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A Story We Tell Ourselves

“I’m sorry I left you up on that ridge, Mike. I’ve always regretted losing your friendship.”

Several years ago, I opened up Facebook to find a friend request and a message from a guy I’d known since fourth grade, but whom I hadn’t seen in years. He apologized profusely and sincerely, clearly having carried guilt over abandoning me, and wanting to make amends. The only thing was, I didn’t know what he was talking about.

A short conversation jogged my memory. On a school camping trip, back when we were sophomores in high school, we had climbed—off-trail—to the top of a ridgeline above our campsite. We’d gone the long way around on the ascent, coming up the shallower slope on the back side, but now the sun was setting and we needed to get back before the evening campfire. We started down the steep face together, but I froze halfway down, overcome with vertigo. He shouted for me to hurry up and went on without me, assuming I’d make it on my own. But I didn’t; three or four other campers ended up guiding me down, inch by inch. I was shaken, and angry with my friend for leaving me, but I got over it.

Over the next few years we remained friends, but as so often happens we drifted apart. He joined the football team; I joined the drama club. We both made other friends. There was never any particular rancor between us, other relationships just became more important. Senior year, we were on the yearbook staff together, and I remember having a few laughs. We lost touch after graduation, but I always remembered him fondly.

This was how I remembered it. But as I discovered when he messaged me, his version of the story was very different. I had been angry and hurt that he abandoned me, and I never forgave him for doing so. Our friendship ended that night, because of his actions, and the regret over the incident changed his life. From then on, he made it a point never to let anyone down, especially if they needed his help.

So, for him, that night on the ridge was a foundational experience. For me it wasn’t even remarkable enough for me to remember it without being reminded. That disparity has been on my mind a lot lately due to an interesting coincidence. Earlier this month, I received an invitation to a Facebook group for alums of the Monterey Gaming System BBS. As it happened, that was the same week that I finally started listening to Serial.

It’s a little strange to think about these days when social networking sites are so central to most people’s daily lives, but back in the pre-Internet days the closest thing was the local bulletin-board system, or BBS. Monterey Gaming System (or, as it was known to its regulars, “MGS”) was the largest of the local BBSes back in the area where I grew up. Boasting dozens of dial-up lines and an active user base in the hundreds, the MGS chat rooms were the place to be for the computer nerd of the early 90’s Monterey Peninsula.

I was introduced to MGS around 1990 or ’91 by the friend from the story above, and for about three years it was my main social outlet. Most of my good memories from the first two years of high school—which were generally terrible for me—come from the time I spent in those chat rooms or hanging out at the local bowling alley during one of the “get-togethers.” My first steps toward understanding myself as an individual came during experiences I had with that group. I even met my first girlfriend there. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I stopped going, though by the time I left for college it was mostly a thing of the past.

The thing that has been the most striking to me about reconnecting with the group after twenty years is how poor my own memory of that time is. In the past two weeks, dozens of threads have popped up in the Facebook, people sharing stories about the old days. And it’s been shocking to me how few have sounded even a little bit familiar to me. With just a few exceptions, I can’t even remember people’s names. Somehow, despite this being a formative period in my life that I think about regularly, the people and places have mostly slipped my mind. The question that I keep coming back to is: why don’t I remember this better?

And this brings me to Serial, the wildly popular spin-off podcast of This American Life. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Serial debuted last year with a twelve-episode arc examining the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old high school student from Baltimore. There’s a lot covered in those twelve episodes, and the series is well worth a listen if you haven’t already done so, but what intrigued me the most was the way in which the people involved in the case remember the people and events so differently. The series is largely an attempt to understand whether the man who was convicted of the murder—Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed—was guilty or innocent, but depending on which present-day interview you give the most weight, Syed is either a golden boy or a manipulative liar. And the same discrepancies pop up in people’s descriptions of nearly every facet of the case. In some ways, this isn’t so surprising given that the interviews happened some fifteen years after Lee’s murder, but the huge variations in how people remember Syed, Lee, and what happened that day is striking. What’s more, even the contemporary accounts vary wildly, and not all of it can be explained by the possibility that some people are lying.

