Personal, Stories Told

Re-integrating joy

My recent post about my renovated elementary school reminded me of this post I wrote when my blog was new and almost nobody was reading it. It shares some memories of Kindergarten in that school. So I’ve dusted it off, edited it a little, and added photos.

My dad once told me that I was the most joyful little boy he had ever known. During my first few years, he said, I seemed to constantly have a big beaming smile on my face, and everything seemed to make me happy. The few memories I have of my first three years seem to support his perception. Here are all of them:

First, I watched on TV as Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I don’t remember the landing, but I do remember that it was sponsored by Gulf Oil with its big red-circle logo and its name in tall letters within. Mom says that at every commercial break, I pointed at the screen and exclaimed, “Gulf!”

Next, I used to get up when Dad’s alarm went off at 5 a.m., go quietly into my parents’ room, and lie still on the corner of their bed in the dark. The radio played softly, always on the Hit Parade station, while Dad dressed for work. I heard Karen Carpenter sing and when I closed my eyes her voice made me see colors that flowed and shifted with her song. I hoped to hear her song every morning.

Finally, I woke up in the hospital after surgery groggy and angry, but very glad when Dad came to take me home. He picked me up and, as I moved through the air on my way to his chest, my anger faded. I felt secure way up there with my head on his shoulder, looking down at the recovery room. He says that I said to him, “They’re not doing that to me again!”

These memories suggest to me that I took life as it was and easily experienced the feelings that went with it. No wonder I found it easy to feel joy. I felt easily.

James Monroe School

My next memories, much more vivid and detailed, are of Kindergarten. My school looked like a castle in red brick trimmed in white with a slate roof and copper gutters. Room 001 was just inside the east entrance, and although the room had two entrance doors, you had to go in the far door because the near door was always locked. The room had a dim cloakroom with cubbyholes for coats and rubbers, and I’m pretty sure there was a tiny restroom in there with just a sink and a toilet. There were five or six low rectangular tables that held six children each, and the teacher had placed a big wooden block on each one, each block a different color, to identify the groups. We did most things with our color groups.

James Monroe School

At the other end of the room was a wide fireplace, and before it a red circle laid into the tile floor. The whole class sat on the circle when Mrs. Coles read to us or we showed our toys at show and tell. We also laid mats down there when we napped. The teacher’s desk was by the fireplace; behind it was a nook chock full of toys including a child-sized kitchen and a big gray wooden box with an old Ford steering wheel and column sticking out of it. Mrs. Coles was a stout, grandmotherly woman with sliver and white cat’s-eye glasses and white hair. She drove her gray 1968 Chevy Malibu coupe (which had a black vinyl top) one whole block from her home to school every morning, where she parked on the street across from the school’s east entrance. Curiously, she always sat in her car for five minutes fiddling with her purse before coming inside.

Clearly, my memory had switched on.

I often felt lonely in that room with 25 kids. I often drove the pretend Ford by myself, in part because I liked cars but also because it was safer not to risk playing with others. The boys pushed and shoved and chased each other and sometimes I got hurt. The girls never caused pain, but I didn’t enjoy always being the husband or the son in their endless games of House. Also, at a time when schools didn’t teach reading until the first grade, I started Kindergarten already able to read. I was proud to be able to read, but Mrs. Coles didn’t believe I could. When I read her a page from a book, she seemed annoyed rather than pleased. I was crushed that she wasn’t as happy with my reading as I was. I also have a couple vague memories of her forcing me to write with my right hand, which confused and upset me because I was just as good with my left hand and liked writing with whichever hand felt good.

I faced school as earnestly as I could, but I was lost. When my first report card came, the teacher had remarked in it, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious.”

I’m not sure what changed in me. Maybe I wasn’t quite emotionally ready for school. Perhaps something about my upbringing squashed my natural joy. Perhaps I was just depressed. Who knows; I can’t reach those memories.

Irgendwo an der Mauer

A clue came when I was 16. I spent a summer in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program where I would deepen my German language skills. Even though my family always lived on a tight budget, my father stunned me by making the funds appear to send me on this trip. It took me a couple weeks to let my hair down and find my groove, but once I did I had the time of my life. I made some friends, lived with a nice family, studied German language and culture intensively, and traveled around Germany. I walked 539 steps to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. I drank beer in a little pub in Düsseldorf with a crusty but amused barkeep who explained the secret of the beer coaster and why you never turn it over. I got lost in West Berlin with a friend and spent an evening wandering streets to find our way back to the hostel. I touched the Wall and heard the stories of many who died trying to cross from east to west. I toured a prison where Nazi political enemies were hanged.

