Stories Told

Summer’s denouement

(originally posted 9/14/08) During my 1970s kidhood when schools started after Labor Day as God intended, my mid-August birthday always meant summer was beginning to end. By then, the afternoon sun was at its hottest and most intense, the annual August dry spell began to toughen and dry all that had been green, and the street lights switched on earlier to send everyone inside for long quiet evenings with our families and our TVs.

The dozens of children all up and down Rabbit Hill, as our parents nicknamed our prolific neighborhood, always sensed these changes. We squeezed in as much play as we could before time ran out. One fellow down the street, thinking he was Mickey Rooney in Babes in Armsalways organized and directed an end-of-summer show, an extravaganza that nobody would come and watch because everybody was in it. I would push to reach the new tree-climbing heights my brother and his best friend had mastered weeks before, heightening their schadenfreude when I would inevitably fall, have the wind knocked out of me, and make that loud but hilarious sucking noise that only sounds like death is imminent. Somebody would connive their mother into have a big running-through-the-sprinkler get together at which gallons of Kool-Aid were served. Several kids sold lemonade or toys at a family garage sale to raise money for Jerry’s Kids. The chubby fellow who lived where the street curved sang his slightly naughty rhymes more often (“In 1944/My father went to the war/He stepped on the gas/And blew out his ass/In 1944!”). And then came the telethon, which was on almost everybody’s TV, and we all knew it was over.

Summertime children on Lancaster Drive

On the day after school started, we could still play war in full army gear in the wide easement behind the houses, ride our bikes and Big Wheels up and down the hill making siren sounds as if we were a horde of ambulances and police cars (imagine 20 children doing this on your street!), play endless Red Rover in the freckled girl’s front yard, and watch the four-year-old girl next door eat sand with a spoon (oh, if her mom only knew). But we didn’t, hardly. We lost our enthusiasm. It was time to button ourselves back down and return to school-day routines.

Rabbit Hill conditioned me well; I still recognize and lament the signs of summer’s end. Kids have been back in school for weeks already. The grass hasn’t grown much lately because of the annual dry spell. My air conditioner has been off more days than it’s been on; it was even too chilly the other morning to drive to work with the window down. I’ve crammed as much outside time as I can into these days to enjoy their freedom, but the end is in sight. Shorts will soon give way to long pants and short sleeves will give way to long sleeves. I’ll be in a windbreaker with a rake in my hands, collecting my trees’ deposits. The snow will fly and I’ll be hunkered down at home. I still feel restricted, buttoned down, in fall and winter.

Here’s hoping for a long, warm Indian summer first!

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Essay, Personal, Stories Told

The secret to adulting is routines and systems

My older son Damion graduates from college on Sunday. I’m sad to admit that I’m primarily relieved that I no longer have to write big tuition checks. These college years have been financially stressful! One graduate down, two more to go (in 2021 and 2022).

Still, I’m happy for my son, and deeply pleased with his accomplishment. I might even shed a tear on graduation day.

He made it through in four years with relatively light student-loan debt, no small feat these days. He hasn’t lined up a job yet, but he’s working on it. It will come. And then his adult life begins.

I remember when mine began — and how challenging I found the adjustment. I think many of us experience this. I’d run out of things to graduate from and had to find my way. It was bewildering.

So I aped what I saw my parents do: make routines and systems out of everything I could.

Leaving for work, 1989

I organized my life around my job. It’s what my dad always did. He worked from 7 to 3:30 in the factory, and by God he made sure he was at work not just on time but early and ready to work hard. I didn’t have to be to work until 8, so I adjusted my timing accordingly, but otherwise I followed his pattern. I went to bed every night by 11 and rose at 6. I showered and dressed, and then went into the kitchen where I turned on the radio and made eggs and toast. I read the newspaper over breakfast until it was time to go. I got to my desk by 7:45 most days. When I got home, I made a simple dinner and watched the nightly news. I did simple chores around the house or ran routine errands, and when that was done I watched TV until bedtime.

I set aside Thursday evening to go to the laundromat and afterward iron my dress shirts, and Monday evening to shop for groceries and supplies.

I adapted my mom’s system for not running out of items at home. Every week I put a fresh sticky note on a kitchen cabinet and another on the bathroom medicine chest. As I got close to running out of items I’d write them down on the nearest sticky note. Then on shopping day I’d transfer those items to my shopping list and set out fresh sticky notes. For critical items like toilet paper I always kept a spare in the closet. It cut way back on emergency trips to the store. Whenever I needed to use one of my spares it went onto the nearest sticky note so I could get a new spare on my next shopping trip.

