Real Roles: JP

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1. What’s your name? Where do you live? How old are you?  

For this interview my name will be JP. I live outside of Boston, and am a brief seven months from my 70th birthday, which sounds really old to me. I can’t put a number on how old I feel, but the number is way short of 70.

2. Where did you grow up and how would you describe your childhood?

I was conceived at the time of my father’s departure for what became a three-year hitch in the South Pacific at the start of World War II. While he was fighting in Asia, my mother, older brother, sister and I were living in very comfortable surroundings with my grandmother in the upper east side of Manhattan. On my dad’s return, we moved to my parent’s home on a 10-acre corner of my grandmother’s 200-acre farm in Connecticut. I walked to public elementary school one mile from home; my best friends were my multiple cousins, a few guys who liked bikes as much as I, and the 200 chickens, horses, pigs, and sheep that lived on the farm that was my personal playground. My brother and sister are five and four years older than I, and attended private schools. I don’t remember much of a relationship with them. Each of us did our best to play our assigned roles—and my parents made our roles clear. My parents conveyed the message on how they wanted their children: well dressed, well mannered, very social, and successful in all things.

My brother was their model of perfection; my sister seemed the great disappointment—hanging out at the country club or beach club was not her idea of a good time. She was not a superstar at school, and she lacked the interest, poise, and prettiness to be the desired teen-aged social butterfly. I watched with pain the emotional abuse my father (and mother in her passive tolerance) heaped on.

I had my good times as a kid, but the family part mostly sucked.

My job was to leave the family home at age 13 to attend a prestigious boarding school five hours from home. The performance pressure at prep school was severe. I had a hard time keeping my head above water; my self confidence took a steep fall as I worked hard to earn poor grades in the highly competitive atmosphere that was designed for somebody other than me. But I knew that I was doing what I was supposed to do. My parents were proud that I attended this school of great repute. I often contemplated ending it all with a stroll into high speed traffic on a nearby highway.

A few weeks after my 16th birthday, to my parents’ astonishment, I announced my withdrawal from the school. Finally I took control of my life! I spent the winter ski-bumming in Vermont, getting a very different perspective. I left the proper life of the prep school boy and dropped into a society of ski lodge owners, ski instructors, ski patrollers, and ski bums, all of whom had “dropped out.” It felt great to have no school work, a job, and the freedom to do what I wanted, but being a responsible son of my parents, I decided that I would return to the prep school that I hated to prove to myself that I could do it. I graduated a year later and went on to make everybody happy by enrolling in an Ivy League college.

3. How would you describe your current family and close support community?

My current family consists of a wonderfully fun and fulfilling 32-year partnership with a spouse I adore, the delight of two healthy children who have created happy and prosperous lives for themselves, two absolutely wonderful grandchildren and one son, now 41 years old, who struggles every day with severe mental illness.

I feel great pride and joy when I think of my eldest son and his family and my daughter. I do not spend anywhere near the time with them that I’d like, but I revel in their happiness and success in creating joyful lives. At the same time, I live with a deep sadness and pain for my ill son. His illness has knocked him off balance since high school and he has not accepted or found a way to live at peace with either the medications that make him stable and rob him of his energy and omniscience, or the irrational mania that carries him away when not medicated. After years of medical compliance he fights the need for medications and it seems that he gets terribly beaten in the fight. It hurts like crazy to watch it happen and all I want to do is what I cannot: make it all better.

My wife and I enjoy a large group of friends with whom we consume lots of good food and drink and share experiences of living and parenting. Critical supports come from my happy marriage, select long-time friends who I have met since Peace Corps days, and various peer groups ranging from a group focused on coping with mental illness, to a group of nonprofit consultants.

4. What are some of the things you do on an average day?

An average day may include eight to 12 hours managing a nonprofit or might be spent fixing up an old boat or even sailing. In warmer weather, I’m on my bike three or four times each week, grow vegetables, and take frequent long walks with my wife. In all weather, I love to create meals and work on creating lovely photographs. I’m almost always over-committed and rarely watch television.