Being the sort of introspective person I am, I have a definite picture of who I am now, and who I was at many points in my past. This sense of myself, of awareness and understanding—in many ways this is fundamental to my experience of life. I know that my identity and my ways of being have changed over the years, but even that process is something that I have thought of as comprehensible. Or at least known. More and more, though, I’m coming to the realization that that understanding is flawed.

And that stands even though my conception of my past has changed over time. Leaving high school, I saw myself at 14 as a victim, pushed around and bullied by people stronger and cooler than I was. Ten years later, I looked back with what I thought was clarity and saw the self-absorption, the arrogance and cruelty I displayed at that age, and I admitted that what I endured was at least partially my own fault. Another ten years have gone by, and neither story seems to stick on its own.

Who was I when I knew the people I’ve been reconnecting with? I can tell you about the length of my hair (long), the music I listened to (mostly metal), and the awful poetry I wrote (self-indulgent, but not atypically so for someone going through puberty). I can chuckle about how seriously I took myself, how simple my views of the world were. But is that right? Was I so silly then? Am I so much more advanced now?

What does it mean for my friend if a lifelong regret—one that influenced all of his subsequent relationships—is based on something that didn’t happen? What does it mean for my understanding of myself if it did? Is identity nothing more than a story we tell ourselves in the present? And can we ever really know what our own story really was?

Memory is such a tricky thing. It’s so susceptible to being influenced by our present state of mind, and not just in color but in the details, which can disappear or even change as the story we want or need changes. In Serial, Koenig often butts up against the fact that the narrative she gets changes based on who’s telling it, or that people have no memory of the day at all. It’s a frequent refrain that we don’t pay attention to what happens on a normal day; it just doesn’t stick. But it’s hard to know at the time which days end up being normal and which become important, and how, and to whom. And if life is mostly a sequence of normal days, what are the implications for our conception of that life if we can’t remember those days?

As I’m writing this post, my son and older daughter are in the other room playing. I don’t know exactly what they’re doing, what’s causing the laughter and shrieks. I can’t help but wonder what they will take away from this time, what they will remember in twenty years and what they will forget, and how that will differ from what I remember and forget. Time will tell, I suppose.

Waterfall Trail

I have a vague memory of coming to Garland Park with my aunt and my brother, and a man who might have been my aunt's boyfriend, but who could just as well have been a friend. He was tall and lean, dark of hair and skin, with long arms and legs, and a Spanish-sounding name like Luis or Carlos or something. The trail from the parking lot to the waterfall is a bit over a mile with a small incline—no problem for me now, of course, and I've done it dozens of times by this point, but for a bookish and whiny five-or-six-year-old, it was a bit much. At one point either I or my brother—I can't remember which—got tired and demanded to be carried.

The hill isn't too bad even for a desk jockey like my modern-day self, but as I remember it, Carlos-or-Luis-or-whatever perspired like I'd never seen a person do before. (I'm sure that having an extra thirty or forty pounds on his back contributed to his exertion.) He wiped his brow with one palm and flung a handful of sweat along the side of the trail. I can't remember his name or his face, but I still remember the gooey glisten of the droplets as they landed on the dirt.

Chalk Rock

I can't remember now if it was before or after the end of high school. Juliette and I went to the swimming hole at the end of my street with two friends. At first I just sat on the edge of the chalk shelf and let my feet dangle in the water, while the others went straight in. The water was always chilly there, and the trees and the hillside never let any sunlight down to warm us. The other boy—also named Mike—started talking about shrinkage. He was one of those rare few back then, back before "geek chic" was a thing, who could enthusiastically love obscure movies and made his own stop-motion videos and always had a pop culture reference at his lips, and yet he was still cool, authentically cool. Much cooler than I was.

"Shrinkage factor 15!" he exclaimed.

"You have a scale?" I asked. "Like, a measurement? What does 15 mean?"

"Dude, I just made it up right now because it was funny."

"Oh." Right. Duh.

Juliette's friend, a girl who lived around the corner from me, glided through the water scooping up clumps of algae in her hands and flicking it at us playfully. "Gross!" one of us shouted.

