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.

DamionMy 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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Personal

Seven things I want my sons to know about making their way

I wrote this five years ago, when my sons were in high school and thinking about their futures. I’m thrilled to see how much of this advice they took, and how relevant it remains today.

Now that you’re both teenagers, my job as your dad is changing. When you were little, my job was more about teaching you some basics, keeping you safe, and showing you love. Now it’s about slowly letting go and coaching from the sidelines so you can go in your own direction and hopefully find success and satisfaction.

The day is coming when you will have to make your own way. You are both bright and capable, so you have a leg up. But here are some things you need to know.

1. When you do your best today, more doors will be open to you tomorrow.

How well you do in high school determines what opportunities are available to you when you graduate. This is changing; more on that in a minute. But giving your best effort always pays sooner or later. So give your best to your schoolwork. I’ll be satisfied with whatever your best can deliver, even if it’s a D average.

If you go to college (and I hope you do), better grades will get you into better schools and bring better financial aid to pay for it. You need as much financial aid as you can get, because I can’t afford to pay for all of college.

If you skip college, doing your best now will build disciplines that will carry you into whatever you do after high school, be it the military, vocational school, or just getting a job.

But don’t just get a job after high school. If you don’t have a good degree, a good trade, or the good care of Uncle Sam, the jobs available to you involve saying, “Do you want fries with that?” or “Thank you for shopping with us.” They will pay poorly and you will struggle. There are paths to move up in those worlds but they are hard and slow. This will suck; avoid it if you can.

2. People who express themselves well, verbally and in writing, get ahead.

Srsly. cuz in the real world u will need 2 work with old farts my age and if you use speling and grammer right you will pwn your txtspeak friends. and we will not lol at u behind ur back.

Translated: You will probably start out working for someone closer to my age than to yours. When you speak and write well, we will think you are smart and capable, and we will give you opportunities we won’t give to your less-eloquent friends.

Dad and Sons

Me with my sons, now both in college

3. The world is bigger than today’s pop culture.

Pop culture is great fun. You know I love the pop culture of my generation – I’ve made you sit through all the cartoons I used to watch as a kid (the good ones, anyway) and as we ride around in the car I play the music from my youth.

But there is so much more culture to experience. Try other forms of music, film, theater, and art from around the world and from times before the 21st century. There’s lots to like out there.

More importantly, see beyond pop culture. Know what’s going on in the world. Form opinions about how the world should work, find causes that are important to you, and give of your time and resources to make things better. You will find no end of opportunity to make a difference.

4. Be who you are.

This means you have to find out who you are, which will take the rest of your life. As you figure it out, do not compromise – be that person. The worst pain and difficulty I’ve experienced in my life has come from times when I’ve tried to be someone I’m not.

You have a natural personality type that makes you good at some things and not good at others, and makes you fit easily into some environments and poorly into others. The better you know yourself, the easier it is for you to choose things that you are good at and find environments where you fit.

This isn’t license to be lazy or selfish. You will grow more and achieve more when you push and stretch yourself. I’m just saying that when you know yourself and honor the way you’re wired, you are more likely to find happiness and success on your own terms.

5. Following your dreams is overrated.

I’m lucky. I knew at age 15 that I wanted to make software for a living. Through smarts, work, and luck, I’ve been doing it for more than half my life. And it so happens that living my dream pays the bills just fine. But I’m a rarity.

Except that I thought I’d be a programmer. It turns out I was only an average programmer. But I understand geeks and fit in with them really well, so I stuck with it. And then I was handed an opportunity to manage geeks – and to my surprise, I’m very good at it. I’m really lucky I got an opportunity to find that out. But you could argue that I’m not really living my dream. Whatever. I adapted. I started toward my dream but then let the streams of life take me where they would flow.

Look, most people’s dreams don’t come true. And for most people, if their dreams came true they wouldn’t pay the bills very well anyway.

You absolutely need to have ideas about what you’d like to do with your life. Let them guide your general direction, but always be willing to take a chance on the opportunities that find you – they will find you. The good ones use what you’re good at and are in environments where you fit well. Doing this will give you an interesting life full of meaning and satisfaction.