I paid my bills on Saturday morning. As they came in the mail I’d stack them on a table next to my desk. On Saturday I’d figure out which ones were due soonest and pay the ones I had money for. The rest went back onto the stack. I didn’t make very much money. but there was enough to pay for everything if I timed it all right.

Those were my normal routines and systems, but I could shift them around when adventure came my way. For a while I had a Thursday-night airshift at my alma mater’s radio station. Sometimes a friend would call and want to go get a beer. Every now and again I had to work late. Sometimes I went away for the weekend. I kept enough of everything on hand so that if I needed to, I could move laundry or shopping a night or two and be all right. My Saturday bill-paying routine could always be done the preceding Friday over breakfast.

My routines and systems provided structure and resiliency to my life. I always had clean clothes, so I never had to worry about what I was going to wear to work. I always had food in the house, so I never had to spend big money on a meal out (unless I wanted to) or go hungry. My bills were always paid, so nothing ever went past due and collection agencies never called.

My routines and systems let me live a pretty good life. I was able to focus on my job and enjoying my free time.

Easy like a Sunday morning, 1989

I still keep these routines and systems, except today shopping is Sunday after church and laundry is Saturday morning. I still pay bills on Saturday, although there’s enough money now I just pay every bill every week. I still have enough slack in the plan that I can move things around a day or two without running out of underwear or finding nothing in the house for breakfast.

I suppose I come from a family that naturally builds routines and systems. I know not all people do. But I know everybody can build habits, like brushing your teeth. With deliberate practice I think anyone can enjoy the lowered stress and increased effectiveness this brings.

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Personal, Stories Told

We can learn what love is even from the imperfect people in our lives

My grandparents retired in about 1970 to an acre on a small lake in rural southwestern Michigan. Grandpa liked to watch the sun rise over the lake while he sipped his coffee. They wheeled a mobile home onto their lot and angled it so he could do just that from his breakfast table.

But this isn’t about my grandpa, it’s about my grandma. She was just the kind of woman to make sure Grandpa’s home was placed perfectly for Michigan lake sunrises. She bought his cars. She chose his clothes and laid them out every night so next morning he need only put them on. No matter how hung over Grandpa was she made sure he was up, fed, shaved, dressed, and to work on time.

She adored that man. She would have moved a mountain for him had she thought he might want it. If he were then to wrinkle up his face and say, “What did you do that for?” she’d move it right back.

I’m lucky to have made a few photos of her when I was young. I can thank my dad for it. The summer I turned 10 we went to visit and on the way we stopped at K-Mart for something. Dad dashed in and we waited in the car. It was very unlike my extremely frugal father, but he came back out with gifts for my brother and for me: an inexpensive 126 camera kit, one for each of us, complete with film and flash cubes.

Here’s a profile I made of Grandma that day. We were down by the shore, sitting around and talking. Yes, Grandma smoked. All of the adults in the family did.

My grandparents smoked too much. They also drank too much and swore too much. They were codependent with their youngest son, who was lost to alcoholism and drug abuse. In part because they kept paying to fix the messes that son made, they constantly robbed Peter to pay Paul to keep up with their bills. They vocally didn’t like Mexicans or African-Americans, although those would not have been the names they used for them.

But our time at the lake set the standard for me on how to be with your family, and how good simple family times can be. We often sat at the shore and talked for hours, we kids drinking pop and running around, and the adults drinking beer and wine.

They bought a pontoon boat so we could putter around the lake doing much the same, except with our fishing poles along, lines cast lazily into the water. The lake was full of bluegill and sunfish, easy to catch by the dozen.

In the evenings Grandma would make a big pot of something and we’d eat as we were hungry. We’d all squeeze in around their big dining room table and play penny-ante poker or Kismet, which is a dice game similar to Yahtzee. When the whole extended family was over we’d have ten or twelve people in each game, with other family members waiting for someone to be dealt out so they could be dealt in.

Grandma was up a lot filling everybody’s drinks. Some evenings she’d get out the hard liquor and make screwdrivers or Harvey Wallbangers. If she was really feeling it she’d get out the blender and make minty Grasshoppers. We kids would stick to pop, of course.

Then Grandma would be up with the sun to fillet the fish we caught and fry them all up for our breakfast. She always fried some potatoes too, and made toast, and served applesauce. We’d all sit around the table and eat until we were stuffed. To this day I sometimes crave fried fish for breakfast.

From about the time I made this photograph my brother and I spent a week or two at the lake each summer, just us with our grandparents. Grandpa had gone back to work as a draftsman for a small company in the nearest town. We’d all pile into their Bronco in the morning to drop Grandpa off, and then we’d go running around. We mostly did mundane things like shop for groceries or pick up mail at the post office, but Grandma liked the back roads and the long ways and these errands often filled our days. We usually stopped at some out-of-the-way tavern for lunch. Grandma knew all the taverns with good cheeseburgers in five counties.

