Personal

The freedom to live life on your own terms

My youngest son, Garrett, turned 21 yesterday. Were it not for COVID-19, I’d have taken him out last night for a drink. We were both looking forward to it.

Garrett has what they used to call Asperger’s syndrome. I’ve danced around naming it for years in stories like this one and this one, but have always shied away because it’s more his story to tell than it is mine. But I’m taking the risk today because I have a story to tell about him and me and my dad, and how there may be a common thread that runs through all of our lives.

Garrett is a junior in college and he’s on track to graduate. He seems happy. I think he has a great chance at launching into a successful adulthood, on his own terms.

That wasn’t always true. Starting in about middle school he seriously struggled with communication, organization, and school deadlines. He broke some school rules, and ended up in trouble — if the rule didn’t make logical sense to him, he would follow it only if it were convenient to do so. He was once suspended for repeatedly walking down an up staircase. (That rule did make no logical sense.) If a class didn’t interest him or if he felt the teacher was unkind, he couldn’t bring himself to participate or do the homework. He didn’t have any friends, and I think he was desperately lonely. He was easily overwhelmed. He felt a lot of stress.

I worried endlessly over Garrett. At first, my approach to him was not helpful and may have been counterproductive. I rode him hard on getting organized and getting things done. I was scared to death that he would not succeed through school. I succeeded in school, my brother succeeded in school, my other son Damion succeeded in school. I had no script for a kid who didn’t. I had no idea what to do. I needed this kid to be all right.

You all know I was divorced after a disastrous and destructive marriage. There was no co-parenting with Garrett’s mom. At her best, she simply wouldn’t engage; at her worst, she was deeply unpleasant. So I turned to my parents for support and advice. I talked to them a lot about Garrett and how best to help him.

Dad had an almost supernatural understanding of this kid. He seemed to get Garrett at the deepest levels.

Garrett and Dad

That doesn’t mean that Dad always knew what I should do for Garrett. His advice was sometimes obviously and painfully wrong. Dad believed that if you just were able to reason with people, say the right thing, get them to see the light, that their behavior would suddenly change for the better.

I know better, because he tried to raise me that way. I endured hours of him trying to convince me of his view. I hated it. I wanted our relationship to be characterized more by happy shared experiences. But moreover, I deeply wanted to figure out my life for myself. I could listen to Dad’s perspective and advice as long as it was okay to adopt what made sense to me and leave what didn’t. I did adopt some of his way, the part that made sense to me. I did leave the rest — and that was hard for Dad to accept.

But when I talked to Dad about Garrett he was always able to help me find a calm place. His advice sometimes helped.

When I called, Dad always answered the phone. “Hey Dad, it’s Jimbo,” I’d always say. He always replied, “Jimbo! Let me get your mom.” But if I needed to talk about Garrett, I’d say, “wait, no, I need to talk to just you.”

It was obvious that this pleased Dad. Dad really, really, really wanted to be a source of wisdom and advice to his two sons. When it came to Garrett, he could be. I’d talk to him about what I was experiencing, and Dad had an uncanny way of giving a rationale, an explanation, or a perspective that fit.

I called Dad over and over and over.

And then one day after Garrett had started high school, I wrung my hands to Dad over Garrett one more time. One last time. Because then Dad said something that probably changed Garrett’s life: “Son, you can’t save them all.”

It hit me like a brick. I had been trying to save Garrett through helping him find success in life as I defined it. My dad tried to do that to me and I hated it, resisted it hard, even occasionally rebelled against it. I was determined to find my own way. I was smart, and I was capable, and even though in many ways I was like my dad, in many key ways I was not like him. His way would not be a perfect pattern for my life. I needed to find my own pattern.

So did Garrett. I finally saw it.

I immediately radically changed my relationship with my son. It had largely been characterized by me riding his ass about getting his homework done, about staying organized, about achieving.

I put all of that away. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just enjoyed my time with my son. I made my home and our time together into a quiet and safe space. No matter what was going on in his life, he could come to my house and find peace and, if he wanted it, connection.

I backed off and let him fail or succeed on his own merits.

Garrett and I began to connect on a level we had not before. He started letting me in through sharing his interests. We built a lot of Lego sets alongside each other. We played Minecraft (on computers in separate rooms) and he taught me how to build all sorts of things in that virtual world. He introduced me to Rick and Morty and other strange and funny cartoons.

As he became a junior in high school he suddenly started earning decent grades. He had been a C-D student, but out of the blue was a solid B student.

