Stories Told

Everyday life, half a world away

Originally published 1 August 2014. The summer I turned 17, I lived with a very nice family in Krefeld, Germany. I was on an exchange program through Indiana University that aimed to immerse me in the German language so that I could increase my fluency. It worked; by the time I came back to the United States I was dreaming in German, and for several days I kept slipping back into speaking German without realizing it, and nobody could understand me! But here, I want to remember the everyday life I got to live while I was there.

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My home that summer

Ulrich and Irene were my host parents, and Peter and Ulrike my teenaged host brother and sister. They lived what I see now was an upper-middle-class life in Krefeld. Row houses were the rule, and almost everybody shared walls with their neighbors on both sides. It was a sign of status that their house was attached to a neighboring house on only one side, and even then, only via a garage wall.

They were a good family that loved each other. They lived a low-key life centered around each other and their home. The family ate two and sometimes three meals a day together. Freshly baked rolls were delivered every morning for breakfast, and cheeses and hard sausages and Nutella came out every morning to top them. Irene thought for sure that as an American I’d want a bowl of corn flakes for breakfast, and bought box after box for me. I never had the heart to tell her I’d rather have rolls and Nutella! That chocolate-flavored nut spread was such a sugar-laden pleasure! It would be 20 more years before you could buy it in the States.

The main meal of the day was at about 1:30. Ulrich came home from work to eat with his family. Dinners were usually meat, vegetable, and boiled potatoes with a thin brown gravy. I never got tired of those boiled potatoes – they were outstandingly delicious! I don’t know what the Germans do to grow such flavorful potatoes. No American tubers can touch them. Ulrich went back to work after dinner and so missed afternoon coffee and sometimes even the evening meal. There was usually some sort of sweet or pastry at afternoon coffee, and that summer it frequently featured strawberries. Evening meal came at about 7 and usually consisted of an open-faced sandwich of hard sausage. It was nice to have such a light supper; it made it easier to fall asleep at bedtime.

After Ulrich made it home in the evening, it was his habit to offer me a beer. I’d never had beer before, so out of anxiety I declined. Later I did come to enjoy German beer, but by then it had become almost a game between us: he’d offer, I’d decline, and he’d sigh. I hope he knew we were both playing! On my last evening in their home, I did have a beer with Ulrich, and he seemed delighted.

Irene kept a lovely and spotless home. She was home anytime I was, and was always up for a conversation. I think that my German skills improved mostly through conversation with Irene, who wasn’t shy about gently correcting poor pronunciation, untangling my garbled grammar, and feeding me words I didn’t know. I liked to run errands with her around Krefeld in her car, an itty bitty Citroën Visa, easily the smallest car I’ve ever been in.

I spent a fair amount of time with Peter, who was about my age. The family had hosted several other Indiana teenagers in past years, but they all had been girls. That year the family specifically requested a young man and they got me. I think Peter secretly wished I had been more athletic, as he liked to play soccer and I just couldn’t keep up. Instead, I was able to show him a thing or two on the family’s home computer. His sister Ulrike was kind and friendly, but a couple years older and involved in her own world.

Krefeld streetcar
Krefeld streetcar

The family had few rules for me, the most important of which by far was to enter the house quietly late at night so I wouldn’t wake them up. I was free to run around with my friends in the exchange program. Public transportation was outstanding and I could get anywhere I wanted to go in Krefeld on the streetcar. I rode it to school every weekday and also downtown where I would meet friends. We’d walk through the train station or Horten, a department store. We’d stop at an ice-cream stand, or step into a fast-food joint for pommes (french fries). Once we took part in a tournament for the board game Risk. The Germans who played seemed astonished that not only could these kids from Indiana play the game, but we spoke their language well.

A couple times my friends and I met at the Gleumes brewery for beer. Krefeld had two breweries, Gleumes and Rhenania, but I liked Gleumes a little bit better. We all toured the Rhenania brewery, though, and at the end we were invited to sample their brews. That was the first time I drank beer, and because I had no idea what I was doing I got good and bombed. But the streetcar stop was on the corner, so there was no need to drive. The Germans are onto something: you can drink beer in public starting at age 16, but you can’t get your driver’s license until you’re 18. You learn how to handle your beer before you learn to drive! And when you’ve had a little too much, there’s no need to drive anyway, because public transportation is extensive and it will get you home. Anyway, I was so drunk after my brewery tour that I missed my stop and got to tour Krefeld by electric rail while I sobered up.

Another time we walked into a random pub in Düsseldorf where they made their beer on the premises. The brewpub concept is hot in the States now, but the whole idea was a revelation to me in 1984. We sat down and the bartender produced beers for all of us without us asking. They made one kind of beer, so if you were there, that’s what you got! I turned the cardboard beer coaster over just to look at it, and found it covered in penciled tick marks. The bartender quickly chided me (in German): “The last fellow drank that many beers and that’s how I kept track. Unless you want to pay for all that, lay that coaster down with the unmarked side up!” That last fellow could put away an impressive amount of beer!

