Saturday, June 23, 2012

Just Like a Rattlesnake

Even if you don't follow baseball, you might have heard of Tim Lincecum, the diminutive starting pitcher and ace of the San Francisco Giants. He's won two Cy Young Awards already in his young career and helped lead the Giants to their World Series title in 2010.

This season, inexplicably, Lincecum has fallen apart. He has the worst earned-run-average in baseball, a terrible won-loss record, and it seems like every game he hits an inning where everything explodes against him.

Last night started out as the most painful game of a perplexing season of painful games for Timmy. The first six batters all reached base against him, three had scored already, the bases were loaded, and it looked like the game would turn into a blowout.

But somehow Lincecum dug deep and struck out the next three batters. After that he never gave up another run and the Giants rallied in the 9th inning to win the game.

What was touching was after the first inning, while he sat in the dugout, Lincecum was approached by his fellow starter Ryan Vogelsong, who's about a decade older but who until last year had never been successful in any comparable way to Lincecum.

Last year Vogelsong became a consistent winner, finally, late in his career, and was selected as an All-Star. They are contrasts physically -- Vogelsong is a big guy. Last night he put his arm around Lincecum and talked with him, perhaps trying to boost his spirits and encourage him to perdure.

You rarely see that in baseball, everyone stays away from starting pitchers between innings. That is the norm.

This was different. Maybe it made the difference, who knows. In any event, maybe Lincecum's slump has finally ended.


I watched all of this through the eyes of a father of athletes, not as a player. Last weekend, as we drove to and from the National Cup, my 17-year-old center back talked with me a lot about his emotions on game days.

He said he gets nervous on behalf of his teammates -- "I don't want to let down my team, and I know if I make a mistake, I will."

That's because he is the last line of defense between the big, fast talented strikers streaking toward his net, except for the keeper at his back.

The cardinal rule is to stay between the net and the opponent. You also have to keep your eye on the ball, not oh him. There's a lot going on, including pushing and shoving and jockeying for position.

He has to either run backwards as fast as the other guys is running forward or turn and outrace him before turning again to face him from a crouch. It's an amazing set of moves to execute, and fascinating to watch.

When the striker finally makes his move, i.e., commits to try a shot with one foot or another from one angle or another, it's the moment for the defender to strike -- like a rattlesnake.

(This is why you stay focused on what is happening to the ball rather than getting potentially distracted by how the striker is moving his body, which involves a lot of faking and feigning moves.)


Whenever my kids are away, given what a big part of my life they are, I get the opportunity to reflect about things like this. It's the combination of the emotional connection with them, and being witness to their growth and work -- in school, in sports, in life -- that connects up my experience as a parent.

People say parenting involves a lot of work, and it does. But way out beyond the work is the connectedness and the witnessing.

And, when we dare, sharing the story.

I always worry about breaching my kids' privacy, but at the same time, I sometimes think families can remain too private. I'm aware that some who read these words are not parents, although everyone has at least had a parent of one sort or another.

Maybe the hope is that by sharing my experiences, some piece will resonate with that part of all of us who have been children.

The risk with being a deeply involved parent is that you won't know how to let them go when the time to separate arrives. You've become every bit as dependent on their love as they are on yours.

This can pose a real problem, especially as we age, and our alternative options for emotional connections start to narrow.

A friend recently called to ask if I was single (I am) and if so would I like to meet somebody. She proposed a dinner so I could meet a person who sounds like a lovely woman, a bit younger than I am, deeply engaged with young children as her profession.

I said sure but later I got cold feet.


Every range of emotion I write about as a parent could be extended to love between adults, and then a bit more. But those relationships, if they are to work for long, cannot be asymmetrical as the ones we have with our children.

Lovers do not literally need to be equals, but we need to complement each other in ways that enhance our strengths and reduce our weaknesses.

One of my grave social weaknesses is I hate to go to events alone. I've always been like this, I'm congenitally shy, and it is hard for me to endure the awkwardness of being alone in a room full of strangers, or of people who all seem to know each other better than they know me.

I usually flee at the first opportunity.

This is not a prescription for ever being able to meet someone new.

Then again, the freedom of not being in a relationship has some rewards that I've gradually grown to appreciate. Nobody feels neglected as I watch my beloved Giants on TV, or feels that I am not focusing enough on her when I attend my kids' games or school functions.

There are no power struggles, or arguments over where to go, what to do, who to see, and so on.

But I do miss the intimacy of having a partner, not just to go to events with, but to share life with.

My last real relationship allowed me to learn so much about another culture, and to watch my friend grow into a new American, learn the language and customs, learn how to drive a car, and explore new types of work.

I was able to share four years of my hopes and dilemmas with her.

But she left and never returned. All that was shared, from her perspective, has probably been forgotten by now, or buried and denied, because that is what allows people to jump from one relationship to another -- denial.

By contrast, I've chosen to not move on.

