Stories Told

Paul McCartney kind of saved my life once; he has no idea of course

After two recent high-profile suicides in the news, I am reminded of this piece I wrote in 2011. If you ever stand on that edge, wait, because it always gets better.

I was away at my first year of engineering school working harder than ever before — or since, for that matter. My full class load delivered six to ten hours of homework every day. To keep up, I worked each night into the wee hours. My life consisted of meals, class, homework, and too little sleep.

As my fatigue mounted, my health began to suffer. Worse, I became isolated and I lost hope. I fell into a deep funk. I began thinking a lot about how I might be better off no longer walking around on the face of the Earth.

That’s when I came across this record.

McCartneyCover

This is Paul McCartney’s first solo album after the Beatles broke up. He released it in 1970, but I first heard it 15 years later in my dorm room at the center of my despair. The music sounded spare; many mixes were rough and some songs seemed unfinished. The songs gave a strong sense of a man shut away in a room, playing alone, trying to get his head together. Indeed, Paul produced and engineered the album himself. Except for an occasional backing vocal from his wife Linda, he played and sang every note.

McCartney’s signature musical move has always been to find a bright side even when the going is rough. This song, which closed side 1, is a perfect example. It led me to consider that after the Beatles ended, he released (at that time) more than a dozen albums and had given concerts all over the world. It had been impossible to listen to the radio and not hear his music! He’d done quite all right in the intervening years. I could see that perhaps so could I, and so perhaps I should push through.

I did, and now I’m fine all the while.

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Life, Stories Told

Enduring comforters

In this season of change and loss I’m experiencing, it’s remarkable to me what endures.

When I started this blog, in 2007, I lived in my church’s parsonage. It had been vacant because our pastor lived in a house he already owned. The elders knew I was rebuilding my life after my divorce and that my one-room apartment wasn’t big enough for me and my sons. So in 2005 they offered me a sweetheart deal: if I paid the utilities and cut the grass (on a three-acre lot, what a lot of work!) I could live in the parsonage indefinitely. Given what houses like this rented for at the time, they saved me about $1,000 a month — money I didn’t have anyway, not then.

The four-bedroom, two-bathroom house was mostly furnished. I needed only furnish my sons’ bedroom. My sons could easily have had separate rooms, but they were used to bunking together and said they felt most secure that way. They were still quite young at about eight and six years old. Here’s their room.

ParsonageBoysRoom

I had little money to work with. I ordered their beds online from Sears, sight unseen, for about $100 each. Let me tell you, a $100 box spring and mattress are mighty thin and flimsy. My back would have complained to me all day after a night on one of these. But my boys’ little bodies could still sleep happily on anything.

I bought almost everything else on sale at Target: the comforters and bedskirts, the sheets, the bedside table, the clock radio, the lamp, and the plastic tubs that served as their toy boxes. The curtains came from the one-room apartment; I’d bought them at Dollar General. I forget where I got the posters, but they were of my sons’ favorite TV shows.

You can never predict how things will change as life moves on.

Even though my sons slept in my home less than half the time, the mattresses wore out after about five years and had to be replaced. It pays to buy good mattresses.

The boys’ nightstand now stands next to my recliner in the living room. I use Damion’s decorative orange pillow behind my head when I watch TV there. The boys no longer needed their toy-box tubs at some point; I used them both for Christmas-decoration storage. The lamp doesn’t have a use at the moment, but I think it might one day and so I’ve saved it. I don’t know what became of the clock radio. The boys no longer wanted their posters when I moved last year out of the house I bought for us in 2007.

But those black Target comforters have worn like iron. They’re still on the beds I keep for my sons. Garrett’s comforter even got a five-year break when, at his request, I redecorated his room in camouflage. The camo comforter he selected, which cost a darn sight more than the black one, just didn’t last. It had worn thin and was full of holes. Fortunately, his camo phase had ended and I just put the black comforter back on his bed. It still looked fresh — as much as the one that had been on his brother’s bed all along.

When my sons move out, I’ll send those comforters along with them. Who knows how long they’ll last. But while they do, they’ll connect them to memories stretching all the way back to our time in the parsonage.

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Stories Told

Playing by radio’s rules

I love this story, which I’ve published twice before (2008 and 2013).

What’s the most embarrassed or humiliated you’ve ever been?

I used to think it was the day a female friend of mine cried out as we parted in a crowd, “But Jim! You can’t leave! What about the baby?”

But that doesn’t come close to the time I was laid low on the public airwaves.

