I feel that I need to apologize for the sense of humor that my dad presented to me as gift-wrapped lessons during my life. I feel that need because hyper-witty-self-aware puns and punch-lined jokes fail to garner their worthwhile appreciation in an increasingly bitter and devastatingly unfunny society. Bitter and sarcastic isn’t funny, it is a means to funny; alas (yes! Alas!), people mistake those two constantly. Fart jokes are considered low brow by people judging from their horses that are so high they are completely unable to conceptualize grounding their feet in reality. I’ll state they are objectively wrong and refuse to back down, knowing that my dad has got my back. My dad and I get along really well; better, I’d wager, than most father/ sons at this juncture in life. The respect is simply fantastic: I actively listen to what he has to say, while I believe his faith in my judgment is near unshakeable. It’s the type of father and son relationship that people wish about having, seeing as how we can just pick up a phone, chat about shared interests (which are, of course, whatever sport is currently on the air), crack jokes to see who laughs first, then part from our electronic conversations. People see current interactions and envy our relationship that they feel like we spent years establishing: the idea is that a rapport of this level can only be grown through years of actively working together to solidify an unshakable foundation.
For most of my life, and certainly well into my 20s, I didn’t like my dad. I didn’t like him in the way that I didn’t answer his phone calls, refused to have conversations with him, and told any male role model that I could cling to that they were the substitute I was looking for. Hate is a strong word, and fully inaccurate here (as it is most times people use it, failing to fully internalize the definition, similar to society’s failure to understand words like “awesome” or “gigantic”). I don’t hate things because of the effort it takes and because I feel that anything I despise that much I can simply shut out of my life. But the closest I’ve ever come to hating something is my dad. Writing that, with the crisp font accusing me of being some drama queen that didn’t and doesn’t know how good my life is, makes me feel wrong. It makes me feel that I didn’t deserve my father who sacrificed more for me that I’ll ever actually know, who stayed in a job he hated so his sons could have everything they wanted, who spent every waking hour just trying to survive life because he didn’t want to impress upon his children the horrors of his own childhood. I want to clarify my earlier statement: I don’t think I can hate people or things. But I can hate emotions, comments, and memories. And while I can’t say I ever hated the man, I certainly hated moments in his life and hated the way that he would treat my brothers and my mother. Ultimately, I hated the way he treated me. I’m comfortable spending energy on that.
Here, by the way, is where I should mention my grandfather. As far as I know from a primary source (myself), he is a great man with a strong faith and excellent work ethic. As far as I know from a secondary source (his children and their spouses), he was the meanest drunk who ever lived, regularly endangering the lives of any number of his nine kids by driving them to church while drunk. Or, in my father’s case, my grandfather would tie a six year old child to a tractor’s emergency brake so he could till the fields and, if he fell, the tractor would stop so he wouldn’t be crushed. In theory. I don’t know that man. I know a man who doesn’t judge the grandchild who is taking the longest in school and shows up for family gatherings in weird haircuts or earrings. I know a man who is genuinely interested in talking with me and, I believe, enjoys my company. I know a man who loves his family a great deal and has made a number of poor decisions in his life that he’s turned around. But I know of a man who was an alcoholic to the point of scarring an entire family of children for life, scars they passed onto their children, which I’m certain my generation will pass down. I don’t know who the pain patriarch was, the genesis of this cycle, but I do know that I can trace the cycle back to the man I sit next to at holiday functions. And I know that my dad is the adult child of an alcoholic and that he made sure his family suffered the full retribution of his pain.