"It's just pond yuck," she said matter-of-factly. "It's fun to squish it."

I don't remember when I actually got in, but at some point I must have decided that hanging off to the side looked worse than taking my shirt off in front of two beautiful girls and a guy from the swim team. I imagine that other kids were just as insecure back then as I was, but I didn't know it then. Though, I guess they didn't know it about me, either.

Cold water, shrinkage, pond yuck, insecurity. That's what I remember. It was thirteen years before I came back to the swimming hole, but by then the river had moved and the rock was naked under the sky. Somewhere else along the river, kids are still flirting and playing and feeling weird, but not right there anymore.

Dancing Maidens

I don't know if I ever feel more Japanese—and simultaneously less Japanese—than I do when I'm at my grandmother's house. More because almost everything I learned about being Japanese I learned from her, in her house. Less because it reminds me how little of my heritage I have in my own daily life.

I took this picture when we were visiting her for Christmas Eve. She didn't have this picture on her wall when I was a kid; I don't remember exactly when she got it. When we were young, my brother and cousins and I would take over her bedroom TV for our video game systems—at first an Atari, then a Nintendo, and so on—and the four of us would hole up in there until just before dinner while the adults did adult things out in the living room. Sometimes we'd watch movies: I remember once my dad's younger cousin came in while we were watching a VHS copy of The Neverending Story, only staying for the opening credits because he liked the song.

It seems smaller now, that room, and a lot quieter. But it makes me glad that my kids have gotten to see it and make some of their own memories there.

The Octopus Tree

My friends and I used to play in this tree. We'd climb up and lie on the bent over trunks, or sit under it and throw leaves at each other. I wanted to lie under it and take a picture looking up into the branches, but the path had completely grown over with brambles and poison oak, and I couldn't get through. I was happy to see that the tree was still there, but sad to think that no other kids have been lying under it on a lazy summer afternoon, dreaming new dreams. But, who knows? Maybe some day some kid will find a new way into the little clearing, and the story can start over again.

Robles del Rio

I found out over the summer that the Robles del Rio Lodge had burned down. In fact, it happened three years ago, and I had no idea until I went out of the way to visit the neighborhood. I'd never been inside before, and it seemed odd that I wouldn't get the chance now.

Would the news have hit me differently if I'd lived there when it happened? I wonder.

Swimming Hole

Over the summer we went back home and visited Juliette's parents. I took the opportunity to go back to my old town and work on my "It Forgets You" series some more. I used to come to this swimming hole a lot when I was young--it's right down the street from where one of my friends lived. I hadn't been back in years. I stopped hanging out with that friend, and then I moved away. The fence around the outside has a bunch of signs I don't remember and there's a new bench. The river is the same, though--here, at least. After all the floods and dredging and new channels, this might be the only part of the river I still recognize.

Pete

When I was six years old--some time in late 1985 or early 1986--my mother, brother, and I moved into a small cabin in Bixby Canyon in Big Sur, where her boyfriend, Pete, lived. We only stayed there for a year--half of first grade and half of second grade, as I always described it--but in that way that childhood stretches time in our memories, that period always looms large when I think over my life.

It's a strange to think that I was only a little bit older than Jason is now when we moved down there--I have such clear memories of the place and of the things I did there, and, of course, of Pete. I remember tearing up slices of American cheese, rolling it into little balls, and tossing them into the creek for the rainbow trout that lived under little foot bridge that went from the driveway to the front yard. Pete showed us how to do that. I also remember dropping a big rock off that bridge to try to squish a crawdad I saw, and how angry Pete got with me for scaring the fish away.

How I remember him now--and how I've remembered him at times past--is complicated, but it always seems to come back to those two things: teaching me things, and being angry with me.