Sie verlassen jetzt West-Berlin

I stood on the ground where Christian writer Thomas a Kempis lived. I took a slow boat down the Rhine River and saw the Lorelei. I swam at a pool where clothing was optional from the waist up for everybody. I drank beer with East German teenagers and found that our differing political ideologies mattered not at all compared to our common desires for girlfriends, cars, and beer. It was heady stuff that produced a natural high, but I also was given the freedom and trust to handle myself over there. It let more of the real me come out — and so joy returned. But when I came home, I experienced more than the natural letdown from such a wonderful trip — I found that the world to which I returned didn’t fit the joyful Jim; instead, it was shaped for the serious Jim. With sadness and resentment, I put joyful Jim away, and then the black curtain fell on my first major depression, which did not lift for months.

20 years or more ago popular psychology started talking about how everybody needs to get in touch with their inner child. Then as now, the idea makes me want to gag. But as I’ve worked over the years to improve myself, joyous Jimmy kept appearing and asking for an audience to air his grievances for being put away for more than a quarter century. As I have listened to him, he has slowly been returning to his place within me. My, um, inner child is back! But I also find that the serious Jim isn’t going anywhere. They are both parts of me. Maybe the inner-child crowd really means to say that without being all of who we are, which means bringing back all the parts of us we put away when we were little, we will always struggle to find wholeness, contentment, and peace.

And then there was the time I felt God telling me that real joy was in seeking him and being in his presence. Read the story.

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Film Photography

Captured: Inside the Olympic stadium

Inside the Olympic Stadium

I spent the summer of 1984 in Germany on an exchange trip with other Hoosier high-school German students. While the trip’s purpose was to immerse us in the German language and culture, we did travel around Germany a little. We spent most of a week in Berlin seeing the sights, including a stop at the Olympic stadium. In 1931, Berlin was chosen to host the 1936 Summer Olympics. An existing stadium was going to be used for the Games, but when the Nazis came to power in 1933, they saw the excellent propaganda opportunity the Games offered them. Wanting everything associated with the Games to be tip top, Adolf Hitler ordered this grand new stadium built. Amazingly, it survived World War II almost entirely unscathed.

This image from inside the stadium is actually three photographs. My lousy 110 camera made fuzzy images, but it was the best I could afford and I made the most of it. I made a habit of shooting large scenes as sequential overlapping photos so that I could lay the prints out in the same order to see the whole. It worked, but the results were a bit wonky. I could not have imagined that 25 years later I’d be able to digitize them and use sophisticated software to make seamless panoramic images of them.

This image is best viewed large.

You might also like to see my photos of the Berlin Wall and East Berlin.

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History, Stories Told

It happened at the Wall

I spent the summer of 1984 in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program with 29 other Indiana high-school German students. I lived with a kind and patient family in Krefeld for six of the seven weeks I was there; we young Hoosiers spent the seventh week in Berlin.

Germany was still divided in 1984. We could not know that in five years the Cold War would end, marked dramatically on our televisions by video of East Germans spilling over the Wall and through its checkpoints. We had all seen photos of it in our history books, of course, and maybe even in our German texts. We had heard the story of how the Wall went up “virtually overnight” to keep East Germans from escaping to the West. The whole concept of keeping the East Germans in seemed sad and silly, yet it happened half a world away and seemed remote. So I was unprepared for the Wall when I saw it.

Irgendwo an der Mauer

The Wall was at least twice my height, effectively blocking the view into the East except for tall structures near the border. Its rounded top made it hard to scale.

Irgendwo an der Mauer

It stood several feet behind a railing, which marked the actual border between east and west. Step over the railing and you were on shaky ground. The sign says, “Attention, you are now leaving West Berlin.”

Sie verlassen jetzt West-Berlin

The railing made a wide strip around West Berlin into a no-man’s land. These shots are of the Brandenburg Gate, finished in 1791. It teemed with people until 1962, when the Wall was built.

Brandenburger Tor

We crossed into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie and saw the Gate’s other side from behind a fence. Nobody could get close to this grand symbol of Berlin from either side.

Brandenburger Tor im Osten

Back in West Berlin, the wall stopped next to the Reichstag where the Spree River flowed by.

Deadly crossing

It was a popular place for East Berliners to try to swim to freedom, at least until the East German government lined the river with barbed wire. These eight people were either caught up in it or were shot by border guards as they tried to cross. Here we were told that the no-man’s land behind the Wall was heavily mined and, in some places, lined with weapons that fired automatically.

Memorial to the dead

This is where I fully grasped the Wall’s reality. At first, I had felt frustrated by it, as the roaming American in me was not used to being prevented from going where I pleased. Then I felt saddened that it kept historic sites off limits to everybody. But when I saw these crosses, and the watchtower that loomed near them, I finally understood the real power and control being exerted over an entire people.