I don’t like writing or talking about any of this… it isn’t fair to my dad, who I believe is a good man who just doesn’t know how to work out his own issues. But I also know that my dad suffers three addictions that, in the most vulgar of languages, Fucked Up My Family. All three of them are addictions that, it feels like, he simply pulled out of the Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA) textbook because he could. I have never known my dad not to work out. I have never known my dad not to obsess about working and striving for better; my dad pushed himself to become a certified public accountant understanding that he would never use that education. The Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization talks about this: “We either became alcoholics ourselves, married them, or both. Failing that, we found other compulsive personalities, such as a workaholic, to fulfill our sick need for abandonment.” I had rarely seen my dad pick up a drink before I moved out of the house, and now he only does it occasionally. And, the third item I know from my history, I know that my dad has always been a ragaholic. I believe he made a checklist of items Rage-Anon has for people with a rage problem: Self-Stimulation, Compulsion, Obsession, Denial, Withdrawal/ Craving, and Unpredictability. The thing that made the rage scarier that the workout addiction or the workaholism is that they can be turned into lessons for the children to emulate (though not imitate). “Hey, Andrew, you should probably work a little harder at school. Look at how hard your dad studies in his free time. You should try a bit more studying yourself.” “Hey, Andrew, when was the last time you worked out 6 days a week? Really? Not for years? Well, your dad and his artificial hip come home with eyes stinging from sweat every night. Can’t you at least afford three days?” These are socially acceptable lessons that can be gleaned from watching the man I identify with the most, both in regards to humor and emotion. But the rage…
It was (is?) always worst in the mornings. Avoid dad in the mornings. Take a quick shower. Don’t take long getting ready. He’s driving you to high school. You’ll be listening to talk radio. Don’t suggest music. Get dressed quicker. Your outfit doesn’t matter, but your speed does. Did you forget homework? Pretend like you’re studying in the back of the car. Don’t write, just read. He’s coming down the stairs. Is everything ready? Did you make him some breakfast if he forgot? Don’t make eye contact. Don’t make eye contact. He’ll see it as weakness. Can you do something to speed things up? Is the car warming up? Is it clean? Did you pack your lunch beforehand? It’s too late, just pretend like lunch is in your bag. You can afford to skip today, you need to lose weight for wrestling anyway. Make sure you’re ready to leave when he’s ready, never the opposite. Don’t forget how much your high school costs, he hasn’t. Don’t bother to say goodbye or hello to anyone. Steel yourself. You never know when he’s going to pounce. Don’t eat breakfast, he makes you so nervous you’ll puke it back up at school anyway. Don’t bother trying to be friends with him today. Hope the talk radio isn’t too inflammatory. Hope that he isn’t boiling from a fight he started off the day with. Hope against hope that today, maybe just today, he won’t go off.
There are two times that I distinctly remember him forever altering my life. One morning, during my freshman year of high school in the fall, dad was in a particularly bad mood. While on Franklin Road in Franklin, Tennessee, we approached a series of 4 way stop signs that could be a trigger for my dad if a particularly bad driver accidentally and regrettably ended up in front of us. Dad was already off the handle, but I thought he was just venting. It turned to me.
“What’s the problem with your mother, huh? Answer me! What’s wrong with her?”
“…I don’t know.” I was too weak, too indefinite. He pounced.
“Yeah, well, Andrew, if you don’t figure it out and we get a divorce, it’s your fault.”
Crying wasn’t allowed. It was for the weak, it was for girls, girls were weak, I didn’t want to cry like a girl. Mom sometimes thought it was alright, but that is a lesson that dad pressed like a vinyl, spinning it for me whenever she wasn’t around. So I didn’t cry. That morning, a switch flipped and tears exploded. Dad crossed a line and he knew it. He apologized in the car ride and later that night. A fourteen year old boy who is struggling in a new, private, rich-kid school and spends his free time reading Star Wars novels probably doesn’t know enough to salvage a marriage that was being actively cut with the serrated barbs mom and dad would sling like Vikings. He never spoke of it again. I don’t even know if he remembers.