6. Enjoy the journey.

If you fill your life with meaningful things that you enjoy, happiness will find you.

You will have to take some risks to find those things. The path that feels secure may be less scary, but my experience has been that it’s less joyful, too.

That’s not to say life will always be unicorns and rainbows. Some risks won’t pay off, some random bad things will simply happen, and you will have some unhappy days! But bad times always end, especially when you keep pushing, keep trying, keep rising above the discouragement you will feel.

Here’s the crazy thing: The ups and downs can be exhilarating! Learn to ride them, and to enjoy the ride.

7. You are going to make the world’s new rules for success.

You live in an unprecedented time when the old rules of success are quickly becoming invalid.

For a few generations, the rules have been: Go to college and study pretty much anything. Your degree will lead to corporate jobs that pay well enough for at least a middle-class lifestyle. As you gain experience, you might even get bigger and better jobs that pay more. Along the way, save money for retirement, and when you’re old you can afford to play golf every day.

Those days are pretty much over.

I’ll pay for as much of your college education as I can, and you’ll probably get some financial aid. But you will need to borrow money to cover the rest. Your first monthly payment will be due one month after you graduate. You need a plan that leads to work that pays well enough for you to have a place to live, feed yourself, probably own a car, and make your college loan payment.

The college degrees that lead to jobs that pay enough for all that are in disciplines such as engineering, business, medicine, finance, law, and science. It’s harder to get a good-enough-paying job when you major in history, literature, art, and so on. If you have a burning desire to study them, minor in them while you major in something that leads to good-paying work.

But even then, don’t count on corporate jobs. Their relative security has been fading slowly since the 1980s, and I think that security will fade to nothing in the years to come.

Fortunately, resources are available to you that my generation only imagined, thanks in no small part to the Internet. You can now do so much as an entrepreneur.

Say you want to write a book. Did you know that my first dream was to write stories? I wrote a novel when I was in the 7th grade. (It was terrible!) But in those days, becoming a successful author of fiction was as hard as getting to play for the NFL. Very, very few people got publishing contracts compared to the huge group of people who wanted them.

You no longer have to try to convince a publishing company to give you a contract. Now you can start a blog, create a Facebook page for it, build an audience, and then publish your book yourself and sell it to your blog readers.

Or say you want to make software. When I started doing it, you pretty much had to have a college degree in computer science or engineering and join a software company. Today, you can write an app for the iPhone and make money off it a dollar or two at a time, and build your own software business from there. When I think of the best young programmers that I know, most of them skipped college!

These paths, and others like them, take a ton of work. But they are possible now when they never were before. They open new pathways to success. As they replace the old, dead pathways, your generation will get to write the new rules.

I envy you; it sounds like great fun!

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Stories Told

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stories Told

Dad was always there

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

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

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

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

James Monroe School

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

James Monroe School

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

James Monroe School

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

MomInRenault

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

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

Dad was there.

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

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

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

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

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Photography, Stories Told

Memories lost, memories created, memories kept

Photographs restore lost memories and anchor tenuous ones. Through them I catalog my memories and arrange them into timelines. They help me create life narratives in retrospect. But there is a time in my life from which I have few photos. I’m glad, as it is a time I don’t wish to remember.

Which is unfortunate, for my sons were very small then. I have a few memories, snippets and scenes, incomplete: Helping deliver them both. Months of Damion’s colic. His first seizure, a living room full of grave firemen and paramedics caring for him, loading him into an ambulance, me racing in my car to the hospital. A family road trip to San Antonio before his first birthday, miles of gray Interstate highways, getting a speeding ticket in Texarkana, Damion sleeping most of the way. Baby Garrett climbing the couch with all the steely determination of Chuck Norris chasing the bad guys. His deep misery after a tonsillectomy went wrong, me rocking him for hours while he cried, both of us sleepless. Singing to soothe them both. Making scrambled eggs for their dinner. Reading Dr. Seuss to them, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Bleak days in a deeply broken and destructive marriage, one which I lacked the courage to leave.

