but I had to start writing again to correct that, and we planned a trip back to Germany for Christmas, the time we drove to France to see Laurent.

We were at a playground with our kids, Laurent and I, on a bench watching them, a sunny, mild day, Christmastime in the French town of Metz, near the German border. It felt like France by the look of the buildings, they all had a worn-in look, needed pressure-washing.

I said to Laurent I wondered what it would be like to move here, to live in Europe for a while. It all felt different, and great. It wouldn’t be hard for us to do that with my mom living in Germany and us not owning a house: maybe Dawn or I could get a job, learn another language, raise our kids here.

But Laurent shook his head no, said I think it’s just the way you see things when you’re on vacation, everything seems better when you’re not working.

And I thought he was right about that but still wanted to see things that way, like I was on vacation, all the time. Life was too short to live just for the weekends.

In the years to follow, 2013-14, I wonder now if I led myself down a path where I’d have to leave my job: like they’d force me out somehow through my actions, so we could go back to Europe like we did that first sabbatical. We always said after the first trip we wanted to go back again, to take more time and do it differently when the kids were old enough they’d remember it—that it might inform who they are as much as it would us. And that we could have time together as a family, with my mom—and maybe it would make me the writer I imagined for myself by having more experience, it could change me.

But it isn’t geography that changes us, isn’t distance, isn’t time. Brad talked about Alan Watts and Buddhism, the idea that time is an illusion, a made-up framework to help us interpret change. I still don’t understand that, can’t. But I wanted to change, to become the artist I thought I could be: to undo this image I had of myself through work, to have the energy and wherewithal to do more, that felt more permanent to me than “work.” That on those last days at Starbucks before I left for good, walking through the commons each morning past the company timeline, the quilts hanging from the ceiling symbolizing the company’s values: I wanted to believe I was part of all that and would be remembered, but another part of me knew I wouldn’t. That my real life was elsewhere, or trapped inside of me—or perhaps I was getting in the way of it myself. To reconcile the fact that we are what we do, to do what we love, or risk not loving who we are as a result.

 

 

 

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