Stories told

It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke

Bonus Garrett story #2, from four years ago, a moment that in retrospect was a turning point in our relationship.

I have a complicated relationship with the futon in my family room. My wife and I bought it while we were still married. The day we brought it home, I regretted the bright blue mattress cover that we chose. Later, as my marriage splintered apart, I spent a year exiled to it at night. I couldn’t resent the situation, for it would acknowledge that our marriage was over, so I resented the futon instead. And then it was the one major piece of furniture I got in the divorce, the only thing I owned on which I could sit. I made myself feel glad to have it. Then bouts of mournful insomnia expelled me from my new bed back to the futon, as there I could always eventually find sleep. Now I start my nights on the futon, but wake later and stagger off to bed. More than a dozen years in, I’m no longer happy with its style, springs are starting to poke out on the sides of the mattress, and I still hate its cover. But I fall asleep on it so reliably that I’m reluctant to replace it. A new couch might not carry that nocturnal magic.

Futon1

My relationship with my futon is not as complex as the relationships with those I love, of course. I’m thinking specifically of my youngest son, a teenager. He broke the futon the other day.

My boy lives fully in the moment. He makes no plan and weighs no consequences. Once at motion, he tends to stay there; Newton would be proud. If you spent a day with him you might call him absentminded, but that would be an injustice. He becomes consumed by his activity and the world falls away. His inner world is his best friend. He lives there.

In that state, he has damaged or broken many things. I used to think he was careless or, worse, deliberate, and so I meted out consequences of loud and harsh words, limitations of his freedom, or both. But slowly, thankfully, I’ve come to see the truth: The boy means no harm. He is usually very surprised when he damages or breaks something.

Even though these things are just things, they do belong to somebody, usually me. They have an important purpose or some sentimental or emotional value, and I feel the loss.

My son matters more than these things, and so I absorb those losses. But it’s also my job to help shape the child. Trying to help him to be more self-aware was a losing game that frustrated both of us, and so I gave up. Perhaps time and life will bring this growth naturally. Meanwhile, I intend to teach him to repair the things he’s damaged – both physical objects and relationships. All of us sometimes damage our relationships through our quirks and limitations. All of us need to know how to make amends.

He was deep inside a video game when he leaped exuberantly backward and landed on the futon. I am sure he’s done this many times. But he was much smaller and lighter before a major growth spurt this summer, and the poor futon could no longer bear him. The main beam supporting the mattress split wide, and the futon collapsed.

I called my dad, who made custom furniture for a living for many years, and described the damage. “Easy,” he said. “Get some wood glue and some long wood screws. Glue the board together along the break and then drive the screws in every inch or two. It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.”

I assembled the materials and the tools and called my son. I showed him what to do and had him do it. As he worked, I spoke gently about repairing damaged relationships. He is my son, and I love him, and he will always receive grace from me. He should accept no less from those who are in his life. But when he causes damage, he needs to try his best to fix it, if he can. I hope my words connected with him.

Futon2

The repair is ugly; we couldn’t quite get the halves of the board to line up on one side of the break. My son didn’t have enough strength to drive the screws all the way into the hard wood, so I finished them all. As we put the frame back together, I could feel our relationship coming back together, too. I hope he felt the same way. After we finished the repair we turned the futon back over and sat down on it. It supported us as before the break, and I could see the satisfaction of accomplishment in him. Here’s hoping this creates a connection in him that he can mend things broken, including relationships. That he should. That it’s satisfying to do it.

“It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.” Was Dad really talking about my relationship with my son?

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Stories told

Monopoly money

Bonus Garrett story #1, from when he was about nine years old. Without knowing it, he taught me a lesson about coping with loss.

I was feeling pretty good about my financial situation as I headed into the summer. I was paying down debt pretty powerfully and had built up some savings. But then August was unexpectedly expensive. I replaced my car’s transmission, rented a car for two weeks, bought a new refrigerator, and had some medical and veterinary bills. Bam! Within a few weeks, my savings was gone and I had even gone a little more into debt.

I know that everything that cost me was just a matter of chance. Cars break down, 20-year-old fridges die, dogs and people get sick. It was better to spend savings on these things than to have borrowed to pay for it all. You might even say that God took care of me, providing for me through these misfortunes. But I’ve been angry about it just the same. It really hurt to get a little bit ahead only to lose it almost all at once.

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Our Monopoly set, which my parents bought in the 1960s (and I photographed in the early 1980s), which we still use

On Wednesday, the boys and I broke out the Monopoly board. My youngest is starting to understand trading and can now stick with a long game, and so our play is starting to become vigorous. We’d made some trades and we all had monopolies — my older son had the violets, my youngest son had the neighboring oranges, and I was just around the corner with the reds. When we started improving our properties, it became hard to move along that side of the board without somebody collecting.