I know I can reach more memories of my sons, better ones. But to do that I would necessarily revisit traumatic memories. Good therapy let me work through that awful time. No need to relive it.

My first wife and I hadn’t given up hope yet in 2001. Or was it 2000? I’m guessing. The boys were young, 1 and 3, or 2 and 4. I don’t remember whose idea it was that I get away for a while, that we let raw nerves settle. We agreed it was essential. I booked a week in a cabin in the central Tennessee woods.

I’ve told some of this story before: I wanted to reclaim something of the man I had been, a man who had diminished and finally disappeared. I remembered enjoying shooting my old cameras as a teen. So I got out one I’d never used before, a Kodak Automatic 35F. I didn’t know an f stop from a shortstop, and this camera wasn’t as automatic as its name suggested. So I shot a test roll before I left. I am forever grateful to my then-self that I shot my sons around our yard. My older son, Damion, was very interested in the camera, so I set it and handed it to him. He made two photographs of me with his younger brother, Garrett. They’re terrific candid shots that remind me that there were good times for us.

Dad Garrett 2001 b

Dad Garrett 2001 c.jpg

Garrett was too little to operate the camera so I have none of Damion and me. But I did make this delightful portrait of him with our next-door neighbor’s house in the background.

Damion 2001 a

Most of the photos I took didn’t turn out well, as I truly didn’t know what I was doing. The best of the remaining shots is this one of them in our minivan. I hated that van, but love this memory.

Damion Garrett 2001 a

Mercifully and to everyone’s emotional health, the marriage ended. The next several years were hard in their own right: a protracted, brutal divorce followed by years of being broke paying the extensive legal bills and sky-high child support.

Desperate for stability and normalcy I set out to build new memories for me and my sons, to start fresh and make our way forward. One way I did that was by taking them on spring break trips every other year, the years the parenting-time guidelines gave them to me.

If you’ve read this blog for a long time you know I’ve shared photos from almost all of these trips, but never showed or wrote about my sons. While they were growing up, I kept their lives private. Instead I wrote stories about the places we visited and my experiences in them. Now, at last, let me share the reasons why these trips happened: my sons.

The first spring break was in 2005. I lived in a one-room apartment and paid the mortgage on a house I’d never live in again. That plus groceries, gas, and the electric bill consumed my paychecks. To scrape together enough money for fun, I skipped lunch and ate hot-dog dinners for weeks. We visited the zoo and the Children’s Museum, ate lunch Downtown, toured the Statehouse, and climbed to the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument to look out over the city. Here are the boys breaking the rules at the monument.

Indianapolis 2005

In 2007 we made an Indiana History Tour, driving all over the state to see scenic and historic sites. Here we visited the site of the Battle of Corydon, the only Civil War battle fought on Indiana soil.

Indiana History Tour 2007

In 2009 we visited Washington, DC, and drove the National Road home. It was probably our greatest trip, generating the happiest memories. Right up until the moment we wrecked our car.

Washington DC 2009

In 2011, we returned to the same woods where I’d retreated alone ten years earlier, this time with my sons to make new, better memories there. Our chief memory is of the afternoon we made a ten-mile hike carrying pint bottles of water. Wow, was that ever not enough water. I swear we each guzzled a gallon after we finally reached our cabin.

Tennessee 2011

In 2013 we drove Route 66 from Joliet, IL to almost the Texas line in Oklahoma. It was a dream trip for me, stopping for all the roadside attractions and staying at vintage motels all along the way. The boys seemed to have a good time, but today their chief memory is that “we spent the whole vacation sitting in the car!” Here the boys are in an old jail in Gardner, IL.

Route 66 2013

In 2015 we drove the old Dixie Highway down to Mammoth Cave. It was the last spring break with Damion, who graduated high school that year.

Mammoth Cave 2015.jpg

And this year Garrett and I did Cincinnati: the American Sign Museum, the zoo, the Taft Museum, the suspension bridge, Findlay Market, Jungle Jim’s.

Cincinnati 2017

There, you’ve watched my sons grow up! And I’ve relived these memories we chose to make together.