We talked about it. “You really seem to be getting it at school now. Do you know what changed in you?”

“Two words,” he said. “Stereotype threat.”

I didn’t know what that was, so I asked. “Well, we learned about it my psychology class. Basically, it means that I was seen as the screwup in the family and so I naturally tended to meet those expectations. But then Damion went off to college at the beginning of the year and it changed things around the house. I don’t know how to describe it. But I realized somehow that I could be what I wanted to be. I wanted to be someone who did well in high school.”

I knew just what he meant about Damion leaving. He had been the family’s dominant personality, and we didn’t see it until he was gone. If nobody else was talking, Damion was happy to. We did things together that were Damion’s idea or aligned to his interests. Damion’s absence gave Garrett room to be himself and to express himself.

Me getting off Garrett’s back and Damion going away to college gave Garrett the space to figure himself out.

It was a triumph for Garrett, and Dad played an important role. I wonder if Dad was also not neurotypical, and that’s why he understood Garrett so well. I’m no diagnostician, but I do see some patterns in Dad’s behavior that align. He was undiagnosed, of course. During Dad’s World War II childhood, Hans Asperger had only recently written the first papers describing the condition that would later bear his name. Asperger’s work was largely ignored until the 1980s. It was a decade or more after that before autism would be diagnosed unless it was profound.

For that matter, I see some neurodivergent patterns in my thinking and behavior, too. I’ve written before about what a geek I was growing up, how poor my social skills were. I have some mild sensory issues — noise can be problematic for me, and I cut tags out of my shirts because they can feel like needles poking into my skin. I was even a precocious reader, figuring out words largely on my own as early as age 3. I’ve read that’s sometimes a marker for high-functioning autism.

To make it as an adult I’ve had to learn a lot of skills to fit in and get by. I started with social skills. I realized at about age 25 that I was missing out on experiences I wanted to have because I was so reticent. It was too hard to say hello to people I passed in the hallway at work, so I looked at my shoes everywhere I walked. But I wanted those new experiences, and so I worked to connect with others. I started with just saying hello to my co-workers. Later I added their name if I knew it. From there, I identified other behaviors I wanted to learn. I studied people and started to recognize social patterns. I practiced sets of responses to those patterns so I could participate with them. Now that I’m in my early 50s I pass for someone with good social skills. But even now there are still moments when I can’t recognize what’s going on socially and don’t know what to do.

I have built good executive function — that is, I handle the day-to-day stuff of life with flexibility and self-control. Many neurodivergent people struggle with this. But I learned as a teenager how important it is for me to have strong routines. They keep me from forgetting important things and let me feel in control in my life. If I abandon even one of them for more than a couple days I feel considerable stress and run out of energy long before the day is over.

One of my current routines is to spend an hour or more each morning writing and processing photos. It somehow sets my mind right for the day. If I skip it for more than a day or two, I start to come unraveled. I also have built several strong habits and follow a number of strict rules to keep myself organized. For example, my car keys are either in my pocket, on top of my dresser, or in the car’s ignition — period, or I will lose them. And thank God for Google Calendar, which reminds me when to pay the mortgage and when to change the furnace filter. It takes a lot of work to keep all of this up, but it’s far easier than the life chaos that follows when I don’t.

I’ve also had to learn how to cope with overwhelm. Too much input still blows me away. In my early 20s a good therapist taught me how to identify and label my emotions. Sometimes just knowing I’m overwhelmed is enough for me to get a handle on myself. In my late 30s another therapist helped me learn to soothe myself and tolerate distress. I also taught myself to meditate, which lets me use my breath to find calm.

All of this may or may not make me neurodivergent. I’ve thought about seeking a diagnosis, but I’m not sure it would let me access any therapies or treatments that would help me more. I am who I am, I’m reasonably happy, and I’m reasonably successful in the way I define success.

Was my dad? I don’t know. I fear not, especially late in his life. But Garrett looks to be on track for it. I’m grateful. He has his own journey ahead to figure out his life. If his journey is anything like mine, it will be a grand adventure.

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Personal

Redeeming the sins of my father

My father taught me that men work. It was a regular theme of his parenting. He demonstrated it every day: in bed at 10, up at 5, off to the plant by 7, home at 4, rest with the family all evening. He did this week in and week out all through my childhood.