MeOnWZZQ

On the air, WZZQ Terre Haute, 1994

I was in my early 20s, working part time on the air for Terre Haute’s rock radio station. We were proud to be number two in the market in a part of the world where country music was king. The country station commanded a third of the audience by just showing up. We, on the other hand, worked our butts off to stay in second place. We were successful enough that our full-time DJs were all minor local celebrities.

To stay visible we did lots of events. Terre Haute being a blue-collar and college town we wound up a a lot of bars, the kind that serve watery beer in red plastic cups. We’d promote some band that was playing and we DJs would turn out wearing station swag.

Because I wore my staff shirt, people acted like I was their long lost buddy. It was kind of fun until too much beer had flowed, at which point some guy would start telling you at top volume how much your station really sucked because it didn’t play enough Ozzy, or some girl missing her front teeth would ask sweetly if you had a girlfriend. Even if she had all of her teeth, every DJ knows that Radio Rule #1 is don’t date your listeners. It never goes well.

One Saturday night at an event I sat down with the program director and the two DJs from the morning show, “Scott and Debbie in the Morning.” Now, a part-timer like me would not normally spend time with such lofty talent as the morning show, as Radio Rule #2 is part-timers are in the lowest caste, the sort of people the full-timers ignore.

But the program director liked me. “Jim, you are like gold,” he told me, “because you show up for all your shifts and you follow the format.” I said, “Wow, um, that bar’s pretty low. What does that say about the other part-timers?” He wouldn’t answer. But he usually invited me to hang out with him at these events, and when I did, the morning show had to give me the time of day.

A young woman was sharing our table that night. She was sixteen kinds of cute. Young and slender, doe eyed with long brown hair, so nicely built. She increasingly turned her attention to me, moving in closer, smiling big and looking away when I caught her gaze, and giggling a lot. By the time she had downed a couple more beers, her body language said she’d follow me anywhere I wanted to go. It was flattering. It was exciting.

Then she started to talk — of hating her fast-food job, of wanting to get on at the record-and-CD club that employed half the town because it would free up her nights and she could hit the bars with her friends more often, of her three small children from three different dads, and of how she had to call the cops on one ex the night before and how another ex was getting out of prison in a couple months. The look in her eye seemed to say, “Will you be baby daddy number four?” Images of paternity suits and paychecks garnisheed for child support began to fill my head.

sugardaddy2

What I must have looked like

Red alert! Evasive maneuvers! Fully grasping the wisdom of Radio Rule #1, I stared into my empty cup trying to find a way to exit with grace. Which I did, except for the with-grace part. “Wow, lookit the time, gotta go!”

Monday morning as I drove to my regular job, Scott and Debbie were talking about the Saturday-night event, what a great time it was, and all the DJs who were there. They wouldn’t normally mention lowly part-timers, because let’s face it, listeners don’t remember their names. But then Debbie said, “And did you believe Jim Grey, who works weekends here? This super cute chick was coming on to him, she was so hot! I wanted to tell them to get a room! And then he just sat there! He didn’t do anything! He could have done anything he wanted with her that night, but he wouldn’t even look at her! You have to wonder if he likes girls!

My stomach knotted and I saw red. She had just made me look like a geek with no social skills in front of every listener in a 50-mile radius! And this was the kind of screw that no matter which way you turned it, it went further in. I would just have to suck it up. Of course, I barely made it past the front door at work before someone said, with a big question-mark look on their face, “I heard about you on the radio this morning! What was that all about?” Two more people asked about it before I made it to my cube — where I hid out the rest of the day under headphones so I could pretend not to notice people who came by.

That’s how I learned a corollary to Radio Rule #2: uppity part-timers will be put in their place!

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Life

Ich habe einen Volkswagen gekauft

Ich habe einen Volkswagen gekauft

At last, a new car. A new-to-me car at any rate: a 2013 VW Passat 2.5 S.

With that, my beloved Toyota Matrix is finally gone. I wrote its eulogy last September (read it here) after it developed several problems that would cost far more to fix than the car was worth. One of those problems made the car a safety risk on the road.

But then I dragged my feet on selling it. In part, I struggled to let go of my baby. In part, other priorities kept winning over selling a beater car. In part, I wanted more from it than the $200 my mechanic offered me so he could part it out.

But then late in January it became essential that my family have three safe and reliable automobiles. My wife and I both own Ford Focuses that, despite age and high mileage, are entirely roadworthy. I had to act, and fast, to replace the Matrix.

My wife and I set a budget and I went shopping. That budget was low enough and time was enough of the essence that my purchase criteria were very broad: under 50,000 miles, good reliability reputation, four doors, usable back seat. I looked at a handful of cars and SUVs before coming upon this Passat.