Trabi

I spent but a few hours in East Berlin. Every building was old, gray, and dilapidated, compared with the many gleaming new structures in the West. I saw few cars on the roads in East Berlin, but most of the ones I did see were tiny, noisy, smoke-belching, plastic-resin-bodied Trabants as in the photo at left; the roads in West Berlin were choked with traffic, with cars of every make and model produced across Europe and Japan. I watched people in the Alexanderplatz, noticing the downcast silence with the average East German went about his business, especially compared with the exuberance I had experienced in the nightlife on the hot Ku’damm in West Berlin the night before. And then, as my group passed by the Neue Wache building, a military procession began. Everybody stopped to watch the goose-stepping soldiers in their show of miltary strength; the onlookers’ faces showed dull acceptance.

East Berlin

Nature called while I stood on the Alexanderplatz. A sign pointed to a public toilet; it turned out to be a fetid underground pit into which men peed in plain view of each other. Unable to abide the stench, I sought out a restaurant, hoping to find facilities. A hunched-over old man was stationed in the tiny restroom, requiring a 10-pfennig coin to access the stalls and doling out short strips of toilet paper. Such is the nature of communism’s promise of full employment. I lacked coins, and the man would not change a bill, and so I held it until I returned to the West.

It was in experiencing the Wall, and spending those few hours in the East, that I first appreciated the great gifts of freedom I had always enjoyed.

One November morning five years later, I had just started to make my breakfast before dressing and going to work when the radio told me the news of the Wall’s end. I sat at my kitchen table and cried, simultaneously recalling my feelings of shock and sadness from my brief glimpses into East German life, and feeling joy for those people and the hope of better lives for them all.

I’ve touched on my trip to Germany twice before, about the joys of it, and about how I thought it put me in hot water with the FBI.

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Stories Told

Wanted by the FBI

When I was 16, I spent a summer on an exchange program in Krefeld, Germany with 30 other Hoosiers. On the flight over, engine trouble forced us to land in Düsseldorf rather than in Frankfurt as expected. Düsseldorf expected no international flights that day, and so nobody was working in customs. My passport went unstamped; I waltzed into Germany uncounted. How very un-German.

Several weeks later, my exhange group made an 11-hour bus trip to Berlin. On the East German border at Checkpoint Alpha, prominently armed, grave border police in fitted olive uniforms boarded our bus and, without looking at or speaking to anyone, collected all of our passports and took them off the bus. They made us wait more than an hour, our anxiety growing, before they returned with the box and waved us through. Each passport 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 Alpha

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 all our passports, and made us wait for a long time before they returned our passports, stamped again.

Sign at 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.

In 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. Thankfully, they didn’t think to inspect my shoes, into which I inserted a carefully folded East German 5 Mark bill. Currency was high on the list of things that were forbidden to take out. Today, I can’t believe how stupid I was to do that. Anyway, inspection successful, they left and we were free to pass through. We made our way back across free Germany to Krefeld.

A few years later, when I renewed my passport. I was really pleased that they returned my old passport so I could keep those stamped mementos of my visit. I wish I knew where that old passport is now.

Six years later, 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.

The next day, I went to work, where 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, calling me a suspected communist! They’ve come to take me away!

“Jim?”

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

I stepped outside to await my doom. Under the gray sky I paced, wondering what the internment camp would be like. Before long, a gray Chevrolet 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?”

I thought, “Talk privately? Aren’t you here to purge the land of communists in the name of national security?” I was growing dizzy, but I said, “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 the Silicon Valley. He used to e-mail me complaints about the traffic out there.

“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 people Bobby knew, needlessly looking for skeletons since Bobby no longer wanted that job. 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 distateful or useless job. They just want to get it over with.

But at least there was no internment camp for me!

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Personal, Stories Told

Re-integrating joy

My dad once told me that I was the most joyful little boy he had ever known. During my first few years, he said, I seemed to constantly have a big beaming smile on my face, and everything seemed to make me happy. Now, I’m sure I didn’t enjoy it when I got in trouble or got a shot. I’ll take his statements to mean, on the balance, he found me to be unusually joyful. The few memories I have of my first three years seem to support his perception. Here are all of them:

Dad and son, 1970.

First, I watched Apollo 11 land on the moon on TV. I don’t actually remember the landing — I remember that it was sponsored by Gulf Oil, with its big red-circle logo and its name in tall letters within. Mom says that at every commercial break, I excitedly pointed at the screen and said, “Gulf!”

Next, I used to get up when Dad’s alarm went off at 5 a.m., go quietly into my parents’ room, and lie still on the corner of their bed in the dark while Dad dressed for work. Dad said I could be there as long as I didn’t wake up Mom. The radio played softly, always on the Hit Parade station. I heard Karen Carpenter sing and when I closed my eyes her voice made me see colors that flowed and shifted with her song. I hoped to hear her song every morning.