My brother Michael started riding the next year, when my parents pulled him out of public school for getting arrested with his skater friends. I had ridden in the back seat for years by choice. It was a defense mechanism justified by the fact that the backseat had a light I could study by on the mornings that it was too dark to read. I left Michael in the front, unfairly. I was riding a C in an English class (or maybe it was a Math class)… it was one of them. Dad was furious. Dad, who wouldn’t accept B’s for himself, had made the slight concession for his sons. I crossed the line, though: I had a C. Right before we got to school, dad, in the middle of a tirade, was exploding. The collateral damage was going into my brother’s ear because he was closer. “Andrew, you have more talents than the rest of this family put together. Every time you do something like this, it’s like you’re spitting in God’s face.” Michael’s ears rang louder from my dad’s indirect comment that let him know, in no uncertain terms, that he wasn’t as good as his brother. The insult clanged in Michael’s ears louder than the screaming. The lesson I took from it was that, if I wanted to hurt my dad, I just had to mess up. It stung him more than me.
We have never talked about this, but I included it in a Father’s Day letter I wrote for him. I wanted him to know how much I loved him, and how I have lived my life by the words of that lesson. I purposefully fail when I feel spiteful. I purposefully succeed because, according to him, I don’t have any option but unlimited potential. Which of those purposeful tasks I choose depends on my day and mood.
These are the lessons, I think, by which we define ourselves. The horrid, self-destructiveness of our choices are resounding gongs, echoing the negative teachings drilled into us. But how often are we defined by the rage of ourselves or others? The most messed up thing on this planet with this species is that I can spend years developing a relationship in a positive light, working studiously and impetuously toward a common goal that I share with another person, and we can reflect on each other beautifully. Then, in one angry moment, something is said that can never be taken back. Why? Why is it we define these things by that moment, not by everything else? Are we such gluttons, such self-flagellation sadomasochistic freaks that we live by the rage and hurt of others?
I don’t have facts and figures on how many people’s most defining or memorable moments are based on hate or anger, but I’d be willing to bet it is more than the number of people who define their lives by happiness. As a society, we’ve gotten to where we don’t trust positive emotions or comments, only the negative ones. We hit these moments where people think what is said in the moment of passion is honesty, not the bastard child of spite and manipulation. Suddenly, the human race is defined by bastards… maybe that’s why we are such bastards. It would make sense, no?
Even stranger is the case that the anger-spewing-rage volcanoes often forget what they’ve said later; the comment was merely an emotional release that needed to happen. The burns and scars from that lava are permanent, though, tainting and altering the lives they flamed across. Even if I don’t remember something I said in a moment of emotional weakness, someone else may have partially based their life on it. Sick, sick, sick. Why? Why can we not take things to the polar opposite side, writing off anger and respecting the good? Is this the reverse product of a conservative society, one forced to hide feelings? Is that why, when I started sobbing uncontrollably for a twenty minute, agony-filled ride to Brentwood Academy that dad took a step back and apologized, realizing he had taken a sledgehammer to my Berlin Wall, then shit on the rubble? Do we believe that any positive emotion at this point is a product of society, while the negatives are the products of honesty?
Of course we do. We’re the fucked up bastard offspring of adult children of alco-raga-holics who scream at their lineage to change without offering the path, and then are face slapped into social submission by our parental society because honesty, true honesty, is far more revolutionary than any civilized society can handle. We have no gauge for where the line is, so we draw it so far away from the middle that we have to be on the safe side. We have no measuring cups for decency or scales to weigh the good and the bad, so we lump each into their own category (socially acceptable and hyper-guarded, or very honest and born out of uncontrollable emotion that most often manifests itself in, and here’s that unfortunate word again, hate).
I love my dad a great deal now, just like he loves his father. There are clear parallels to the healing we’re crafting on both sides of the generational fence. He continues to travel home and work at the farm, while I’m still returning phone calls from six years ago. We don’t talk about our history that much, too happy to be beyond the past. Is this healthy? No. But is this healthier than we were before, and at least allowing for the potential for future conversations meant for healing?
Absolutely. I’d wager a morning car ride on it.