The back seat is cavernous. Our 6′2″ youngest son can sit back there with easily four inches between his knees and the back of my seat. Finally, a comfortable trip car for the family!

The automotive press panned the 2.5-liter, 5-cylinder engine for lacking power compared to the competition. I’ve not driven other midsize sedans, but this Passat has plenty of scoot for me, especially when I drop the transmission into Sport mode. Whee! Fusions and Accords and Camrys must be blazing quick.

The press also criticized the Passat’s generic styling. Can’t say they’re wrong.

After so many years driving inexpensive economy cars, I feel like a real grown up driving this large, comfortable car. But it feels like a wasteful amount of car for me to drive alone to and from work, which is what I use it for most. I take solace in the fact that it gets gas mileage at least as good as my lamented Matrix and my Focus!

Oh, and the trade-in value on a beater 2003 Toyota Matrix: $750. Score!

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Stories Told

I miss my father’s voice

I have a great memory of my dad. It was probably the late 1970s and we were waiting in our car for Mom to finish shopping. The radio was on low when the song below came on. It was just the kind of over-the-top song that brought out Dad’s inner showman. He belted it out, smiling at me, singing for me. He sang it better than the artist!

I miss Dad’s voice. It was big, deep, rich. He had excellent control, being able to make it very loud or quite low and tender. Until his last months.

But I’m choosing not to feel guilty that I don’t miss Dad very much otherwise. As I’ve shared before, Dad and I never figured out how to have an adult-to-adult relationship. He needed to be the teacher, the coach, the mentor, well past the point where our relationship needed primarily to be about that. But more than that, Dad was challenging in his last years. He was often in a difficult mood, often blunt and unkind.

I lived in tension, trying to be a good son who honored his father while constantly setting boundaries with him and repeatedly asserting my independence. It is a relief to be free of it.

But there was something about his voice.

Family reunion

Dad, in the pink shirt and in his 60th year, speaking at a 2001 Grey family reunion. I see Doyle and Susie and Ken and Sharon and Tommy and Gail and a couple other people I can’t make out, all Greys whether by blood or by marriage.

When I was three, he picked me up after surgery in the hospital. His low and easy voice erased my fear and filled me with security.

When my brother and I were small, growing up on Rabbit Hill, Dad would open the front door and call. “Jim-may! Rick-ay!” Every family for a mile knew it was time for the Grey boys to go home.

Dad could carry a tune and sang frequently. Especially in the morning — he loved the new day and often met it with a song. (The rest of us were night owls and didn’t appreciate his morning cheerfulness!) He fancied himself Elvis and went after most songs with all the oomph and verve that implies.

When Dad taught, his voice carried the air of authority. He taught young Robyn down the street to play chess. He taught woodworking for several summers to 4-H youth. He taught my sons to sharpen knives. In all ways, his voice carried “I’ve got this and I can show you” in perfect pitch.

And when he was angry, Dad’s voice filled with rage and fury. It was deeply frightening to my brother and me when we were small. I did everything I could to avoid hearing that voice, right up until he died.

After the cancer was found in his liver and his brain late last summer, his voice sounded strained much of the time. I think this was the hardest thing for me to take as he began to fade away. While I felt bad for him that his failing eyesight and fading strength kept him from so much activity, I accepted these things.

But his voice. I always hoped it would come back, just for a minute.

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Stories Told

A man needs to feel useful

My dad’s last words to me were about my son, Garrett.

DadAndGarrett

My dad and my son Garrett in 2005, before the cancer.

It was Dad’s birthday, his 77th, and we had planned a quiet celebration. Mom called me that afternoon to warn me that Dad had not gotten out of bed all day. More than that: he had taken a turn over the weekend and was in real pain.

As I stood at the foot of his bed Dad experienced several spasms. First his face clouded, and then he grimaced and grunted low for the few seconds each one lasted.

I tried to wish him a happy birthday, but Dad had something to say. “The younger one,” he said. “The younger one,” his voice strained, wobbly. Weighted down.

“Garrett? You mean Garrett.” Mom hovered anxiously.

“Yes, Garrett. He asked about the knives.”

knives

My middling-quality knives always cut beautifully because Dad kept a perfect edge on them.

Several years ago my father taught my sons how to sharpen knives. He was extremely good at it. When I was a boy Dad made a friend at work, a fellow of his father’s generation named Pat, who taught him how. Dad and Pat used to spend their breaks at their whetstones in friendly competition to see who could get the best edge.