I wish I had more photographs of simple times with friends and my host family. I didn’t know how to compose a candid shot then and I was simply too anxious to ask people to pose. I have a handful of candid shots but that’s all. I cling to them, especially as during college I lost contact with the other students who made the trip with me, and shortly after college contact with my host family petered out. It’s been 25 years since I last saw or corresponded with any of them.

But my memories remain. Such good memories. Such a remarkable trip that tangibly shaped who I would become.

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Personal, Stories Told

Living life after running out of things to graduate from

I first shared this in 2013 as my older son was about to apply to colleges. Now his younger brother has graduated college, and I’m thinking about this message again.

I overheard my sons talking the other day about college. I found that to be encouraging, because I think they’re both bright and capable and should go to college.

My youngest said, “Elementary school prepares you for middle school, which prepares you for high school, which prepares you for college. And then college prepares you for life.” I was with him right up until the last link in his chain.

My degree itself didn’t prepare me for life. My overall college experience helped prepare me for life a little. But after I graduated college and lived on my own, my adult life was significantly new and different from anything I had experienced before. I had to figure it out as it happened.

Cueing a record
On the air at Rose-Hulman’s WMHD

Now, I loved my studies. I majored in mathematics and minored in German and sociology, and exploring these subjects made my heart sing. A few things I learned in class have directly helped me in my software-development career, but otherwise, my studies have benefited my life and career only intangibly.

Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career. I had fun doing my regular air shifts. I learned a lot about working as part of a team and taking care of my commitments to them. When I became station manager, I led an executive board and had responsibility for about 100 staff members. I also learned to deal with difficult people (primarily the chief engineer, who seemed always to look for reasons to clash with me) and still get the job done.

There were no tests and no grades; there was no end goal. We meant to stay on the air indefinitely. (Sadly the station shut down in 2013.) We aimed to deliver the best on-air work we could today, and do it a little better tomorrow.

What I didn’t see very well at the time was that this was a lot like real life. When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.

I’ve lived more than 8,700 days (in Sept. 2013 when I first published this; it’s 11,600 now) since I graduated college. There have been some great times and some really awful times as I’ve figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now that I’m middle aged. With good health and good fortune, my sons will have many thousands of days after they graduate from college, too. I hope they figure this out faster than I did.

Did college prepare you for life? What prepared you best? Tell it in the comments, or write it on your own blog and link back here.

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Stories Told

Then there was the time we were visited by Child Protective Services

I think every kid should know how to ride a bike. Kids today probably disagree, as I see few kids on bikes anymore. They must all be inside playing video games. I taught my sons nevertheless.

Neither was excited about it, but at least my older son tolerated it. My younger son resisted. After I took his training wheels off, he fought me every time we went out to practice. He told me he wouldn’t do it. He cried. He refused to get on the bike. Each time, I cajoled and wheedled until he gave in.

The divorce was final but still fresh. My stress had been off the charts and my fuse was still short. Each time I took my younger son out on his bike, I pulled together all of the patience I had.

He crashed a lot. Then I realized that he was deliberately crashing, hoping that it would shake me off, make me give up. One particular day he had crashed at least three times in five minutes and was visibly agitated. My patience had run out and I had grown angry.

I made him go again, but this time I kept my hand on the back of his seat. My plan was to steady him when he tried to crash. He shortly did just that and I grabbed the seat to keep him upright. Not only did it not work, but it made matters worse — he went right over the handlebars and landed hard on the street.

He was stunned, and he had skinned himself in a couple places. He cried a little. But after a few minutes he seemed okay.

I certainly didn’t mean to send him flying, and I felt bad about it. But I’ll admit it: much more, I was angry with him for not cooperating.

I had visions of my sons riding for the sheer joy of it, as I had when I was their age. My bicycle took me everywhere and was my constant companion. I wanted them to experience the same! I wanted them to have a great childhood, even though it was no longer in an intact family.

But after my sons learned to ride, my older son rode once in a great while and my younger son never rode again. It just wasn’t for them. If I had it all to do over again, I would have still bought them bikes and tried to teach them, but when especially the younger son started fighting me on it, I would have let it go.

If I had that day to do over again, after the second or third time my son deliberately crashed I would have sat on the curb with him and said, “Seems like today’s not the best day or this. Why don’t we call it for today. Maybe we can try again tomorrow.” It would have given us both a break, and would have let me regain my calm.