After we picked Grandpa up we’d go back to the lake and Grandma would make dinner. As we sat around the table, Grandma and Grandpa would tell their stories of days gone by, often late into the evening. They told the same stories over and over again, sometimes adding new details of the 1950s when Grandpa was building his career and they were raising their family, and of tough times during the Great Depression. They lived in great fear of another depression, and were resolute that if another one came they would figure out how the whole family, all the sons and daughters and grandchildren, could live together on their acre at the lake and make it through.

My grandparents were far from perfect. But I felt deeply connected to my family through them. I belonged with them, I belonged at the lake. It created a foundational security in me that continues to serve me well.

Eventually childhood passed, I went off to college, and I saw my grandparents infrequently. Grandma wrote me from time to time and always slipped five or ten dollars into the envelope. Whenever I felt a little lost or lonely I’d call her. Long distance was expensive so we didn’t talk for more than a few minutes, but she was always so happy to hear from me and spoke to me as if nothing I wanted was beyond my grasp. It was like taking a long drink from a deep well.

I didn’t make it through college before both of my grandparents died, both in 1987, both aged just 71. Grandpa passed in January after a long illness and Grandma died suddenly in December. I still miss them both, but I especially miss Grandma.

When I had my own family, I tried to create good family times in the same ways my grandmother did: over food and conversation and simple shared experiences. As much as I could, I had my sons’ grandparents and their uncle over. We had no lake, no smoking, and far less alcohol — but, I hope, the same firm foundation of belonging and love and connection for my children.

I wrote a remembrance of my grandfather here.

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Excel and PowerPoint

My secret life as an author
Nikon N8008, 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6 AF Nikkor
Kodak Tri-X 400
2017

I used to edit and, sometimes, write books about popular software applications.

I started doing this in 1994. It was the job that brought me to Indianapolis from Terre Haute, at a time when the “For Dummies” franchise was red hot. That job turned out to be a sweatshop grind, and I left it after just eighteen months. Shortly I made connections with a competing publisher and edited on the side for several more years.

The two pictured books have my work in them. The PowerPoint book was originally written by the two other authors listed on the spine. But PowerPoint marches on, and new features are added. The publisher paid me nicely to update the entire book for what was then PowerPoint’s latest version. You don’t see my name on the Excel book’s spine because I was a ghost author, contributing to about half of the chapters.

My favorite work was technical editing, which made sure the books were accurate. Nobody wants to spend $30 on an instructional book only to have it steer them wrong! The publisher paid me by the page, and I was fast, so my effective hourly rate was high.

I gave up the work near the end of my first marriage, as I wanted my nights and weekends back. My first wife and I paid down a lot of debt from editing money. I wouldn’t mind picking up a little side editing now, for the same reason.

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Film Photography, Stories Told

single frame: My secret life as an author

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Essay, Stories Told

This cup is already broken

This was my favorite mug.

mymug

A long time ago I worked in a museum’s gift shop. We sold works of local artists and for several weeks featured a talented potter. I was taken with this fellow’s work for its bold color, especially four coffee mugs in this motif. I wanted them all, but could afford only one, and chose this one.

This mug was as much a pleasure to use as it was to behold. Its slender angled lip felt good on my lips. The thumbprint-sized indentation pressed into the top of the handle made it very comfortable to hold.

I’ve had very few possessions that satisfied me as much as this mug. I drank my coffee from it for 21 years, first at college, then in my first apartment, then at home after I was married, and finally at work. But sadly it was damaged when I moved it to my last job. Something must have struck the box it was in. When I filled it with coffee, a puddle quickly formed wherever I set it.

Buddhists have a saying: This cup is already broken. It’s meant to teach us that nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it. (The book of Ecclesiastes agrees, by the way, if you aren’t too keen on Buddhist teachings.) Enjoying what I have has been a recurring theme on this blog. For example, I’ve written before about how I was so focused on taking care of my first brand new car that it robbed me of some of the pleasure of driving it. I have struggled with this lesson all my life.

I grew up in a working-class family. We weren’t poor, but we earned every thing we owned, and little was handed to me. I saved to buy things I wanted, such as my bicycle and my first old cameras. Every purchase was dear because my money didn’t stretch very far. I was always very upset when something broke or wore out, because I would have to save for a long time to replace it. This shaped my attitude toward my possessions. I have tended to buy used or inexpensive things, because when they broke or wore out I could soothe myself by saying that I hadn’t lost much. When I have received especially nice or new things, I have tended not to want to use them.