As my brother and I entered our teenage years he all but ordered us to find work in the neighborhood. We shoveled driveways in the winter and mowed lawns in the summer. We delivered newspapers in all weather, including one Christmas morning when the snow was up to our waists. Once we painted a neighbor’s privacy fence. A couple times I minded a vacationing neighbor’s house and took care of their dog.

The four of us with Dad’s Aunt Betty in about 1980

During our college years Dad insisted we work to help pay our way. I was counterman at a Dairy Queen, a courier, a programmer, a gift-shop manager, a switchboard operator, and an administrative assistant.

While my brother and I were in college, the plant where Dad had worked all our lives closed. Manufacturing was in steep decline and jobs were scarce. Dad’s best friend ran the art museum at Notre Dame and had him make pedestals for sculpture and benches for people to sit on. Dad found he had a real talent for cabinetmaking. Well-heeled museum patrons began to ask Dad to make custom wood furniture for their homes. This kept the family going until Dad found another manufacturing job. He rose rapidly; by the time my brother and I graduated, he was plant manager. He worked hard all week at the plant and all weekend making furniture.

After my brother and I had both flown the nest, Dad quit the plant to make furniture full time. He designed and built beautiful original furniture for a wealthy clientele all across northern Indiana.

Dad hoped that word of mouth would build his business. I think he wanted to be sought out and chosen, and so he resisted making sales calls. He was advised to move downmarket, to hire a crew to make similar but simpler furniture in assembly-line fashion at lower cost, and to open a store. He resisted that, too.

The business never took off. After several extremely lean years, he found a job with a startup manufacturing company as plant manager. He found a building for the company to operate from, bought the equipment, hired a crew, and got the plant operating. But he had some difficulty navigating the politics with the company founders and was fired.

These two failures were a one-two punch to Dad’s gut. He gave up. Except when cabinetmaking work happened to find him, he never worked again.

I forget how old Dad was when all this happened. 55 maybe? 60? I was well into my adult life by then, was probably married with kids, and have lost track of the timing.

But I remember being deeply disappointed in my dad as he threw up every excuse for not finding a job, and instead donated his time to various social causes in my hometown. When Mom was forced to go back to work to put food on the table and provide health insurance, I became full-on angry.

I’m not sure that anger ever left. I just had to live with it. I broached this subject gently a few times but Dad wouldn’t let me go there.

I think for all these years I’ve lived with ambivalence toward my father. I loved him, but I lost respect for him and harbored, maybe even nurtured, a disgust for what he’d done. I yearned to be close to him, but I was repelled by how he let my mom down and by how he didn’t live up to the ideals he taught his sons.

My dad at Christmas just before he died, with my older son

Over the last couple years I’ve had challenges in my own career. Just as my sons were entering college a few years ago, I was laid off. Then last year I was fired from another job.

Meanwhile, it turns out I have a knack for writing and photography and I’ve built this reasonably popular blog around my work. I deeply enjoy how people have found and follow my work here.

I am very aware of some feelings and desires within me. I imagine that my dad must have had much the same ones. He and I are more alike than I care to admit.

I believe Dad wanted to be well known and loved for his furniture more than he wanted to have a profitable business. I believe he hoped he would become the wood-furniture darling of the wealthy and well-known. I believe this because I want to be well known and loved for my photography and writing. I’ve gotten a taste of that through this blog and have considered, even dipped my toe in the water of, turning it into a living and leaving my career behind.

And I believe that when Dad’s business failed and he was fired from his last job, a voice in his head screamed at him that he was always a failure and a fraud. I believe that voice told him that his age was a disadvantage, that he couldn’t keep up with the younger crowd, that he was being pushed out. I believe his urge was incredibly strong to let his career go. I believe this because when I lost my job last year, these are the things the voice in my head was yelling at me.

I wish I could say that I thought about what my dad would have done, as a way of seeking guidance. But I can’t. Instead, I’ve doggedly, determinedly done the exact opposite of what he did.

I resisted the urge to double down on photography and writing, and have kept them as hobbies while I kept pursuing my career. At the same time, I’ve worked to promote my blog to put it in front of more eyes, rather than just lay back and hope people will find me.

Both times I’ve lost a job in the last few years, when the voice in my head yelled at me to give up I told it to leave me alone, to get bent, to fuck off. I’ve worked hard to stay employed in my field. I refuse to let my family down.

It’s given me some compassion for my father. However, that compassion has yet to overtake my anger and disappointment. I hope it does, in time. Perhaps that will finally unlock my grief. Dad’s been gone for two years today.

