Stories Told

“You are five times the father I ever was,” my dad said to me

I wanted to be there for my sons like my dad was for me. But I couldn’t, not fully, because of the divorce.

That’s the real horror of my divorce. Of any divorce, really, where children are involved. And I don’t think I’m overusing that word, horror. When any parent who wants fully to be in the parenting game can’t do it, it’s horrible.

The court allowed me to see my sons every Monday and Wednesday, every other weekend, and half the summer. Most of their lives happened without me being there.

I made the most of the time I got. I made sure I saw my sons when scheduled, missing maybe once or twice a year, usually due to illness. I was very intentional that as much as possible our home time together would be relaxed and easy, just us men having dinner, watching TV, reading, playing games.

And I followed the model my dad gave me: I went to their soccer games. I went along on field trips and met with their teachers. I saw Damion perform in his fourth-grade play. I went to every one of Garrett’s choir concerts and Damion’s band concerts.

Just for fun, here’s Damion in a clarinet duet with a classmate eight years ago.

Here’s Garrett singing with his choir from later the same year. He’s on the right, the bespectacled boy under and to the left of the rightmost overhead microphone, always a half step behind everyone else. He hated the dance moves — he just wanted to sing.

Our time together was of the highest quality I could make it. Yet when it comes to parenting, to do the job all the way you need quantity time. With enough time serendipity can happen — that random fun, those unexpected conversations both serious and lighthearted, those hard life events where a well-timed word from Dad can ease the difficulty. These are experiences through which you connect meaningfully, where you share deep love. We got a little of that, here and there, and I think they were our most valuable moments. I wanted more. We needed more.

Damion has let me fully off the hook. “You’ve been fantastic,” he said. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out between you and Mom. It would have been great if I could have seen you every day. But I have several friends whose dads live with them, but ignore or mistreat them. I’m better off than they are.”

Garrett was all shrugs, as the kids say today. “I don’t remember any time before the divorce,” he said. “This is all I know. It’s been fine.”

Even my dad told me not to worry about it: “You are five times the father I ever was, even though I was there every day for you.” It might well be the most encouraging, most affirming thing he ever said to me.

Still, I grieve. I loved the time I spent with my sons while they were growing up, and I miss it. But when court-ordered parenting time ended last spring, the door closed for good on the time I lost. I know that door actually closed the day I moved out so many years ago. But feeling that loss was partially deferred because during the parenting-time years I held out hope, however unrealistic and illogical, that it could be better than it was.

I’m beginning to feel it only now because the intervening time has brought several heavy life challenges to us. I’ve been in go/do mode for about a year. But fortunately those challenges are slowly clearing, giving me brain space to think and feel and process. Thinking lately about my own father’s successes in parenting has brought it up.

I’m choosing to cling to the good, kind words my sons and my father said to me.

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Stories Told

Dad was always there

It’s a steady presence that lets a child feel secure: a father who is there.

My dad had a strong singing voice. Like father, like sons: my brother and I could carry a tune and sing out. Dad encouraged it in us from a very young age. He’d ask us to sing as we rode around in his car, and we’d serenade him and Mom with the day’s popular songs. We also had a pretty good Beatles repertoire. My brother sang John and I sang Paul, our voices blending. Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody!

My parents weren’t surprised when the school’s choir director asked their permission for me to join the choir a year early, in the second grade. She had heard me sing in music class and wanted my voice as soon as she could get it.

I loved being in the choir. I sang my heart out. At our concerts I sang to my dad, who was in the audience without fail.

James Monroe School

Sometimes I’d wait backstage for my turn to walk out as part of some production, but most of the time I stood with the choir on risers at the foot of the stage. From wherever I sang, the first thing I did was scan the audience for my dad’s face. I could seldom see it in the dark. But I knew he was there and it was enough for me.

James Monroe School

I’m fortunate to have these photographs of my elementary school’s auditorium from eight years ago when they held an open house after an extensive renovation. Here’s the view my dad would have had, as he preferred to sit in the balcony.

James Monroe School

Dad was always there. He came home every night and spent his evenings with his family. He attended every school event my brother or I were in. When my brother ran track and cross country, they went not only to every meet, but even to most practices. They’d sit streetside in their car and watch. Here’s a photo of them doing just that in 1984. Mom is prominent in the frame but Dad is there, in the driver’s seat. To the right, out of the photo, is the school practice track and my brother running on it.


When I did a summer basketball camp, Dad came to watch me play (badly). When I was invited to sing in an opera, Dad came to listen to me practice with the chorus. When I got braces, Dad took me to many of my orthodontic appointments and waited for me. When I flew to Germany the summer after my junior year, Dad wrote me that he wished he could be a butterfly on my shoulder.