A week later, or maybe it was two, I heard from Child Protective Services. I’m pretty sure they sent me a letter. If so, I’m sure it’s in my divorce file box. It’s been twelve years; some details have faded from memory. But I remember crystal clear that there was an allegation that I had abused my son, and they wanted to come talk with me about it.

There had recently been a headline-grabbing case of a child murdered by his father (I think it was), after CPS investigated abuse claims but decided to leave the child in the home. It generated outrage all over the city, and CPS responded by hiring a horde of additional investigators and cracking down hard.

I panicked. The end of my marriage and my divorce were so brutal that I needed serious professional help to cope. My mental health had been the focus of my divorce trial. It was partly why the judge awarded me no custody, not physical, not legal. At least he granted me the usual amount of parenting time. Losing custody hurt like hell, but I was grateful not to lose my sons entirely. When CPS came to call, I was still under psychiatric care. I had visions of losing my parenting time and seeing my sons no more.

There was no way I wanted to face CPS alone, so I called my pastor, Ed. He readily agreed to be there when the investigator arrived.

I don’t know why I remember that she pulled into my driveway in an old and worn-out car, a gray sedan. I also remember that she looked too young, probably 21 or 22. Ed and I met her at the door and she asked if we could sit and talk for a few minutes. I led them to the dining table.

She got right down to business. “So I understand after talking with your ex-wife that you’re mentally ill, and that you take medications to manage your symptoms. Are you compliant with your medication?”

I didn’t have time to be stunned by the question. Ed, a big bear of a man, immediately leaned way forward and said loudly and angrily, “Pardon me! Are you a mental health professional? Do you have a medical degree? Because unless you do, you will end this line of questioning right now as you’re not qualified to ask it. You are responding to hearsay from his ex-wife.”

My anxiety spiked. I felt hot; I had probably turned red. I was thinking, “Holy crap, Ed, what are you doing? I need your support and here you are antagonizing the investigator!”

Ed had intimidated the hell out of her. Her eyes widened to the size of half dollars and she immediately changed her tactic. “Ok then. I’m here because we have a report that you pushed your son off his bicycle. Why don’t you tell me what happened that day.”

I recounted my story as I told it above, including expressing my regret for not stopping when I started to get angry. Seeming satisfied with my answer, she then asked me questions about our day-to-day lives in the home. She also looked in my refrigerator and cabinets to make sure I had enough food, which was humiliating. And then she said she needed to speak with my sons privately.

I had sent them to their rooms when the investigator arrived, but we found them sitting within earshot in the living room. They’d heard everything, and their faces were ashen. They fixed their gazes at the floor as the investigator asked them to follow her to the back bedroom so she could talk with them.

She spent all of ten minutes with them behind that closed door. When they emerged, she said, “Mr. Grey, there are three possible outcomes of a CPS abuse investigation. We can find that there is evidence of abuse, or that there is no evidence of abuse, or that there is evidence that there was no abuse. I find that there is evidence of no abuse. You should hear nothing more from us about this matter.

“I’d also like to offer our assistance. It seems like you are working hard to be a good dad, and CPS can support you in that. We could come by from time to time and offer coaching. It’s completely voluntary.”

I was overcome with relief to be exonerated. And the truth was, I could have used someone to talk with who could give me good advice. I was doing the best I could to be a good dad to my sons, but I was building a home life all on my own while holding down full time work and still processing considerable anger from the end of my marriage. And I experienced my ex as very unkind toward me, which only made parenting harder. After all these years I can see that my ex was still processing her own considerable anger. We’d both equally destroyed our marriage; the betrayals had run deep. But all of my instincts insisted that help should not come from CPS — it would be better to keep the government out of my home. I declined.

After the investigator left, Ed said to my sons, “Come into the dining room and sit down around the table. I want to talk with you.”

Even though my own grief, pain, and anger were still strong, I had compassion for my sons. They were trying to cope with the breakup of their family, too. Even though their mom and I hardly interacted in front of them, I’m sure they were aware of the ongoing difficulty between us. It had to be so hard for them to figure out how to be in relationship with both of us. I knew they were going to their mom’s from my house and telling their mom everything that happened. I’m sure they were trying to find favor with her by telling her things she might find upsetting. I often got angry emails from her about things they told her.

I don’t remember Ed’s exact words to my sons, but here’s his message to them: Boys, I know you love your dad, and you love your mom. Your dad is trying to love you as hard as he can. You’re trying to figure out how to love your dad and love your mom now that they’re apart. But you’ve got to stop going home and telling your mom everything that happens here. It can have very bad effects. You came very close today to never seeing your dad again.

I remember my sons sitting up very straight, their faces grave, when Ed said that last sentence.

I thought Ed went too far. I wasn’t crazy about the idea that what happened in my home had to be a secret. But I didn’t know how to respond and I remained silent.