My youngest son landed on my Kentucky Avenue. With two houses, the rent wasn’t terrible, but having spent all his cash on houses he hocked most of his property to pay me. He weathered that with good humor, but he next landed on Go To Jail and so would make another trip down Death Row. His next roll put him on Community Chest, but then he landed on Indiana Avenue, which by then had four houses and was much more expensive to visit. Cash-strapped and hocked to the hilt, he had no choice but to sell most of houses. He was ticked. And then a few tears ran down his face. And then he buried his face in my shoulder.

The irony did not escape me as I hugged him and told him it’s bound to hurt when you build things up and get a little ahead only to have bad luck take it all away.

When I woke up the next morning, I didn’t feel so bad anymore.

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Life, Stories told

Adjusting to the changes as court-ordered parenting time ends

Meet my youngest son, Garrett, who turned 18 yesterday. It’s a big milestone for any kid. But it’s also a different milestone, a sad one, for me.

Garrett

It’s the end of “parenting time.” That’s what they call it here in Indiana, the court-ordered time a noncustodial parent spends with his children. It ends at 18.

The parenting time guidelines grant every Wednesday evening and every other weekend during the school year, plus holidays on alternating years, half of winter break, all of every other spring break, and half of every summer. We were fortunate: our judge also ordered parenting time every Monday night and an overnight stay every Wednesday when school was in session.

I have not needed to be compelled by court order to spend time with my sons. I always wanted to live with them every day of their childhoods. Parenting time limited me, constrained me, bound me. I always ached to be present with my sons more often.

Obviously, I could have had every day with my sons had their mom and I worked out a healthy, happy marriage. We were not capable of it. Our destructive relationship was ruining us all. We are all healthier and happier since it ended.

I reminded myself of this each time I pushed through the worst rush-hour traffic in Indiana en route to my sons. Each time we left for their suburb at 5:30 am so they wouldn’t miss their school bus. Each time my sons went home at the end of our time together, leaving me alone in my empty house. Each time they had an especially good, or an especially bad, day and if we could talk about it at all it was over the phone or via text. Each time I did alone a thing that would normally be done as a family.

Yet this yin met its yang when I put to good use the time I wasn’t actively being my sons’ dad. Half of my days I could behave like a childless man, directing my energy to my own interests. Photography and blogging. Deep involvement at church. Founding and running a nonprofit. Doubling down on my career, which really took off.

I’ve felt guilty that I did these things rather than being home with my sons. Yet I’ve also reveled in these things. Fortunately, I processed those conflicting feelings years ago and have found contentment in this life.

What I have not processed yet, what I have experienced as looming for months, what is now irrevocably here, is loss. The loss of my decade-long routine with my sons, a routine to which I clung, around which I organized my life. And anew, the loss of what I never could have but desperately wanted for me and my sons: the ability to be a present parent every day. It was never going to happen,

Now it’s up to my sons and I to figure out how and when to see each other. My older son, Damion, has been very good about making time for his old dad. Will Garrett do likewise? I hope so.

There are no state guidelines for mapping adult relationships with your children. No court can compel it. And I have no personal experience to use as a guide. My parents are still married, more than 50 years now. When I was college-aged their home was always open to me. It was where I returned on break, and our normal family life largely resumed as if never interrupted.

That’s what I wanted for my sons. More than that, it’s what I wanted for me. But it’s not what we got.

We will make the best of this, too.

I’m sharing two bonus posts later today, reruns of stories that involved Garrett. If you’ve read my blog for a long time, perhaps you will enjoy now seeing Garrett’s face as you revisit those stories.

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Life, Stories told

Happy life in a modest neighborhood

It’s a modest house in a modest neighborhood. Isn’t the aspiration supposed to be for more, for a fresh build in a tony suburb? But I’ve been happy here, surprisingly so. It has been a good place to rebuild my life after my first marriage crashed and burned.

My humble home

The homes here are ranches, usually faced in brick, largely built in the 1950s and 1960s as people moved out of the city proper. But a couple lots remained vacant until almost 1990, which is about when the golf course was built behind us, putting an end to flooded back yards on each heavy rain. And the cornfield across the main road finally succumbed to suburban sprawl in about 2010 when the megachurch went up. Thanks to the city’s MapIndy site and its historic aerial imagery, you can watch my little neighborhood go from farmland 80 years ago to what it is now.

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I’ve been here ten years now. I probably shouldn’t have bought this house; my divorce left me broke. But I’d moved three times in three years and I craved permanence. And this house was less than a mile from where my sons lived with their mom. And my credit was very good. So I got an ill-advised 100% mortgage and moved in.

I couldn’t see the looming housing bubble about to burst. I couldn’t see my ex-wife soon remarrying and getting that fresh build, that tony suburb, 20 miles away. I wanted to move to live closer to my sons, but my house was suddenly worth less than what I owed on it. And so I remained.