When I got my first apartment, Dad came to see it right away. When my sons were born, Dad waited in the hospital, eager to meet his grandbabies. When my marriage began to stumble, and then to crumble, and then to flame out horrifically, Dad had no idea what to say that would help but he took every phone call through the whole mess and let me vent and rage. Those phone calls home kept me from losing my mind.

Dad was there.

If you’ve read the other stories I’ve told about Dad since he died (all here), you know our relationship wasn’t everything I wanted it to be and that he could be difficult and unkind, and that it left me with some stuff to work through.

But none of that obviates one iota that he was in the game with his children every step of the way. That it set his sons up for successful adult lives.

Where I go to church, in an inner-city neighborhood that knows poverty, families are usually significantly broken. Fathers are out of the picture. Kids live with moms and current boyfriends, or with aunts, or even with family friends. They bounce from roof to roof, from bed to bed. They don’t know stability. It shows up in their lives: the trouble they get into, the challenges they have transitioning to adulthood, the deep anger so obvious in them. They got a raw deal, and they know it.

But I have a solid sense of stability and goodness because Dad was there.

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Life, Stories Told

Why I stay on Facebook even though I don’t enjoy it much

I’ve not enjoyed Facebook much for months and months. Especially since the election of our current President, the place has become so polarized and tribalized. Angry screeds and narrowminded memes. Siding up and tossing ad hominems.

It’s not fun. I keep thinking I should quit. And then something like this photograph happens.

Me in 2nd Grade

Me in second grade, 1974 or 1975

A fellow I knew in elementary school, someone with whom I’ve not spoken for nearly 40 years, shared it on my wall. It’s me at my desk in our second-grade classroom. The fellow’s mom brought cupcakes for his birthday and photographed the class. He came upon the photo his his mother’s things, made a quick mobile-phone snap of it, and posted it.

What a joy to see this photo! I’d forgotten what a mop top I was, and I had no memories of what that classroom looked like.

But what happened next was truly special. Because I’m connected on Facebook with so many of my elementary classmates, many of them commented and reminisced. And we discovered together that we all felt like our elementary school was a truly special place where we felt safe and cared for. We shared memories of our teachers, of walking to school together, of after-school snacks at each others’ homes, and even of summer fun on the playground. We experienced community in our neighborhood through our school, and we agreed that it was wonderful.

This wasn’t just sticky-sweet nostalgia. We Monroe School alums had a joyful shared experience thanks to this photograph. We compared our notes to find that we all privately felt the same way about our long-ago experience. It validated that experience, I think, for all of us.

In this way, Facebook is like an abusive relationship. It’s good just often enough that you don’t leave.

This gorgeous school building underwent a thorough renovation in 2010. See interior and exterior photos here.

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Stories Told

Playing by radio’s rules

I love this story, which I’ve published twice before (2008 and 2013).

What’s the most embarrassed or humiliated you’ve ever been?

I used to think it was the day a female friend of mine cried out as we parted in a crowd, “But Jim! You can’t leave! What about the baby?”

But that doesn’t come close to the time I was laid low on the public airwaves.


On the air, WZZQ Terre Haute, 1994

I was in my early 20s, working part time on the air for Terre Haute’s rock radio station. We were proud to be number two in the market in a part of the world where country music was king. The country station commanded a third of the audience by just showing up. We, on the other hand, worked our butts off to stay in second place. We were successful enough that our full-time DJs were all minor local celebrities.

To stay visible we did lots of events. Terre Haute being a blue-collar and college town we wound up a a lot of bars, the kind that serve watery beer in red plastic cups. We’d promote some band that was playing and we DJs would turn out wearing station swag.

Because I wore my staff shirt, people acted like I was their long lost buddy. It was kind of fun until too much beer had flowed, at which point some guy would start telling you at top volume how much your station really sucked because it didn’t play enough Ozzy, or some girl missing her front teeth would ask sweetly if you had a girlfriend. Even if she had all of her teeth, every DJ knows that Radio Rule #1 is don’t date your listeners. It never goes well.

One Saturday night at an event I sat down with the program director and the two DJs from the morning show, “Scott and Debbie in the Morning.” Now, a part-timer like me would not normally spend time with such lofty talent as the morning show, as Radio Rule #2 is part-timers are in the lowest caste, the sort of people the full-timers ignore.

But the program director liked me. “Jim, you are like gold,” he told me, “because you show up for all your shifts and you follow the format.” I said, “Wow, um, that bar’s pretty low. What does that say about the other part-timers?” He wouldn’t answer. But he usually invited me to hang out with him at these events, and when I did, the morning show had to give me the time of day.