The gift of hindsight shows me now that Ed’s words changed everything for me and my sons, creating a shift for the better in our relationships. Both sons, especially my younger one, became much more receptive to me. We were able to keep building our relationships from there.

This story has been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe telling it will help me release my sad feelings about it.

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COVID-19, Stories Told

Changing jobs during a pandemic

Even as I approached the building, all was strange. The front was still boarded up after last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the only such building on the block. My key card let me in the front door. It was irrational, I’m sure, but I thought it might not still work after not having used it in ten months. The lights were off in the lobby, as they were on my floor as the elevator doors opened.

My desk was as messy as I’d left it. I didn’t know when I took the week off in early March that I’d never use it again. The company ordered us all to work from home starting the Monday I was to return.

Fast forward to December. I received a fantastic offer from another company, one I would have been foolish to ignore. I took it. On my last day, I drove to my soon-to-be-former office to clean out my desk.

I’ve left jobs before, a dozen times. I have it down. I take stuff home little by little during my last two weeks so my desk is clear on my last day. After lunch I walk around and say personal goodbyes to everyone I can find who I ever worked with, wrapping up with my boss. Not only will I miss the people, who I genuinely enjoy, but also I want to leave a good final impression. The market I work in is small enough that I’m likely to work with some of them again. When I’ve said my final goodbye, I slip out the door.

This was all different. There had been a Zoom happy hour in my honor, which was a nice gesture. I said goodbyes in my normal meetings all during my final week. Anyone I didn’t see, I Slacked. But it all felt so disconnected.

Stepping off the elevator, the floor was silent but for the whoosh and hum of the HVAC. The last time I was on this floor it buzzed with such activity that I needed noise-canceling headphones to be able to focus. I sorted through my things, leaving a healthy portion of it in the wastebasket. I left my laptop and my key card on my desk, picked up my box, rode the elevator down, and walked out for the last time.

Monday morning I started at the new job. My commute didn’t change a bit: I came downstairs, sat at my desk, and started Zoom. But the faces I saw on the screen were all new.

The new company did a terrific job of onboarding, easily the best experience of my career. They committed to everyone’s first full week being nothing but group meetings with various people in the company telling us the company’s history and mission, how we make money, how administrative things work, and what our product looks like and how it works. We got to meet all of the executives.

Yet I kept wishing to see my old team in those little boxes. I really missed them! I always miss the good people I worked with when I leave a job, but never this acutely. But then, I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye.

This post also appeared on my software blog earlier this month.

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Dreading snow

When I was nine years old, my parents bought my brother and I snow shovels, put a bow on each of them, and leaned them against the fireplace next to the tree Christmas morning. I mark that moment as the day I began to hate snow.

My hometown of South Bend is one of the snowiest cities in the nation. It ranks eleventh, actually, netting 66 inches in an average winter. (Syracuse, NY, the snowiest city, gets almost twice that!) Given that winters were colder and snowier during my 1970s and 1980s kidhood, I’m certain that South Bend got more than that then. I shoveled it all.

First snow fell in early November, last snow fell sometime in April, and we usually didn’t see the ground in between. More than once, snow piled up in strip-mall parking lots was still melting the first of June!

The rule was that we had to have the driveway and sidewalks (on our corner lot) cleared before Dad got home. Heaven forbid that Dad have to pull into the garage over snow, leaving tire tracks that would freeze and be nigh onto impossible to remove!

It was common for my brother and I to shovel the drive and walks two or three times in a day, often while snow was still falling. When you had more than a foot in the forecast, you didn’t want to wait until it was all done falling. Even healthy, energetic kids like my brother and me would wear ourselves out trying to remove a giant snow dumping all at once.

The city snow plow left huge deposits across the end of our driveway and on our tree lawns, sometimes six or eight feet high. Once Mom painted a sign reading FREE SNOW and stuck it in the pile in the tree lawn. A photographer for the city paper happened to see it and made a snap. It ran on the front page the next day.

Central Indiana winters are mild compared to what I grew up with, and they’ve done nothing but get milder with each passing year. I had to shovel snow for the first time this winter just the other day. I shouldn’t complain. But I still do.

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Stories Told

A Facebook group for writers and readers of personal essay, personal story, and memoir

I’ve started a group on Facebook for people who like to write and/or read personal essay, personal story, and memoir. You can join it here.

If you write about your life, this is the place to share your writing, wherever you publish it online. It’s also a good place to promote your books if you have published any. Just don’t spam the group with posts about your books — give as much as you take!

If you like to read stories about peoples’ lives, it’s my hope that in time it will be a consistent source of new material.

I believe everyone’s life is interesting — it’s all in how you tell the stories.

I hope you’ll join the group! Check it out here.

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