Why?I don't know the answer to that question. I don't know what is holding me back from moving on. I've moved on before. Maybe, as a professional acquaintance, herself a lovely woman, suggested gently to me recently, "You're just not ready yet."


As a man, somewhat traditional by nature, in other ways, radically unconventional, I always like to be able to provide for my partner, just as I provide for my children. Hell, I enjoy providing for my ex-partners!

No single accomplishment has given me more joy this year so far than defending my ex-wife from the IRS in her audit. We succeeded -- I succeeded! She could breathe more easily, and feel free to take the kids on a vacation.

Yesterday, for the first time in years, I glimpsed a new path to the future, one not growing narrower and weedier until it ends in Deadend Meadow, homeless, helpless, and poor, but one graced with comfort and yes, even wealth.

The fact that I planted the seeds for this better future years ago reminds me how much all of us, whether we realize it or not, remain farmers at heart. Almost none of us work as farmers in the U.S., but all of us are descended from farmers, in my case just a generation+ back. (My paternal grandfather.)

It may be only a vision at this point but it's a viable alternative to the rather grim future I've been contemplating in my down moments, alone and fearful.

What will I do with wealth when I have it? Let me count the ways. First, eliminate all of my children's debts, including their educational loans. Second, set them up with investment funds for their future needs.

I'll also pay off anyone I owe anything to, and give the nonprofits I love donations.

Then, I'll buy a condo near the ballpark, with a view of the Bay, sell my car, and buy season's tickets to the Giants games. I'll also get a press pass and begin writing several books in my old age.

One about baseball. It is a terrific metaphor.

One about parenting. My favorite topic.

One about love. My most toxic topic.

And, finally, the long-brewing memoir.

If you wonder what the memoir would read like, reread this post. This is my memoir speaking.

Striking at your own heart, teeth bared, just like a rattlesnake.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Keep On

The fog has rushed back in to blanket the tip of this peninsula, as it so famously does every summer. This can be a very quiet and lonely time here in many ways. Especially when my kids are out of town, this apartment grows still. I spend such a large part of my time, normally, with them here that their absence, even just for a week, opens a huge hole in my world.

But that's also a good chance for reflection, for some extended privacy, and for writing. This blog, for example, is getting some much-needed attention.


News: My first e-book is closer and closer to becoming a reality; I think it may be available for purchase within a few weeks. As I was sifting through some of the proposed chapters today, reviewing updated versions of blog posts I originally wrote over the past nineteen months, something occurred to me, and that was how drawn I am to entrepreneurs simply because they so often convey a deep sense of hope about their futures.

You need to cultivate lots of qualities within yourself to be an entrepreneur -- persistence, open-mindedness, and the ability to discern good advice from bad -- but you also have to be optimistic.

Of course, almost everyone is at times persistent and at times less so; at times flexible and at others, not so much; and in one state hopeful while at another quite hopeless. So it is not so much trying to carve out a new "you" from the constant mix of emotions that literally define us as living creatures, but how to encourage the ones that might better help sustain you through the startup experience.

Having met and interviewed hundreds of these folks recently, I've started to recognize these patterns, and others.


It is horribly quiet here, however. I never have confused the online experience of connecting with friends on Facebook, for example, with the real world experience of sitting down with a friend and talking over coffee or tea.

The latter is vastly preferable, so much so that I sometimes wonder whether we might all be better off by turning off our Facebook connections to force ourselves out in to the real world more often.

I don't know what is best. But every day I try to make sure I have at least two real interactions -- in person or by phone with at least two real people. I also text with my closest friends and family members daily and exchange emails in something approaching real-time with a few others.

All of this represents staying connected to me. Because in my view the most dangerous thing in the world is to find yourself disconnected from those you love and care about.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Survival Stories

You wait, you watch, you listen.

You know that in the eyes of the world, you're impossibly compromised in your opinion. You are hopelessly biased.

Everyone knows you hear what you want to hear, and see what you want to see in this kind of situation. The flip side of that is it must be assumed that you do not hear and do not see what would be unwelcome information, such as the type that might break your heart.

This is personal, after all.

But, if you are trained and experienced as a journalist, you do not have the freedom to close your ears and eyes. So you are acutely sensitive to any information that might undermine your hypothesis. Like scientists, we always are testing our theories. Unlike scientists, we are expected to come to conclusions -- a naive and unfortunate social assumption.

But at some point in this process, you have to trust what you see and hear, after vetting it all by being your own worst devil's advocate.

You have to form an opinion. And you must come to a judgement. So what may be 'naive and unfortunate' collectively turns out to be absolutely necessary personally.

After all, you have to tell the story.

When I leave this world, my hope is that I will be remembered in several ways -- as a good friend, partner, father and grandfather, brother, mentor and colleague. I also hope I am remembered as a storyteller and I hope at least a few of my stories survive and thrive out there in the future beyond my time.

It's a modest goal, I believe, for one who has written millions and millions of words, but who may never achieve any real success in conventional terms.

I don't write for money, I write for love.