A young woman was sharing our table that night. She was sixteen kinds of cute. Young and slender, doe eyed with long brown hair, so nicely built. She increasingly turned her attention to me, moving in closer, smiling big and looking away when I caught her gaze, and giggling a lot. By the time she had downed a couple more beers, her body language said she’d follow me anywhere I wanted to go. It was flattering. It was exciting.

Then she started to talk — of hating her fast-food job, of wanting to get on at the record-and-CD club that employed half the town because it would free up her nights and she could hit the bars with her friends more often, of her three small children from three different dads, and of how she had to call the cops on one ex the night before and how another ex was getting out of prison in a couple months. The look in her eye seemed to say, “Will you be baby daddy number four?” Images of paternity suits and paychecks garnisheed for child support began to fill my head.


What I must have looked like

Red alert! Evasive maneuvers! Fully grasping the wisdom of Radio Rule #1, I stared into my empty cup trying to find a way to exit with grace. Which I did, except for the with-grace part. “Wow, lookit the time, gotta go!”

Monday morning as I drove to my regular job, Scott and Debbie were talking about the Saturday-night event, what a great time it was, and all the DJs who were there. They wouldn’t normally mention lowly part-timers, because let’s face it, listeners don’t remember their names. But then Debbie said, “And did you believe Jim Grey, who works weekends here? This super cute chick was coming on to him, she was so hot! I wanted to tell them to get a room! And then he just sat there! He didn’t do anything! He could have done anything he wanted with her that night, but he wouldn’t even look at her! You have to wonder if he likes girls!

My stomach knotted and I saw red. She had just made me look like a geek with no social skills in front of every listener in a 50-mile radius! And this was the kind of screw that no matter which way you turned it, it went further in. I would just have to suck it up. Of course, I barely made it past the front door at work before someone said, with a big question-mark look on their face, “I heard about you on the radio this morning! What was that all about?” Two more people asked about it before I made it to my cube — where I hid out the rest of the day under headphones so I could pretend not to notice people who came by.

That’s how I learned a corollary to Radio Rule #2: uppity part-timers will be put in their place!

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Stories Told

Rock shows

Bonus post today: an update on a long-ago post chronicling all the concerts I’ve seen.

Who have you seen in concert? Something the disk jockey said on the radio this morning started me thinking about the concerts I’ve been to. I was surprised that I couldn’t remember them all! It’s not like I’ve seen that many shows, and I certainly wasn’t smoking any dope at them to fog my memory. I wrote down what I could remember and Googled to fill in some blanks. You would not believe the detailed tour information people have cataloged on the Internet! I was shocked to learn that I’ve seen hair-metal band Dokken. Good Lord, shoot me now.


Ann Wilson singing with her band Heart in 2014

My first show was Al Stewart at the Westport Playhouse in St. Louis. You know, “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages.” My second show was Iron Maiden at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. You know, “The Number of the Beast.” Talk about a change of pace! The Iron Maiden show was so loud that my ears rang for three days. I’ll never forget the newspaper review the next morning: “About as subtle as a baseball bat to the forehead. But to these kids, all zonked to the rafters on Clearasil and beer, it was probably poetry.” It was.

The best performance I’ve seen was Eric Clapton on his 1994 blues tour. His guitar work was as skilled as you’d expect, but it was also unexpectedly emotional. The best show I’ve seen is, believe it or not, Ozzy Osbourne on 1990 tour that was supposed to be his last, but wasn’t. He may have only three functioning brain cells, but he sure knows how to work his audience. It’s hard to call the worst show I’ve seen, but Ringo Starr and Van Halen totally phoned in their performances, and Metallica was badly off their game when I saw them play in the rain in 1994.

I’ve seen Heart six times, Iron Maiden five, and Metallica four. Rush, Eric Clapton, and Pokey LaFarge had me in their audience twice. I’ve seen Paul McCartney, my all-time favorite, just once and wish I could have seen him again and again. But last time he toured, tickets were outrageously expensive and I just wouldn’t pay it.

Here’s the list I’ve pieced together, in chronological order. Headliners are listed first. You’ll see that I gravitated toward heavy-metal shows, and then gave up on concerts altogether for nine years while I was busy with my young family. And then when my kids were older and my time was more my own, I split my time among Heart, classic metal bands, and a couple indie bands I found on YouTube!