Finally, I woke up in the hospital after surgery groggy and angry, but very glad when Dad came to take me home. He picked me up and, as I moved through the air on my way to his chest, my anger faded. I felt secure way up there with my head on his shoulder, looking down at the recovery room. He says that I said to him, “They’re not doing that to me again!”

These memories suggest to me that I took life as it was and easily experienced the feelings that went with it. No wonder I found it easy to feel joy. I felt easily.

My next memories, of Kindergarten, are vivid and detailed. My school looked like a castle in red brick trimmed in white with a slate roof and copper gutters. Room 001 was just inside the east entrance, and although the room had two entrance doors, you had to go in the far door because the near door was always locked. The room had a dim cloakroom with cubbyholes for coats and rubbers, and I’m pretty sure there was a tiny restroom in there with just a sink and a toilet. There were five or six low rectangular tables that held six children each, and the teacher had placed a big wooden block on each one, each block a different color, to identify the groups. We did most things with our color groups. Another part of the room had a tile floor, with an inlaid red circle big enough for the whole class to sit around, where the teacher read to us or we showed our toys at show and tell. We also laid mats down in that part of the room when we napped. Behind the teacher’s desk just off the red circle was a nook chock full of toys including a huge child-sized kitchen and a big gray wooden box with an old Ford steering wheel and column sticking out of it. The teacher was a stout, grandmotherly woman with sliver and white cat’s-eye glasses and white hair. She drove her gray 1968 Chevy Malibu coupe (which had a black vinyl top) one whole block from her home to school every morning, where she parked on the street across from the school’s east entrance. Curiously, she always sat in her car for five minutes fiddling with her purse before coming inside. Clearly, my memory had switched on.

I often felt lonely in that room with 25 kids. I often drove the pretend Ford by myself, in part because I liked cars but also because it was safer not to risk playing with others. The boys pushed and shoved and chased each other and sometimes I got hurt. The girls never caused pain, but I didn’t enjoy always being the husband or the son in their endless games of House. Also, at a time when schools didn’t teach reading until the first grade, I started Kindergarten already able to read. I was proud to be able to read, but the teacher didn’t believe I could. When I read her a page from a book, she seemed annoyed rather than pleased. I was crushed that she wasn’t as happy with my reading as I was. I also have a couple vague memories of her forcing me to write with my right hand, which confused and upset me because I was just as good with my left hand and liked writing with whichever hand felt good.

I faced school as earnestly as I could, but I was not happy. When my first report card came, the teacher had remarked in it, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious.”

What in the hell happened?

Maybe I wasn’t quite emotionally ready for school. Perhaps my parents inadvertently or unintentionally squashed those parts of my personality that they couldn’t handle; psychologists say it happens to many children. Perhaps I was just depressed. Who knows; I can’t reach those memories.

The Wall, 1984

A clue came when I was 16. I was selected to spend a summer in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program where I would deepen my German language skills. Even though my family always lived on a tight budget, my father stunned me by making the funds appear to send me on this trip. After my plane landed, it took me a couple weeks to let my hair down and find my groove, but once I did I had the time of my life. I made some friends, lived with a nice family, studied German language and culture intensely, and traveled around Germany. I walked 539 steps to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. I drank beer in a little pub in Duesseldorf with a crusty but amused barkeep who explained the secret of the beer coaster and why you never turn it over. I got lost in West Berlin with a friend and spent an evening wandering streets to find our way back to the hostel. I touched the Wall and heard the stories of many who died trying to cross from east to west. I toured a prison where Nazi political enemies were hanged. I stood on the ground where Christian writer Thomas a Kempis lived. I took a slow boat down the Rhine River and saw the Lorelei. I swam at a pool where clothing was optional from the waist up for everybody. I drank beer with East German teenagers and found that our differing political ideologies mattered not at all compared to our common desires for girlfriends, cars, and beer. It was heady stuff that produced a natural high, but I also was given the freedom and trust to handle myself over there. It let more of the real me come out — and so joy returned. But when I came home, I experienced more than the natural letdown from such a wonderful trip — I found that the world to which I returned didn’t fit the joyful Jim; instead, it was shaped for the serious Jim. With sadness and resentment, I put joyful Jim away, and then the black curtain fell on my first major depression, which did not lift for months.

20 years or more ago popular psychology started talking about how everybody needs to get in touch with their inner child. I thought, “Oh, gag,” then, and I think, “Oh, gag,” now. But as I’ve worked over the years on my various issues, joyous Jimmy kept appearing and asking for an audience to air his grievances for being put away for more than a quarter century. As I have listened to him, he has slowly been returning to his place within me. My, um, inner child is back! But I also find that the serious Jim isn’t going anywhere. They are both parts of me. Maybe the inner-child crowd really means to say that without being all of who we are, which means bringing back all the parts of us we put away when we were little, we will always struggle to find wholeness, contentment, and peace.

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