This essay was mostly written on Father's Day, late at night in a hotel room in Turlock, where it was hot outside, and my soccer-playing son was sleeping inside after playing in a National Cup game.

His team has been improving all year and is now ranked #14 in the enormous state of California.

In one way, I was writing the above about being his father, but I could have written the same words about my relationship with any other of my kids.

I feel the same pride in all of them, and if prompted, would write reams of praises for their accomplishments, and even more, their natures.

It's just easier to write about soccer, that's all. It's quantifiable, immediate, and palpable.

In the end, everything for me is just a story. There are happy stories and sad ones. Fantasies and true stories.

I'm the Paternal family member and also the storyteller. But I have at least a dozen or more other story tellers who will survive me. Children, grandchildren, former partners, and so on...

I hope they all find their ways to some form of story telling -- text, audio, visual, whatever -- and share it with the world, or whatever portion of the world they reach.

If we all share enough of our truths, maybe we will survive as a species, even as climate change and other dire threats engulf this planet.

I hope so!


Six Decades Difference Isn't All That Much

My 3-year-old gardening partner sees the world with such fresh eyes. Yesterday he spotted a butterfly as it landed in the yard and asked me to take a photo of it.

I explained to him we might not be able to see it in the photo, due to its camouflage. Did he know what that meant? Yes: "It's the same color as the ground, Grampy."

There wasn't much I could do to improve the view but at least if you look at this long enough and don't blink, you might find the little creature.

As the day went on, I was preparing to leave when my grandson did what is age-appropriate and started acting up and breaking down.

His little sister was having a bad time, too, partly because he hit her a few times, but also because she has a cold.

He clearly was upset that I was leaving, among other things, so I hung around a bit and tried to cheer him up.

We helped his Mom get some food out for dinner -- Portabellas and Talapia and a funny kind of pasta in the shape of small balls. He stopped crying as he looked at the food.

"I love mushrooms, I love fish!" he said in his sweet soprano voice.

"I have an idea, Grand-père," he said, suddenly brightening. "Why don't you stay for dinner? You and I can cook together!"

"Well..." I hesitated. But there really is only one right answer to that kind of suggestion, even though I had been planning to leave before dinner and head home to the City.

He brightened as we got out the olive oil, cumin, pepper, salt, butter, garlic, breadcrumbs, eggs, soy sauce and other ingredients we would need to saute the fish and mushrooms.

He stood on a chair to be high enough to reach the stove top and pour, shake, flip and check the food as it cooked.

He's an especially skilled taster, as long as I make sure the sample is not too hot.

"Blow on it, Grandpa," he says, and he counts to 12. (I don't know why 12.)

The dinner turned out to be quite delicious, despite some serious concentrations of garlic here and there. Thank goodness he is half-French!

After dinner, his Papa arrived, he took a bath, and I took my exit.


Monday, June 18, 2012

The Power of Hugs

An emotional weekend. Out in Turlock, with Aidan, his team scored in the last seconds to secure a tie in yesterday's game and then won today, 7-0. They ended up with the best stats of any team in their division (most goals, least goals allowed, best goal differential), but due to the ref's blown call in game one, they finished second. No chance to play for the championship tomorrow, or to advance to Chicago for a national title, but a great effort anyway.

And a great trip for the two of us.

Today, I drove him the three hours from hot, hot Turlock to comfortably hot Camp Mather, which is San Francisco's family camp in the Sierras, nestled right next to Yosemite. You can't help but sense California history as you drive up there, past the places where gold was first found, and through valleys where John Muir created what today we call environmental consciousness.

We stopped at a tiny diner in a tiny town for a brunch.

At the camp, he reunited with his Mom, little brother and sister. I hung around for a couple hours. Back when we were a nuclear family, we went up there together, every summer.

Since then, they've kept going while I've stayed back here. Today was my first time back in eight years.

It looks the same. Several old friends were up there, and I got to talk with them. Best of all, when my youngest spotted me from across the beach, she ran over and gave me life's greatest gift, a big hug.

Her tall, skinny, 16-year-old brother soon emerged from a swim in the lake and gave me a gentle hug as well.

When it came time to leave, my soccer star gave me a hug and said something so simple ("Thanks for driving me all that way, Dad, and for being with me at the games") that it shouldn't have, but it broke me up.

Luckily, given my sunglasses, nobody saw my tears.

I'm not sure exactly where all the emotion came from, but I know I was remembering an earlier time, when we could go there as an intact family and spend all week together, forgetting things like email, bills, audits, illness, financial fears, and the loneliness of age.

Driving back to the city alone, I perked up. Mainly because the Giants were on the radio, and eventually these seven hours of driving along California's freeways would be over, and I'd be sitting here back home.

We lose a lot of things during our lives, and a lot of people. We lose more than we gain, it seems sometimes. But when those who love us give us hugs, all the good comes rushing back in, and the chills can be transformed back into warmth.

Wrapped in those hugs, tonight I am just fine.