1986: Al Stewart

1987: Iron Maiden, Waysted | Eric Clapton, The Robert Cray Band | Heart, Mr. Mister

1988: Iron Maiden, Anthrax | Van Halen, Scorpions, Dokken, Metallica, Kingdom Come | Metallica, The Cult | Grim Reaper, Armored Saint

1989: Anthrax, Exodus, Helloween

1990: Motley Crue, Whitesnake | Paul McCartney | Rush, Mr. Big

1992: Ozzy Osbourne, Slaughter

1993: Heart | Aerosmith, Jackyl

1994: Rush, Primus | Metallica | Ringo Starr | Eric Clapton

1995: Megadeth, Korn, Flotsam and Jetsam, Fear Factory

1997: Metallica

2006: Heart

2007: Heart, Head East

2012: Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper

2013: Pokey LaFarge | Heart, Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience

2014: Heart

2015: Pokey LaFarge

2016: Iron Maiden, The Raven Age | Lake Street Dive, The Brother Brothers

2017: Iron Maiden

2018: Anthrax, Killswitch Engage, Havok

I’m sure I’m still overlooking a band or two. But now tell me who you’ve seen! Leave a comment, or blog about it and link back here.

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Stories Told

Into the mosh pit

The mosh pit formed around me. Suddenly I was being shoved about like a rag doll.


Scott Ian and Joey Belladonna of Anthrax

I am both amused and thrilled that at age 50 I can still go watch many of the heavy-metal bands of my youth perform live. When I was 20 I never imagined that this music genre was in it for the long haul, that it would keep finding new audiences well into the new millennium. Yet it is, and it has, and there I was in a crowd that skewed at least 20 years younger than me.

Looking about, I noticed a handful of men near my age. We were easy to spot for our ear plugs, blue, orange, and green.

The audience was easily 80 percent men, and while it’s hard to tell by looks alone I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them worked blue-collar or service-industry jobs. Metal is an aggressive form of music that appeals to men with few sanctioned outlets for their anger. I get it: even at my age, a good headbang is excellent release.

These photographs are of the headliner, thrash-metal pioneer Anthrax. I’d seen them twice before — in 1988 and 1989! I’d not heard of the two opening bands, Havok and Killswitch Engage. But it turns out they’re established and well known, having been founded in 2004 and 1999, years I was consumed with raising my young children.

I would not have been there at all were it not for our youngest son, aged 17. He loves music from many genres and has lately added metal to his repertoire. He’s not just got an ear for the stuff, but he plays several instruments himself and has studied, all on his own, music theory and composition. When I share with him some of the metal of my younger days, he usually tells me things about the songs’ structure that I never knew, and describes the classical elements after which some of the riffs are modeled.

At any rate, he came to me not long ago and said, “Anthrax is coming to town. Would you like to go?” Hell yes.


Belladonna wailing and Ian shredding

But about that mosh pit: It’s tradition at thrash-metal shows that, near the stage, the audience forms a circle and men run about in it, smashing into and shoving each other. I have never understood the appeal. I remember the first mosh pit I saw, at that 1989 Anthrax show. Looked like chaos; looked like needless pain. I was glad the pit was way across the room from me so I could steer clear.

No luck this time, though. The pit formed around me, and I was furious. I didn’t ask for this! And I’ve been undergoing extensive chiropractic treatment. This had better not undo all that good work!

Oh, those thoughts were so not metal.

I fought my way to the edge of the pit. I tried to push in deeper, but the thick crowd resisted me. So along the edge I stood, a skinny geek among burly men. Quickly I learned that we had a job: to push moshers back in before they broke into the crowd.

That’s where I saw the etiquette in the melee. It began with us men around the edge, protecting the crowd behind us. But even among the moshers there were surprising unspoken rules. Within the pit, nobody’s hands were raised higher than chest level. Hands remained open and were used only to push others. Feet remained on the floor. And, astonishingly, when a man fell the men around him immediately stopped, pushed other moshers away, and picked him up.

At one point a man in a wheelchair joined the moshers. He was able to get in some good pushes, and the jolts he took were not any kinder just because he was chairbound. The fellow was also good and drunk, though. When other moshers saw that he wasn’t sober enough to be there, a couple men wheeled him back out. I didn’t see them come back; maybe they bought the man another beer.

There were rules of engagement here. And on this night, everyone I saw played by them.

Later, a gap formed behind me in the crowd. I was happy to fall back into it and just listen to the band and let others do mosher-goalie duty.

The next morning I was unbruised. But I was quite sore, and stayed that way for a week. Moshing is not for the middle aged.

It’s not enough to deter me from more metal shows, though. We are going to see another thrash-metal pioneer, Slayer, on their farewell tour in May.

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