5. What do you do to pay the bills?

Ten years ago, I retired after a 21-year career within a software development division of a large bank. I had a stash of assets that would cover the bills for the future. But retirement was not fun for me: too solitary, boring, sedentary. I filled my life with volunteer activities and found that I was much happier not working for money and particularly enjoyed working with younger people. A new career evolved and now I define myself as professional   interim executive director of nonprofits. I am currently working in my fourth position, directing an agency serving immigrant youth. I love the work and it helps raise my personal standard of living.

6. Does your life look like what you imagined it would when you were young?  

Before I finished college I imagined a life in a business suit with my days in a financial institution and my evenings and weekends living the familiar suburban life not unlike the life of my childhood.

Soon after finishing college, enrolled in a meaningless management training program at a Boston bank, the dual realities of a draft notice and my opposition to shooting Vietnamese people (and being shot at) changed the course of things: participation in the Vietnam war was an unacceptable option. I choose to enlist in the Peace Corps and spent 30 months teaching in Africa. I learned that I was both happier in human services than financial services; later I would return to financial services and management but of a different flavor than I had imagined as a young person.

7. What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your life?

The toughest challenge in my life has been to watch a bright, able, child with full potential fall victim to a severely disabling mental illness.  I’m a problem solver, a fixer, by nature and I have learned that my son’s illness is beyond my capacity to fix. I want to support my children to create a life for themselves with all options open. Severe mental illness closes options; it is painful to watch a child of any age yearn for a life that is not attainable. My challenge is to cope with his challenge.

8. Have you made any decisions or choices that have surprised those around you?

The decision to drop out of secondary school surprised a few people, not the least of whom were my parents. Choosing a life as a teacher in rural Africa over the possibility of officer candidate school surprised a few more. These two events were turning points for me, declaring to myself and those around me that I was evolving into a person somewhat different from all our expectations.

9. Who have you looked to for inspiration while creating your life? What have they taught you?

William Sloan Coffin was chaplain at my prep school and a daily source of inspiration. I was required to attend chapel five days each week in my ninth grade year. Coffin’s powerful interpretation of the Christianity that seemed so meaningless in my years of Sunday school seemed right to me. Coffin translated Christian theology to a social gospel and the fight for civil rights of the ’50s. These were revolutionary times and Coffin came down clearly on one side of the fight. Feeling a bit oppressed myself, it was easy to relate to and advocate for the underdog.

Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and John Kennedy followed as my heroes. They remain so and I’m waiting to add to the list.

10. What TV shows, movies, music, or books have been particularly formative or important in your life?

Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach, Corelli, Puccini, and Verdi are important pleasures as are the sounds of Coldplay, Keane, Adele, and plenty of others. TVs shows, movies and books? I’ll have to think longer about that.

11. Are there any stories not told in media that you’d like to see represented?

I am not aware of any. The 11pm news is about fire, rape, and murder because the people who want to watch TV at 11pm want fire, rape, and murder stories. My guess is that I could find in media any story I could imagine.

12. How often do you think about gender roles and whether your life matches what others might expect from your gender?

I actually think of gender roles quite often. Since raising two children from very young ages as a single parent, I’ve found joy in crossing stereotypical gender lines through nurturing children, pushing the cart at the supermarket with two boys in hand, taking pleasure in cooking, attending school conferences.

For seven years I worked in what was then a woman’s career leading an early childhood development program. I enjoyed being male and encroaching in the female domain. I felt I was an outlier and enjoyed participating in what seemed like a social revolution. In retrospect all of this was probably part of my getting comfortable with deviating from the strong prescriptive role messages I absorbed as a kid.

13. What wisdom have you gained in life that you think other people would benefit from knowing?

All you need is love; love is all you need. Oh, did I omit the Beatles in question 10?

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