After my grandfather died, I got his pocket knife. It was a gentleman’s knife, two small blades in a slender silver body. I left it in a dresser drawer for years, afraid to carry it lest I lose it. But I couldn’t very well enjoy my grandfather’s memory that way, and so one morning I finally slipped it into my pocket. When I got home that night, I found that it had fallen out somewhere along the way, and I never saw it again.

That loss stung. In its wake I clenched even tighter on my possessions. That brings me to this mug. Because at about this time I realized I drank far more coffee at work than at home. I wanted to take my mug to the office, but I resisted out of worry that it would more readily be lost, damaged, or stolen there.

About 15 years ago I needed to sell almost everything I owned. That was super hard. Yet after it was all gone and I carried on with my life, I was surprised by how little of it I missed. Today, I occasionally wish for a couple old cameras I especially enjoyed and a few of my old record albums that have never been released on CD. That’s it. I can’t even remember some of the things I owned. It was, I am stunned to have learned, just stuff.

That my mug survived was merely an oversight, but one I was glad to have made. As soon as I came across it, I took it right to work where I could enjoy it best. And sure enough, that’s where my mug met its demise. But I got to use it for seven years at work before that happened – and in that time, I figure I drank at least 3,600 cups of coffee from it. I enjoyed it to the hilt!

And so I’ve been thinking about how to extend this idea. How will I behave differently if I think as though my kids are already grown and gone? As though I’ve already moved on from my current job? As though I’ve already remarried and left my single life behind?

What else can you think of?

Originally published in May of 2010. Back by popular demand. And since I wrote this, I’m almost empty nested, I’ve moved on from two jobs, and I’ve remarried. This long-ago reflection absolutely helped me enjoy my fleeting, temporary life more.

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The best customer-service experience I’ve ever had

I applied for a job that asked me to write a few short essays on topics germane to the role. One of them, as this post’s title says, was to tell about an amazing customer-service experience I’ve had. You might enjoy the story.

I had an amazing customer service experience with the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Yes, you read that right — the BMV. It showed me that persistence and savvy can solve a thorny customer problem.

It was 1994. My license was due to expire so I went to the nearest license branch to renew it. The clerk said, “Mr. Grey, the computer says you renewed your license at the Lawrence branch last month.” That was 90 miles from where I was standing. I’d never been to that town.

Dog in the wayback

This happened long before the phrase “identity theft” had been coined, long before data security was any kind of concern. We were all incredibly careless with our personal information then. It was common to have your Social Security number printed on your checks! Mine was. Heck, until just a few years before this story happened, your SSN was your driver’s license number in Indiana. Clerks at Kroger used to validate the checks I used to pay for my groceries by making sure the SSN on my check matched my driver’s license number. It was madness.

This problem was beyond the clerk’s authority, so she gave me a number to call. The representative who answered lacked the authority to help me as well. “I’m not even sure who can help you with this,” she said. “But I’ll find out. Give me a number where I can reach you. Here’s my number in case you don’t hear from me in the next day or so.”

That day-or-so stretched into a couple weeks, with that rep and I calling each other every few days to check in. She tried office after office at the BMV until she found someone both with the authority and the willingness to take on my case.

The woman who now had my case was some sort of upper-level manager. After I mailed her documentation that proved my identity to her satisfaction, she told me what she knew. “We think someone walked into the Lawrence branch claiming they were you and that they had lost their license card, sweet talked a clerk, and walked out with a license in your name but with their photo on it.”

License plate

“This is not going to be easy, but I am going to do everything I can to resolve this for you,” she said. “I will take this all the way to the BMV Commissioner if I have to, and I may have to.” She advised me to check my credit reports and criminal records in several Indiana counties to see if my impostor was doing dirty deeds in my name. She gave me her phone number so I could stay in touch.

It took her weeks to sort it out, working with various BMV offices to coordinate the solution. She authorized an entirely new driver’s license number for me and put an alert on my old record that the license was fraudulent. “You need to know that we’ve never done anything like this, not in all the years I’ve been here. But we allowed this problem to happen and it is on us to fix it for you. By the way, if the police pull the impostor over for speeding,” she said, “he’ll find himself in handcuffs!”

I was lucky; my credit did not get torched and the sheriff did not appear at my door because of something my impostor did. There was an upside for me, though. The BMV’s ancient computer couldn’t transfer my driving record to my new license, which made two speeding tickets disappear. Poof!

What made this a great customer service experience was:

  • Persistence. Everybody I encountered worked hard on this problem, jumping hurdles and removing obstacles, until it was resolved.
  • Savvy. The BMV was a giant state bureaucracy, with miles of red tape. The customer-service rep and the upper-level manager both knew how to navigate it expertly.
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