I chose not to wallow in the difficult past, but instead to move forward. To make the life I wanted, as much as I could. To be a good father to my sons and to create good memories with them.

Mission accomplished. Garrett graduated high school on Saturday.

I know from experience with my stepchildren that parenting doesn’t really end until around age 25. Our kids all need at least some parental guidance in those early young-adult years.

But it’s a new phase of life for me, of moving forward into life with my new wife. But this time I get to do it with memories intact.

These photos are © 2000-2017 Jim Grey. All rights reserved. I will not grant permission to republish them.

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Personal, Stories Told

It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke

Bonus Garrett story #2, from four years ago, a moment that in retrospect was a turning point in our relationship.

I have a complicated relationship with the futon in my family room. My wife and I bought it while we were still married. The day we brought it home, I regretted the bright blue mattress cover that we chose. Later, as my marriage splintered apart, I spent a year exiled to it at night. I couldn’t resent the situation, for it would acknowledge that our marriage was over, so I resented the futon instead. And then it was the one major piece of furniture I got in the divorce, the only thing I owned on which I could sit. I made myself feel glad to have it. Then bouts of mournful insomnia expelled me from my new bed back to the futon, as there I could always eventually find sleep. Now I start my nights on the futon, but wake later and stagger off to bed. More than a dozen years in, I’m no longer happy with its style, springs are starting to poke out on the sides of the mattress, and I still hate its cover. But I fall asleep on it so reliably that I’m reluctant to replace it. A new couch might not carry that nocturnal magic.

Futon1

My relationship with my futon is not as complex as the relationships with those I love, of course. I’m thinking specifically of my youngest son, a teenager. He broke the futon the other day.

My boy lives fully in the moment. He makes no plan and weighs no consequences. Once at motion, he tends to stay there; Newton would be proud. If you spent a day with him you might call him absentminded, but that would be an injustice. He becomes consumed by his activity and the world falls away. His inner world is his best friend. He lives there.

In that state, he has damaged or broken many things. I used to think he was careless or, worse, deliberate, and so I meted out consequences of loud and harsh words, limitations of his freedom, or both. But slowly, thankfully, I’ve come to see the truth: The boy means no harm. He is usually very surprised when he damages or breaks something.

Even though these things are just things, they do belong to somebody, usually me. They have an important purpose or some sentimental or emotional value, and I feel the loss.

My son matters more than these things, and so I absorb those losses. But it’s also my job to help shape the child. Trying to help him to be more self-aware was a losing game that frustrated both of us, and so I gave up. Perhaps time and life will bring this growth naturally. Meanwhile, I intend to teach him to repair the things he’s damaged – both physical objects and relationships. All of us sometimes damage our relationships through our quirks and limitations. All of us need to know how to make amends.

He was deep inside a video game when he leaped exuberantly backward and landed on the futon. I am sure he’s done this many times. But he was much smaller and lighter before a major growth spurt this summer, and the poor futon could no longer bear him. The main beam supporting the mattress split wide, and the futon collapsed.

I called my dad, who made custom furniture for a living for many years, and described the damage. “Easy,” he said. “Get some wood glue and some long wood screws. Glue the board together along the break and then drive the screws in every inch or two. It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.”

I assembled the materials and the tools and called my son. I showed him what to do and had him do it. As he worked, I spoke gently about repairing damaged relationships. He is my son, and I love him, and he will always receive grace from me. He should accept no less from those who are in his life. But when he causes damage, he needs to try his best to fix it, if he can. I hope my words connected with him.

Futon2

The repair is ugly; we couldn’t quite get the halves of the board to line up on one side of the break. My son didn’t have enough strength to drive the screws all the way into the hard wood, so I finished them all. As we put the frame back together, I could feel our relationship coming back together, too. I hope he felt the same way. After we finished the repair we turned the futon back over and sat down on it. It supported us as before the break, and I could see the satisfaction of accomplishment in him. Here’s hoping this creates a connection in him that he can mend things broken, including relationships. That he should. That it’s satisfying to do it.

“It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.” Was Dad really talking about my relationship with my son?

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