The latter is what I mostly remembered about him when I was a teenager, after he and my mom finally split for good, after she married my stepdad, even into my college years. He's the only person who ever spanked me; he kept a piece of plywood hanging on a nail on the wall, and I remember the fear I'd feel when he'd reach for it. When he drank--which was often--he could become brooding and irritable. At the time I remember thinking he was unfair or mean, and even now it's astonishing to me how trivial some of the things that would set him off could be. He once spanked me for accidentally getting my socks wet in the creek. And I knew he was going to as soon as it happened--I remember putting my belt back on, thinking he wouldn't be able to get my pants down to spank me if I was wearing a belt, which, of course, didn't work.

And he was so unpredictable, too. Sometimes he was all equanimity, sometimes he had a short fuse. I remember on two occasions after watering the yard, I remarked that the plants were still green. The first time he looked at me thoughtfully and said, "Those, I think, are gazanias, and they're pretty hardy plants. They don't need much care, really." The second time he muttered bitterly, "At least for once you didn't kill those damn plants."

Often I reacted to his disapproval and anger with defiance, something that's always been a pattern for me. But, too, I remember wanting so much for him to love me, in ways that I didn't truly understand at the time. Once, his daughter came to visit him--the only time I can remember meeting her in all the years my mom was with him--and I remember being struck by how he treated her.

"Why is he so nice to her?" I asked my mom.

"Well, she's his daughter," she said. "He loves her."

"Why doesn't he love me?" I asked, and started crying. I remember the look on my mom's face as she tried to answer that question, and how frustrated and heartbroken I felt.

And yet, as much as I demonized Pete in my memory when I was younger, that wasn't the whole story. There are so many times that I think about now--times I didn't think about when I was a teenager--when he was genuinely interested in me and my brother, when he looked at us and smiled. The kind of smile that I can see now had real pride in it.

He built us a fort in an old, bent-over oak tree in his back yard, and he knew all the details of every story of aliens and monsters and adventures that I made up when we played in it. He introduced me both to Mel Brooks movies and to inserting movie quotations into daily life--the four of us used to spout off Hedley Lamarr lines and laugh and laugh. The first inklings I ever had of being a writer came when we lived in that cabin with him, and not only did he show real interest in my stories, but he also gave me both the first praise I can remember for my writing, and the first useful suggestions on how to make my stories better.

And he taught me things, things I still think about and use today. He taught me how to build a fire, how to comb my hair, how to tuck my shirt in straight. He taught me how to chop wood and hammer a nail. Everyone who knows my family knows that my mother is a talented cook, so you'd think I'd have gotten my culinary start from her, but in fact the first meal I ever cooked was a can of Stagg chili with a few dashes of worcestershire sauce, garlic powder, and fines herbes mixed in, along with a side of boiled new potatoes--a dish I learned from Pete. My love of John Wayne and Patsy Cline comes from the time I spent with him.

And even though he and my mom split when I was still young, so much of what I still think of as masculinity and strength comes from my image of him. Pete was such a man's man, in my memory, at least. He was a contractor by trade--I remember watching in awe as he and his coworkers poured a concrete foundation when he took me along on a job once--and an outdoorsman at heart. He loved fishing and hiking, pretty much everything about being outside, and he did his best to pass that on to me and my brother. I didn't often appreciate it at the time, being the kind of kid who would much rather sit in his room with a book than run around, but a lot of the respect I have for nature and simple living now comes from him.

I think I was ten when my mom and Pete finally called it quits. Since then I've seen him exactly twice. The first time was when I was in high school; I ran into him at a bank in Carmel when I was going to get some cash. We chatted briefly, and I remember being surprised when I told him that I was doing some acting as a hobby, and he responded that maybe I could make it more than a hobby. I don't know what I would have expected, but he was friendly and genial.

The last time I saw him was the summer I was a waiter at my father-in-law's restaurant. I was working the lawn on a weekend lunch shift, and he and his stepmother were taking a little walk down by the river. Again, he was friendly and interested in what was going on with me, and I think a little impressed that I was dating the daughter of the River Inn's owner. That was thirteen years ago now. I didn't think it would be the last time I'd ever see him. I didn't really think much about it at all.