It’s worked out; my sons and I have been happy here. But now my sons are grown and all but gone. And the housing market has recovered. And I’ve remarried; my new wife and I would like to share a roof. This one is too small and would take her youngest son out of his school, so now I’m preparing to put my house on the market.

I’m thrilled to move into the next part of my life, but sad to leave this home behind. I’ve been so content here. Preparing to leave has me in a reflective mood, which drove me to look through my photographs. I was surprised by how many I’ve made around the neighborhood. Could this be the most-photographed neighborhood in Indianapolis? Let me share it with you.

The homes are spaced wide and set back deeply on broad streets. Lots are about a third of an acre.

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In the late autumn and early spring, when the trees are bare, the neighborhood looks dingy and tired. That’s in part because so many houses here have become rentals and receive minimum care. Strangely, all corner houses here are duplexes and have always been rentals. And during the worst of the housing crisis a good number of these modest homes went abandoned into foreclosure.

My front yard

1967 Ford F250

In my neighborhood

But the neighborhood wakes up in the spring, thanks to so many flowering trees the original owners planted.

Spring flowering trees

Spring flowering trees

Spring flowering trees

And a few owners have taken great care in their landscaping, which looks best during the summer. And even now, after so many dead ash trees have been removed here, the neighborhood remains heavily wooded and deeply shaded all summer.

Neighbor

Home in my neighborhood

Home in my neighborhood

Home in my neighborhood

Because of the tree cover, autumns here can be spectacular.

Neighbor's house under the yellow canopy

Neighborhood trees

Autumn leaves

Autumn Street

Even the wintertime has its charm as the snow hangs in the tree branches. However, the city has plowed our streets but one time that I can remember, making it challenging to get in and out. One snowstorm a few years ago stranded me at home for a week — the snow was simply too deep for my car to cut through.

Snowy day

Mild winter in old suburbia

Snowy day

Snowy neighborhood scene

Down the street

It’s quiet here. Neighbors mostly keep to themselves; I know few of them. But I guess that’s the age. It’s also safe here — crime is very low. About once a year I drive to work and forget to close the garage door. Never once have I found anything missing or even disturbed upon return.

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I won’t miss a few things. The houses that need upkeep but never get it. The one fellow who parks his giant trailer on the street; it’s so hard to see it at night. The neighbors who forget to keep their storm-sewer grates clear, leading to flooded streets under heavy rain. I certainly won’t miss going out in my raincoat and waterproof shoes to rake the drains clear in front of their houses. But I’ll miss a lot of the rest.

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Photography, Road trips, Stories told

A visit to Headstone’s

Every time I go back to Terre Haute I try to at least drive by Headstone Friends. It’s a record store in the late-60s head-shop tradition. I spent a lot of money here in the late 80s when I was in college. Pretty much every dollar I earned at my part-time job, less whatever it cost me to eat Saturday and Sunday nights when campus food service was shut down, was traded here for music.

Headstone's in Terre Haute

Minolta XG 1, 45mm f/2 MD Rokkor, Fujicolor 200

I was sad to find the shop’s exterior mural and sign to have deteriorated so. Contrast it to this photo I made in 2008, when I first wrote about this place. But inside everything was as it ever was: used records in the back in boxes perched on stacks of cinder blocks, cases full of CDs lining the walls up front, music blaring, dimly lit. The water fountain still doesn’t work and the room of black-light posters is still black-lit.

Headstone Friends

Kodak EasyShare Z730 Zoom

Hey, check it out, there’s my lamented, lost red Matrix. I was driving the blue Matrix this time; you can see its tail in the first photo. Or, rather, my youngest son was driving. We’re practicing driving toward his license and this day we burned down a solid three hours driving to, around, and from Terre Haute. It was a nice day together. And I was thrilled to share Headstone’s with him. I know he didn’t get it, but I tried to explain it to him anyway: how important music was (and is) to me, how most used records were $2 (indeed, many of them are still), and how I amassed a fabulous music collection on the cheap here. As long as Headstone’s keeps going, I’ll make occasional pilgrimages.

Incense burns constantly at Headstone’s. And they still carry the hard-to-find stuff. That stuff isn’t as hard to find today thanks to the Internet, but I still found a CD I’ve been looking for: a four-song live set Paul McCartney did in 2007, called Amoeba’s Secret. And even now, weeks later, the CD’s cardboard sleeve smells like Headstone’s. And so did we, all the way home.

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Stories told

Wanted by the FBI

On my flight to Germany in the summer of 1984, engine trouble forced us to land in Düsseldorf rather than in Frankfurt as planned. Because Düsseldorf expected no international flights that day, nobody was working in customs. My passport went unstamped, and I waltzed into Germany uncounted. How very un-German.

