Saying “No” to What I Want to Write About - and My Son Wants to be Mexican.
In the late 1990s, I was bitten by the marathoning bug. I was trying to stay sober, which in my case meant both putting down the bottle and staying out of my students’ beds. I had mixed success at first, but Twelve Step meetings helped, as did a sudden obsession with running.
I ran the L.A. Marathon first, and then a faster, flatter course up in Silicon Valley. In May 1999, I ran the Pittsburgh Marathon.(I had the discretionary income – oh tenure, oh sweet halcyon days of the Second Clinton Administration – to travel quite a bit and do “destination races.”) For the Pittsburgh race, I hired a running coach off the still-novel Internet, and came up with a game-plan: I wanted to run a 3:05 marathon. My goal was eventually to run Boston, which required a 3:10 qualifying time for men my age. Coach Art was convinced I could do it.
It ended up being unseasonably warm in western Pennsylvania the morning of that race. I tried hard to hold my pace of 7 minutes and 5 seconds per mile, and was on it until mile 18. I ended up hitting the proverbial wall, and crossing the line in 3:13:50. Years later, I can be proud of that time, but on that spring day in the last year of the last century, I was bitterly disappointed.
Coach Art had given me a tool to use. When the pain got to be overwhelming, and thoughts of slowing or quitting came into my head, I was to clap my hands together and say firmly to myself, “No. Not now.” You can’t entertain negative thoughts in a race, coach said, you have to silence them the moment they emerge. I tried it, and it worked – especially in the last eight miles, as my dream of qualifying for Boston slipped away and the temptation to just walk off the course in disconsolation grew. Over and over again, I told myself No. Not Now.
It’s a good technique to use in endurance running and other stressful situations. Lately, I’ve deployed Art’s advice in another arena.
On Monday, the Insider ran a very, very long reported story about Eric Burgess, a teacher at a high school not far from Pasadena City College. I knew of Burgess, and had quite a few of his former students as my own. The 7,000 word piece is entitled How a Beloved Teacher Repeatedly Groomed Girls for Sex, and it includes not only the texts Burgess sent to a few students, but also the audio recordings of the voicemails he left for them.
It’s a devastating piece, shaded by the efforts of the male reporter, himself one of Burgess’ former students, to go to great pains to ensure that the reader understands he now despises his one-time mentor.
Do I want to write a thousand words on how this story brings everything back up from me? That I want to explain both how I am very much like Eric Burgess, and how I am also very different? That I think the verb “groom” has become hopelessly politicized, misused and abused by both left and right?
I have so much to say. And every last person who cares about me doesn’t think it’s a good idea for me to say it. My poor battered brain, with its strange bumps and terrifying empty places, wants to fixate on the same old story that will not change no matter how many times I revisit it. My explanations will not diminish the love of those who love me, and they will not soften the hearts of those who despise me. It will not bring me peace.
So, this morning, I said, “No, not now” to myself when I awoke. I’m saying it over and over again, and you might be forgiven for thinking that even writing about wanting to write about Eric Burgess and myself is in fact less than ideal, but believe you me, this is what progress looks like.
The story of what cost me my old life will not be told today. Maybe no one needs to hear it, ever, but “ever” is terrifying, so I’m going with “not now.”
On an unrelated note, in my previous letter, I included a photo of my son after his birthday dinner. Sharp-eyed readers saw that David had a cross around his neck.
My son got a cross for his birthday last year. The bunny boy is in fourth grade at a public magnet school in the heart of the city; the student body is quite diverse, but fully half of his classmates are Latino. David’s closest friends are all boys of Mexican descent, and he has embraced their style. He wears his hair shaved on all sides but long on top, gelled down. In this world, the height of youthful elegance is a pressed short-sleeve shirt, buttoned at the throat, with a chain worn outside the garment. This is not quite the way I was raised to dress, but David is becoming his own man.
His favorite song on his playlist right now is this catchiness:
We are not Roman Catholic. I thought I was for nine months or so, and managed to get baptized and confirmed in that time, because even temporary enthusiasms deserve one’s full attention, but I haven’t been a son of Holy Mother Church in more than 30 years. Both my ex-wife and Victoria were baptized Catholic as well, but neither walks in that faith today.
David’s name was given him by a rabbi, not by his parents; when he was a bonnie babe of eight days, a mohel sliced off his foreskin and sucked off the blood while my son lay in the lap of the most notorious Kabbalist of the past century. (As I said, if you’re gonna dabble in a faith, you might as well go whole hog, at least for a hot minute.) He wore tzitzis and a kippah to his Hebrew kindergarten, and tried very hard not to play with his remote-control cars on Shabbat. He was eight before he ate a real cheeseburger.
Now, David wears a cross. He makes the sign of it too, in the Mexican style with the kiss of the thumb upon completion, imitating both his friends and the soccer players he sees. (His favorite player is Chicharito, the charismatic Mexican star, now with our own LA Galaxy.) At his insistence, we’ve taken him to mass a few times now that such things are in person; my son especially enjoyed a visit to the modernist cavern that is the cathedral in downtown Los Angeles.
Javier Hernandez (Chicharito)
He says he believes in Jesus, and so we share stories of the lad from Nazareth. David wanted to know what to say, so I taught him the Lord’s Prayer. On our next visit to the cathedral, I’ve promised to let him pick his own reasonably-priced rosary to hang on his wall, perhaps next to the posters of Chicharito and the Rams’ Cooper Kupp. I’ll teach him the Hail Mary in English, and my ex will let him learn the Spanish version, and I’ll play Schubert’s Ave Maria, and Los Lobos’ Tears of God in the car, and we’ll see where all those sounds take him.
His sister had a bat-mitzvah at 12, but as of now, David says he doesn’t want a bar-mitzvah when he turns 13. That door will remain open as long as he likes.
Our kind of relaxed enthusiasm for every passion our children embrace strikes some as dismissive; others think it appropriative or offensive. In a world where boys not much older than David grow up to believe that some people deserve to die because of the color of their skin or their DNA, I think our genial, loving, good-humored relativism has a very great deal to commend it.
For now, my son wants to journey towards Rome, or at least towards Guadalupe, and we will not gainsay it. There are many paths to the mountaintop, and at some point, your children run on ahead, and find their own trails to the summit. The view in the end is always the same.