Tuesday, December 29, 2020

A Tale of Two Dads

Why do people get angry?  I mean, it must be some sort of survival skill or we wouldn't do it, right?

We were camping this summer in a number of places in the Adirondacks and saw a lot of "Covid Campers" out there.  Brand-new box trailers with temp-tags, backing into a site at full speed. People struggling to set up tents just out of the box from WalMart or Dick's Sporting Goods.  Entire families, out camping, many for the first time.  It was interesting to watch.

At a campground on a lake in the Adirondacks, on a site across from us, a whole family piles out of a minivan and unloads mountains of gear. They are all laughing and happy as they struggle to insert tab A into slot B of the tent assembly instructions.  They finally get the tent up, and one boy shouts, "Yaaay!  Dad got the tent up!" and Dad replies, "No son, we all did it together, by cooperating!"  I felt like Fred Rogers was going to pop-up any second.

I mean, who were these sick people? Actually liking each other and enjoying a challenge together -  what's up with that?  And they liked their Dad and he said nice things about them.  I was about to think I left planet Earth when a second family showed up, two sites down, and restored my faith in humanity.

This Dad came out of the car snarling angrily.  The kids were listless and looking at their phones and complaining loudly about what a lousy deal they got out of life, having to go camping and missing their favorite Tee-Vee shows.  Dad shouted and screamed at them as they set up the tent.  And it wasn't just to shout at them about how to set up the tent, but verbal abuse and humiliation and degradation.  Dad just didn't say, "Grab that tent pole!" but "Grab that tent pole, asshole!  You deaf or something?  You're a moron and will never amount to anything in life!"   He wasn't just criticizing what the kids were doing, but assaulting (verbally) their very being.

Anyway, after watching that, I felt the world had returned back to normal, and I realized I don't miss my Dad all that much.  In his defense, he did mellow out a bit as he got older (Dementia) but when he was younger, well, he was the #2 Dad in that campground.   He was angry - all the time.  That was his default mode of operation - shouting, screaming, demanding, demeaning.   If you did something wrong, it wasn't your behavior that was criticized, but your very being.

I recounted before how my Dad made my oldest brother "go out for" football in prep school.  A thin, scholarly fellow, my eldest brother was ill-suited to athletics, but went along with it because it was expected of him.  He sat on the bench most of the time and wasn't exactly a star athlete.  My Dad had such high hopes for him - buying him football equipment, weight sets, and chinning-bars.  I am not sure it worked.

When my other brother came of age, my Dad made him go out for "Pop" Warner football - a form of flag football for adolescent youth.  My brother hated it, as he too, was not athletic, didn't really get into football, and didn't know any of the kids who were on the team.  He wanted to quit, and my Dad, instead of being supportive and telling him to stick it out a few more games, or actually showing up and rooting for him, just ran him down.  He told my brother that he was a quitter, and made him go to practice and tell everyone assembled there that he was quitting.  All the way home, he berated him as a quitter and said weird things like, "From now on, everywhere you go in life, people are going to say, 'there goes the guy who quit Pop Warner football!'"  I mean, pretty sick stuff.   Kind of hard when your own father emasculates you when you are just reaching puberty.  My brother cried all the way home.

I guess about then, I decided I didn't like Dad much.

When I became of age for "Pop" Warner football, my Dad casually mentioned they were doing tryouts and I just said, "I don't think so, Dad!" and gave him an evil look.  For some reason, I had the balls to say "no" to him, while my older brothers were afraid of him.  My eldest brother now remembers things differently - that he enjoyed playing football.  But I think that is just his way of coping.  At the time, I recall him telling a far different story.  But I digress.

It got me to thinking about anger and why some people are angry all the time.  It seems today, a lot of people are angry about... nothing.  We are being baited a lot, it seems, to try to "trigger" us into "going off" and not thinking straight.   And maybe that is the point of anger.

Anger allows us to do things that our conscious brain would not allow us to do.  So, for example, Og the caveman wants to club his neighbor Grog in the adjacent cave, over the head, and steal his Mastodon hides, his stored corn, and wives.   Even as a caveman, he has a conscience and knows this is wrong - after all, he wouldn't want someone to do that to him, right?   But he gets angry - sees red - perhaps over nothing, perhaps over a perceived slight. Grog taunts him, showing off his lovely wives and rich Mastodon hide outfit.  Og gets angry, clubs Grog over the head, spattering his brains out - and inherits all of Grog's assets.   Anger works as a survival skill.

Maybe that is how it works.  I don't know for sure.  Anger instills fear in other people, which in turn, can make them acquiescent.

My Dad was angry most all of the time.  As a manager, he was always shouting at people - trying to instill fear in them, and it worked.  I ran into a guy who worked at his factory and without telling him who I was, he mentioned the "guy who ran the factory" was "a real asshole."   That's my Dad!

His father, who died of lung cancer before I was born, apparently was even further off the leash.  No one talked about him, other than vague statements by my Mother that his Dad used to beat him.  And like with my eldest brother, when my Dad got older, he started "remembering" his "great" childhood - the one that the PTSD prevented him from talking about in years gone by.  I guess they both want to re-invent the past, to paper over the bad parts, as a way of coping.  That or they both just lost their minds.

When I was younger, I was quick to anger as well, but it seems the level of anger attenuated with each passing generation.  Whatever demons drove my Grandfather were halved in my Father, and halved again in me.  We all get angry, of course, on occasion.  Usually I get angry at inanimate objects these days - the toast that falls on the floor, butter down, for example.  Of course, it was my fault I dropped the toast, right?

Maybe that is the key to anger - when we get angry, we are actually angry at ourselves for failing in some way or another. My Dad was angry at his slacker sons, as they grew up and turned out not like he expected them to.  He was never around, and never was very nurturing, so it was no real surprise that we turned away from his values and ideas.  He got angry with us, because he was angry at his own failure at fatherhood.  Well, it is one theory.  On the other hand, you come home from a long day at work, your boss hinting you might lose your job because the factory is hemorrhaging cash, and your kids are all sitting around smoking dope and watching television and your wife is an alcoholic bipolar proto-lesbian who you haven't had sex with in nearly two decades - that might make you angry, I guess.  It must have sucked to be him.

I am not sure what made me think of this, only that I was telling this story of the two Dads from this summer, to a friend, and it made me think, why was one Dad nice and the other angry all the time?  Interesting question, I am not sure I have the answer.