Several weeks later, my group visited Berlin. The Wall would not fall for five more years. At Checkpoint Alpha on the East German border, grave, armed border police in fitted olive uniforms boarded our bus and, without looking at or speaking to anyone, collected all of our passports and exited. They made us wait more than an hour, our anxiety growing, before they returned with our passports (all tossed into a box) and waved us through. Each passport had received an East German stamp. The road from there to Berlin was bounded by walls so tall that we couldn’t see over them even from our bus seats way up high. I guess the communists didn’t want you to see the glorious living conditions on the inside, or everybody would want to move there. Several hours later down that road we were easily waved through the checkpoint at the West Berlin border.

Checkpoint Charlie

A few days later we crossed into East Berlin to see the sights. At the famous Checkpoint Charlie, stone-faced border police once again boarded our bus, collected our passports, and made us wait for a long time before they returned them all stamped.

Checkpoint Charlie

In East Berlin I walked in the Alexanderplatz, stood in line to buy a communist propaganda rag, er, newspaper (the top story that day was essentially how President Reagan was an idiot), drank beer and laughed with teenaged East Berliners, and tried to use a fetid underground open-pit public restroom. Shudder. I held it until we got back to the west.

At Checkpoint Charlie

In West Berlin, I bought a book called Durchschaut die Uniform, or See Through the Uniform, telling stories of border guards — not only about the distasteful jobs they did, but about the people they were. The last page showed two pictures of four border guards, the first with their stony faces and the second with wide smiles. The second photo seemed so strange! But I got the book’s point, which was to have a heart because these guards were real people. So I decided to put on a pleasant face for them on the way home. As we left, we passed back through Checkpoint Alpha. Dour border police boarded our bus and collected passports. When they took mine, I looked them in the eye and smiled. It was met with indifference. They just took our passports and inspected our bus for things we were not allowed to take out. Inspection successful, they left and we were free to pass through. We made our way back across free Germany.

A few years later I renewed my passport when it expired. I wondered if anybody at the passport agency noticed that my old passport contained stamps only from communist East Germany.

Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States rode in on its white horse ostensibly to save the day. It was war, and I was draftable, so I was nervous about what might come.

At work the next day my co-workers were subdued and serious. I worked as best I could while I listened to news reports on the radio. Midafternoon, the receptionist called from the main building. “Uh, Jim?” she said. I could hear concern in her voice. She paused. “Uh… Jim, there’s a man from the FBI here to see you.”

My mind reeled for several seconds. My passport! They must have a file with my name on it! They think I’m red! They’ve come to carry away the commies!

“Jim?”

“Um. Yes. Tell him to drive across the street to this building.”

I stepped outside to await my doom. I paced under the gray sky, wondering what the internment camp would be like. Before long, a gray sedan turned in and parked. Out stepped a doughy man in a gray suit. He approached, showed me his ID, identified himself, and asked, “Are you James Grey?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Is there a place where we can talk privately?”

My brain screamed, “Talk privately? Aren’t you here to purge the land of communists in the name of national security?” I was growing dizzy. I managed to mumble, “Sure, come inside.” I led him to an empty room and we sat down.

“Mr. Grey, do you know a man named Robert Woolf?”

I’ve heard stories about what happens to cars that are accidentally shifted into reverse while going 40 miles per hour. Namely, the car’s transmission suddenly disintegrates, distributing its pieces along the road. This is what happened to my brain at that moment.

In shock, I managed to say, “Yes, I know Bobby.” Where the heck was this going?

“I need to ask you some questions about Mr. Woolf.”

Bobby, a college friend and roommate, was a sharp, smart guy who majored in computer science and is now well-respected in his field. His senior year, as he looked for his first job, he applied at the National Security Agency. He was pretty jazzed about the job, but he never heard back from them. He applied for other jobs and eventually accepted one in Silicon Valley.

“Is this about the NSA job? Don’t you know that Bobby accepted another position?”

The agent paused. He may have swallowed. He said, deliberately, “Yes, every person I talk to tells me that. But I have to do these interviews anyway.”

So for twenty dull minutes he asked me questions about Bobby’s associations and character. I told him what I knew and he went on his way. I felt sorry for the guy having to drive all over the place talking with Bobby’s friends and family, needlessly looking for skeletons to qualify Bobby for a job he no longer wanted. I tried to empathize with the guy, but he’d have none of it. He stuck to his questions until he had no more to ask, and then he got back into his gray sedan and drove away.

I learned that it’s fruitless to try to connect with a government official doing a distasteful or useless job. They just want to get it over with.

But at least there was no internment camp for me!


This is this post’s fourth appearance: May, 2007; January, 2012; July, 2014, and today. I’m re-running it in response to the WordPress.com daily prompt, “Passport.”

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