Read Dad’s life story here.

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Personal

One year on

“Maybe you pre-grieved the loss of your dad,” my pastor said to me.

Father and son, about 1970

I sure hadn’t felt much grief since he died. It bothered me.

But my pastor has a point: we knew it was coming for a long time, and I was actively preparing myself for it.

I’d found a level of peace with my relationship with my dad. It would never be as close as I hoped it would be; he was probably not capable of it. But he had shaped his two sons into good men, and he provided well for us. From his working-class life he helped his two sons into upper-middle-class careers and lives. I have to call that successful fathering.

But it’s obviously not a perfect peace, because for many months I wondered why I wasn’t sadder over his death, one year ago today.

I won’t belabor the terrible year my wife and I had, except to repeat that it was terrible. The stream of hard stuff that came our way and the need to respond to it all surely got in the way of whatever grief I might have felt.

The last photo of my dad, with his sons and grandsons. 2017.

During my recent unemployment I had about a month between securing my new job and my first day at work. I worked on my blog, I made a lot of meals for my family, and I learned a little of the Java programming language. But mostly I was at loose ends.

In that downtime sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, tears came. One rainy afternoon I was burning calories on our treadmill, watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It was just an ordinary episode. The Vidiians had attacked and had boarded the ship. Routine stuff. But the emotional plot points brought me to heavy tears three times.

That was just the pregame show. On the afternoon of Christmas Day I could feel depression fall like a heavy theater curtain. By evening I was so sad that my body ached.

Margaret suggested we take an immediate impromptu road trip to help me cope. She was so right to suggest it. Road trips were a major way I coped with the grief over losing my first marriage. Being on the road kept me screwed together.

North into Plymouth
The Michigan Road entering downtown Plymouth, IN

So up the Michigan Road we went on the day after Christmas, through Logansport to South Bend, my hometown. The afternoon was chilly but sunny, fine for photographing the old houses and charming downtowns of Rochester and Plymouth along the way. After we checked into our downtown hotel I rang up one of my oldest friends. He and his wife were totally down for meeting us for drinks. It was so good to see them. The next morning it rained, so we drove the Michigan Road straight to Michigan City and shopped in the outlet mall there. We took the long way home. The trip took away the worst sadness for a little while.

The next several nights were choppy. I alternated between bad dreams and lying awake processing. And crying, lots of crying. It seems like every night something different was on my mind: my dad, the job I lost, the challenges my wife’s elderly parents face near the end of their lives, the challenges several of our children have had, how disorganized our lives have been through it all, how it has challenged our young marriage.

It felt like all the deferred grief came all at once. Thank heavens I’ve built good skills at just sitting with my feelings — not wallowing in them, not denying them, just noticing them and letting them be, even when they’re uncomfortable.

By New Year’s Day the worst of it had lifted. I didn’t exactly feel light on my feet, but the sadness had returned to a low level and I started sleeping through the night.

What I know about grief is that it crashes in like waves. This was a tidal wave. I hope the remaining waves are gentler.

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Essay, Old Cars

Buy a fun car while you’re young

1968 Chevrolet El Camino b

When I was a kid, my dad wanted a Chevy El Camino. I mean, really really wanted. He imagined himself driving in carlike comfort while being able to haul lumber and other large items with ease in its bed. He was so hot to own one that he tried to convince my mom that our family of four would fit just fine shoulder to shoulder across the front seat. 

Mom wasn’t having it. Thank goodness, because the four of us shoulder-tight on that bench seat did not sound like fun to me. But I feel bad for my dad that he never got his El Camino.

As Dad aged, that spark for fun motoring left him. I think that’s natural for anyone who didn’t get to sow those oats when they were younger — he never knew the joy of the fun car and so those synapses never formed in his brain. By his middle age he declared that his cars were meant only to get him from A to B.

BMW 3-series coupe

I’m in the middle of making the same mistake. When I was young I wanted a 3-series BMW coupe. Really really wanted one. But I never felt like I should extend myself financially to buy even a well-used one. I could have, but I always played it safe with my money.

I regret it. While it’s important to be good stewards of our finances, it’s also important to seek good, fun experiences in life.

I’ve already told my wife that after the kids are done with college I’d like to buy a fun car. I’ve lost my BMW lust in middle age, so I don’t know yet what that car will be except that it’ll be older and will not be my daily driver. Whatever I choose, it’ll be our road-trip car and we will make memories together in it.

This one’s for my dad, who would have been 78 today.

