Wednesday, October 29, 2008

In Defense of Anger

I was raised in a suburb in the midwest. After I grew up and moved away, I learned that, throughout my childhood, the neighbors who lived on both sides and behind my family regarded us as unstable and possibly dangerous. Had I known, I would have gloried in it, but I did not know. Most of the trepidation had to do with my dad. The thing about my dad--there are a lot of things about my dad; he's an interesting guy--but the thing that so alarmed the neighbors was my dad's explosive temper. To illustrate, take a fine fall morning, any weekend, circa 1979, and we find my dad fixing himself a lunch. He gets out the cold cuts, probably olive loaf or those thinly sliced squares of processed beef, and goes to toast a couple slices of white bread in the toaster. He waits. The toaster does not pop up the toast, despite the evident burning that has begun. So, my dad has to try to extract the bread with his finger. By now, he is cursing in a low but intense voice--something about engineers who design things like this toaster. He burns his finger slightly and the cursing gets louder. If you were there, you would be able to hear him throughout the house and from the front or back porch, even if the doors and windows were closed. He turns the toaster over and shakes it, and maybe he yells, "you godDAMN piece of SHIT!" Then, let's suppose that the toaster slips from his hands as he's shaking it and crashes to the floor, dumping his toast and a half cup of burnt toaster crumbs on the linoleum. Things quickly escalate. My dad introduces new, more powerful terms into the yelling, which is coming out pretty much non-stop. The volume rises significantly. At this point, the neighbors hear a word or two from their own yards, or, if the windows are open, from their own kitchen tables. Next, his foot slips on the crumbs. He doesn't go down, but the sudden movement to catch his balance causes the blood to rush from his hands and sends adrenalin pumping through his system. He feels a small spasm in his back. Now, he is in a true rage. Now, he bellows forth the poetry of fury. If the neighbors haven't yet realized a show is on, they learn soon enough when dad yanks the back door open (things get even better when the sliding screen door comes off the tracks), bursts on to the back deck, and cursing at the top of his lungs the whole time, hurls the toaster into the back yard. Then, he turns back inside where my mom has appeared, with her eyebrows up and her lips pressed together. Dad goes and sits on the couch, still puffing a little self-righteously, and pretty soon mom brings him a sandwich. She's not friendly about it, and he will still be trying to get her to talk to him at dinnertime, but he gets fed and the kitchen floor is magically wiped up. Over the years, the toaster is followed by a hairdryer, blender, telephone, a small black and white television, and of course the sliding screen door. No body ever gets thrown into the backyard, but I can imagine them now, the neighbors, half-smiling, feeling superior and biting their lips, peeking around their curtains, wondering if it is really very safe to let their kids play over there.

I don't blame my dad for his behavior, even though I did grow up feeling weird about having friends over and sort of nervous about when he might start flipping out. The really bad thing is that I either inherited or learned his rage--or both. I don't usually throw things, but I certainly get so mad that I can't hear or see, and then I act impulsively and say and do things that most people would never do. Once in Rhode Island during the peak of the shopping season--mid-to-late December, I found myself driving around and around in a shopping center parking lot with a bunch of other cars playing a tense kind of duck-duck-goose game. I stopped when I saw a woman approach and get in a car and start the engine. She didn't move and she didn't move, and she didn't move. I could see her. She was on her phone. She pulled down her sunvisor and put on some lipstick. She lit a cigarette, opened her window a bit. I waited. Finally, I put my car in park, got out, and approached her driver's side. She looks at me. Blows smoke out the window. Are you leaving? I ask. When I'm ready, I'll leave, she says to me, holding her cell phone down from her mouth a bit. I was heart-thumping mad when I got out of my car. Now, for a split second, I cannot see, and there's no specific sound in my head but I cannot hear anything around me either. A dizzy pulsing in my brain, and then it passes. I turn and get back in my car and very slowly roll forward to park directly behind her, so that my passenger's door is pressed up flush against her back bumper. She's still jabbering. She doesn't even notice. I get out and walk about half a soccerfield's length across the parking lot before she realizes she's been blocked in. All of a sudden I hear screaming and turn to see her waving her arms, her face red. I wait as she runs across the parking lot. Ready to leave, now? I say. People are smiling as they walk by. Squawk! Squawk! Squawk! I walk back, get in my car, and go home. I feel good, really good, like I've solved an important social problem, not at all like I am a social problem. I don't know if my dad ever felt like that when he propelled cheap, poorly designed appliances and other household goods into the back yard, but I do sense an affinity between us. All of us face the world with so few weapons; it reminds me of Ahab telling Starbuck of his need to punch through the mask--hit back at the big, dumb uncooperative universe of contrary people and things that defy and withstand our will! Hi-yah!

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