A few weeks ago--God, I can't even remember exactly when--my mom called me at work and told me that Pete had died. An old friend of hers who was still in touch with Pete had let her know. I was stunned. I am stunned. And in time since then I've been busy. I've been working long shifts for weeks, trying to get a big project finished at my job, so much that I've barely had time to see my kids, let alone to process the fact that I'm never going to see this man again.

A couple of days ago Juliette showed me a note she'd gotten from my mom, describing the small ceremony Pete's daughter held to scatter his ashes. After I read it, I couldn't speak--I just sat there for a few minutes and tried to swallow down the lump in my throat. I don't know if it surprises me or not that I would be so affected by his death. It's been so long since he was a part of my life, but I think somehow I always thought that I'd reconnect with him some day. I wanted him to know what my life is like now, what I'm like now. How I turned out, and what kind of father I am. I guess maybe in some way I was still looking for his approval.

My mom had had contact with Pete and his family a few times over the years, and it's funny how differently he saw that time from how I did. She's told me that he always thought of himself having been a good influence on me and my brother, that he'd done right by us. The last I talked to her about him, a couple of weeks ago, she said she'd spoken to his sister, who'd said that he always talked about his time with my mom--with all of us--as the best years of his life.

How strange, the way that time erodes everything. Nowadays when I think of my year in Bixby Canyon, I can't help but think of it in terms of some garden of innocence, a natural playground of my youth. Is it that the years have worn away the bad memories and left only the good? Or was the pain of that time just too close for me to see the whole picture when I was younger? Every time I go home now, something is gone, something has changed. Every little piece feels like a bit of myself washed away down a river, never to be found again. Sometimes it seems like everything I do is an attempt to hold on to time, but it's not a thing you can keep in a jar on your shelf. Some day all of my fathers will be gone, some day all I'll have is memories and old photographs, maybe a laugh or a wistful conversation. How will I get by? How does anyone?

There's so much I don't know about Pete. I don't know when he was born or when, exactly, he died. I don't know, really, what his story was. In the past, I've judged him, maybe unfairly, and for that I'm sorry. I don't know what I can say that would be a fitting epitaph. But I think, maybe, what I can say is this: he did the best he could. In the end, maybe that's all anyone can ask for.

Dante

I met Dante in the summer of 2000 when I was working at my future father-in-law's restaurant. I was a few weeks away from turning 21 and Juliette's dad had given me a job waiting tables for the summer, a job I wasn't really qualified for and which I probably didn't deserve. Dante was one of the other waiters on the staff and, like me, he mostly worked lunch shifts so I got to spend a lot of time with him that summer. From the moment I met him, he was always friendly and warm toward me, even though I was a pretty terrible waiter. He was patient and kind, and he helped me a lot. Today I was saddened to learn that he died suddenly and unexpectedly this morning--of a heart attack, I'm told.

I can't help but regret the fact that I didn't know him better. We worked together for a summer, and in the years since we always took a couple of minutes to catch up whenever I came back to the restaurant for a visit with the family. There was a lot I didn't know about him. And yet, looking back, there was a lot I did know. I know he was hard-working, and that he cared about his work and took pride in doing it well. Since that summer we worked together he became a manager at the restaurant, and everyone I've ever talked to about him has loved him. I know that he was easy-going, quick with a smile, a genuinely nice person. I know that he loved his family. I know he had a bit of playfulness to him--I watched him spin a serving tray on one fingertip, laughing, one afternoon after the lunch rush was over. I know he will be missed, by me and many others.

I wish I could remember clearly the last time I saw him--but then, it wasn't remarkable at the time, just another visit home, another meal at the family restaurant. It's not as though this was something any of us saw coming; he wasn't even that much older than I am. So many of the moments in our lives that turn out to be important go unnoticed. I guess that's just the way of things.

My heart goes out to Dante's wife and children. I can't imagine what it would be like to lose a father and husband this way, so completely out of the blue. It's a tragedy, and we are all the worse for his loss.

Goodbye, Dante. I'm glad I had the chance to know you.

It Forgets You

I've been sitting on a bunch of pictures from the trip home I took over Christmas, mostly because I couldn't decide which to post. Ultimately, I came to the realization that they work better as a set than they do individually, and thus this post.

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