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Personal

Connecting with your children as people

I’m not a gamer. I grow frustrated trying to keep up in any game more complicated than Monopoly. And while I was a teen at the dawn of the video-game era, I played pinball instead.

Damion

My life feels full and complete without games. But my son Damion is a serious gamer who finds deep and legitimate meaning and satisfaction in gaming both online and in person with others.

A feature of my relationship with Damion since he was old enough to speak has been him telling me of his gaming exploits at length, and me having no idea what he is talking about.

I was happy to listen, though, because I loved hearing the joy in his voice.

When he was four, he spent hours trying to teach me Yu-Gi-Oh, an adventure card game. It was too complicated for me and I couldn’t get it. I eventually gave up.

My lack of ability to connect with him through gaming sharply limits our ability to connect as whole people. I wonder how much disappointment he feels. I’m still disappointed I couldn’t manage it with my dad. But I can see that there are just limits. The apple may not fall far from the tree, but we are still different people. There will always be parts of each of us the other will never truly know.

I tried a few times to connect with my dad through his interests. Dad wanted for years to teach me to sharpen knives, something he took pride in. I let him try a few times, but he was so unpleasant when I didn’t pick it up perfectly from the start that we never got past the opening lesson. I thought for a while we might connect over hitting balls together at the driving range, something he enjoyed. But even there he felt the need to teach me to be perfect at it, which robbed it of all its fun and pushed me away.

Damion and Pentax KM

Then last fall Damion tried the same thing, asking me if I’d lend him an old camera and show him how to use it. Aw hell yes! I showed him how to spool film into my Pentax KM, taught him how to match the needle to set exposure, and gave him a couple composition tips.

Then I backed off and let him explore on his own. That was hard. Just like my dad, I wanted to hover, and guide, and teach. I resisted with all my might because I didn’t want to suck all the fun out of it for Damion and squander this golden opportunity.

Damion enjoyed the experience and asked to keep a camera. So I gave him two, a Pentax K1000 like his mom used to own and a Pentax ME because I love mine and shoot it most often. When we see each other now we often go for photo walks together.

I feel like I’m atoning for my father’s sins by doing this better with my sons. It’s helping me let go of my bitter disappointment that my dad and I could never manage it.

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Stories Told

The ultimate car for the man who hates to spend money

My dad pinched his pennies so hard he had Lincoln thumbs. It had galled him deeply to borrow money to buy his 1983 Renault Alliance (read its story here). Knowing Dad, he paid off that note very early. He submitted to those payments only because Mom fell in love with the Renault on the test drive and insisted he buy it. She knew she could play that card only so often – like, once each decade. But the Renault was, to her, a slam dunk: attractive, comfortable, well equipped in top-line trim.

Then in 1987, when Dad was driving 50 miles round trip to work and the Renault piled up the miles, Mom fretted. “I don’t want you to be stranded on some back county road!” So Dad went car shopping – and didn’t take Mom along so he could get what he wanted. Dad returned to his first love, Ford, and found the biggest bargain on the lot: a leftover new 1986 Ford Escort as the 1988 models were about to be delivered to the showroom. He got it for a song and paid cash. He was so tickled by that deal that he talked about it for years.

IMG_2164

It wasn’t a bottom-of-the-line Pony, as the pictured Escort is. But it might as well have been: the same utility white color, manual transmission (though a five speed rather than the Pony’s standard four), steel wheels, AM radio. It had cloth seat surfaces where the Pony was all vinyl, but it had the same plain interior door panels with the most perfunctory armrests I’ve ever seen. It did have air conditioning; Mom told him not to come home in a car without it. But that was a mighty stripped-down car even for the late 80s. No wonder this pig had languished on the lot so long.

I drove Dad’s Escort a few times. It had good power for the time. I remember the shifter being vague and rubbery but the clutch being sure. I always turned off the radio with its tinny center-of-the-dash speaker as it would give me an instant headache. You could hear the gas sloshing around in the tank when you made a turn.

Dad drove that Escort until 1993. He’d have cheerfully kept driving it, but it had racked up the miles and Mom began to fret anew. So Dad returned to his Ford dealer and came home in a well-optioned Escort LX four-door hatchback. It was so much better a car than its forebear – more comfortable, more fuel efficient, more lively – that even Dad had to allow it was worth spending the money.

I originally shared this story on Curbside Classic, back in May. It’s a good memory of my dad and I wanted to share it with you, too.

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