When my brother and I were young, Dad tried to teach us, too. But his patience was terrible. When we didn’t get it right away he lost his temper. It pushed us away

But a man mellows with age. Time and life burr off his rough edges, much like the whetstone burrs off metal splayed along a dull blade. Dad taught my sons with a level of patience that, while still not perfect, was greater than anything I ever experienced from him as a child. I envied my sons, who learned it readily and were and happy to present me my knives, sharpened.

I can only assume that Garrett had lately asked his grandpa for a refresher. And here was Dad, concerned about it more than his pain.

“Garrett wanted me to show him again about the knives.”

Or at least that’s what I think he was trying to say. Morphine slowed and slurred his speech. Pain spasms interrupted him every fourth or fifth word and caused him to lose his place. He kept trying again to say it. Finally, exhausted, he fell asleep.

Dad stayed asleep. No candles were blown out, no cake was eaten. My gift to him, two pairs of new Levi’s 505s, the only jeans he would wear, went unopened.

Early the next afternoon I was at a coffee shop with my brother discussing some matters of our mutual employer. Mom called: “Your father stopped breathing about an hour ago. He just quietly passed away.”

A man needs to feel useful, to know he’s offering something valuable and meaningful. In my dad’s cancer years he seemed less and less sure what purpose he served.

Actually, his search for purpose went back farther than that. Dad had been all about his family while my brother and I were under his roof. After my brother and I grew up and moved away, Dad went into business for himself making custom wood furniture. After that venture failed, he returned to manufacturing management. But it was a kick in his teeth when that job encountered surprising difficulty and ended involuntarily. He seemed simply to lose his will to work.

My father drilled into his sons that a man works, period. It was extremely challenging for me to see my mother have to return to work to put food on the table.

Dad threw himself into building coalitions that might revitalize South Bend’s economically depressed west side, where he lived as a teen. He had admirable aims but seemed only to want to be a catalyst for something happening. He simply would not roll up his sleeves and do the hard work to make something happen. None of his initiatives bore any real fruit.

When their home became too much for Dad to care for, he and Mom sold it and retired to Indianapolis to be closer to their sons and to the VA hospital where Dad got all his medical care. But with that, Dad withdrew from everything. He had only his Internet forums and his family.

When my brother or I visited, Dad mostly wanted to hear how our jobs were going. We’d share our frustrations and challenges and Dad would always offer his advice. Unfortunately, his 1970s-1980s manufacturing experience seldom informed my brother’s and my modern software-development reality. It frustrated and sometimes agitated him; more than once I had to deescalate his anger and change the subject. Sooner or later our conversation would remind him of one of his on-the-job stories, such as how he ended 300% annual employee turnover at one plant, which improved productivity so much they soon needed to build another plant. We’d just lay back and let him tell it again; it seemed to let him feel better.

During these years I always had some major home-improvement project underway. Mom and Dad were always eager to come and help. But by this time Dad’s health limited the physical work he could do.

SewerConnect1

Destroying my front yard to connect to city sewer.

I have one especially good memory of Dad from those project days. Four years ago the city forced me to fill in my septic tank and connect my home to the sanitary sewer. It destroyed much of my front yard. Dad and Mom and my sons and I spent an entire Saturday spreading topsoil, grading, and planting grass. I issued my sons shovels and stationed them by the giant mound of soil I had delivered to my driveway. All day long they’d load the wheelbarrow and Dad would push it into the yard, where Mom and I waited with rakes. Dad would dump the dirt, Mom and I would spread and grade, and Dad would go back for another load. It was a very good day, the five of us working together. Dad did go inside twice to nap. He probably needed two or three more naps that day. But he pushed through because he wanted to be in the action. He was happy to be in the action.

KitchenCabinets

My kitchen on the day I last saw my old house, the cabinets still aglow from Dad’s expert waxing.

But that was the last time he was able to help much. As I got my house ready to sell last year, Dad and Mom came over frequently to do what they could. I found jobs that his terrible vision allowed him to do. The best of them was waxing my kitchen cabinets. He had perfected a wax-finish technique in his custom furniture days and could make bare wood glow. Even with his poor vision, his work on my cabinets deepened the dark finish and made them look almost new.

But no matter the job, Dad could work only for minutes at a time before his breathing became too labored and he had to stop. He spent a lot of time sitting on the deck, watching his dog run around my fenced back yard. Whenever I needed to run to Lowe’s, he always ran along. Eventually he’d nap. He tried not to show it, but he clearly hated being sidelined.

I’ll probably never understand why he gave up on working when his last job ended, or why he wouldn’t go all in on his economic improvement initiatives, or why after he moved to Indianapolis he gave up on almost everything.

Because when his life came to an end, the thing that was on his mind was being useful, giving something of value. And it was too late.

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