A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
Everybody is so pissed off all the time. Everywhere I go, everywhere I look, people are acting more stressed, more impatient, and generally more irrational. As Charles Mackay noted in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds about two centuries ago, madness may be rare in individuals, but in mobs, crowds and societies, it is the norm, and once swept up into the maelstrom, sanity can only return slowly, to each individual in their own time. Iíve recently been enjoying Carl Honorťís book, In Praise of Slow, which makes a compelling argument that the time pressure we feel in the era of ever-escalating speed is at the root of the anxiety transforming ours into an age of rage. Actually, it reminded me of X Factor number 87 (Marvel Comics February 1993) by Peter David, in which Magnetoís son, the super-speedster Quicksilver, clarifies his arrogant demeanor by explaining that, from his perspective, the whole world is peopled by the kind of dullard who slows your life to a crawl because they happen to be in line in front of you and donít know how to work the ATM. Okay, thatís probably a sufficiently abstruse hat trick of literary references to reveal both my pretensions and my thriving inner childishness already, so letís turn the lens on me fully here and get it over with: I have been pissed off a lot of the time, too. Not really on a conscious level, but just as a part of the general background noise of existence.
This has been exacerbated of late by the heralds proclaiming twelve-year-old Keefe a fully formed adolescent with a capital A, now as tall as his mother and as reactive, moody, irritable, distracted, and occasionally capricious as all of us were in those middle school years. When I am thinking clearly, I remind myself that without thinking I can name a dozen ways that heís more together, mature and decent than any other kid his age I know, with a deep moral sense and a compulsion to act as peacemaker for his peer group. But thatís an abstract. When heís seething with fury and yelling at me because Iím asking him to put away the dishes and heís eager to get out the door to visit a friend or have time with the PS2 instead, my reactions are predictably visceral. It feels like a pissing contest, and the intellectual part of me that can identify that the vitriol isnít really about me or about the dishes, gets drowned out by the scrapper who was picked on from all sides when I was the weird, sickly, and scholastically high-achieving runt of my public school and finally caught fire with the compulsion to fight back. I thank a variety of gods that neither of us is the type to be physical with each other, but weíve weathered a few shouting matches in the last couple of years that, at least subjectively, felt loud enough that Aerosmith would have banged on the wall from next door asking us to keep it down.
Itís a zero sum game, a prisonerís dilemma where you lose no matter which way you jump, and it affects our whole household. Hugh and Janice get traumatized as much as we do when it happens, and the fallout in those relationships exacerbates the stress. Whatís really kind of ironic here is that there was a time about three years or so ago when my rapport with Keefe was the worst itís ever been, when we locked horns regularly, and it obviously wasnít healthy. A couple of really dear friends pulled me aside to express concern and give me a shake, and both Keefe and I worked really hard to bust the pattern, refresh the bonds between us, and get on better footing. For the most part, it worked, and the general progression since has been a laborious one of gaining ground and increasing the peace. There are ups and downs, but mostly ups, and the throwing down of gloves lately is somewhat of an aberration.
Fatherís Day helped it make some sense. It was a pretty straightforward deal. I enjoyed a rare sleep-in, Jan and the boys made breakfast, and while she was out running a couple of errands, I hadnít planned anything more ambitious than playing with the new webcam by working on some stop motion animation with Lego. Which meant we needed to locate a couple of square feet of table space hiding somewhere in the visual cacophony. Keefe seemed on edge, itching for a fight, and had this huge reaction clearly not related to the scope of what was going on. Suddenly I had a bit of an epiphany Ė he was reacting to his inner critic, feeling guilty about other moments between us in the months beforehand, and effectively anticipating some kind of conflict so strongly he was able to begin it all by himself.
I own the parts of the equation that are my contribution to our tussling, and Iíve managed subjectively Herculean efforts to control my tone and volume. I donít yell much any more, and Iím proud of that. Of course I make new mistakes. I know I have a tendency to nag, and Iím critical of, well, everything. Hell, I have to assume most of my readers have read other installments of my column, and know me for an occasional misanthrope prone to agree with Kantís dictum that ďout of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever madeĒ as often as not. Iím retraining myself to catch him in the act of positive behaviors as often as possible and make more celebration of it. Even deeper, though, Iím becoming conscious of that inner anger which is a response to every variety of stress from ecological dread to financial paralysis. My inner monologue has had a tendency when Keefe seems to be blowing a small request out of proportion to mutter about what a miserable so and so heís being at the time. Mentally Iím doing it in rhyme, or applying it to some tune stuck in my head, but no matter how clever it is, it doesnít contribute to a solution. I manage to catch myself when I begin, now, and Iíve written some new material: ďI am superhumanly patient and understanding. My reasonable example at moments like this is inspiring and contagious. I am Łberdad.Ē Maybe still pretentious, but it keeps the focus on what I hope to be in that moment, sometimes enough to make it true. Itís got to be.
Because the whole village it takes to raise a child still eludes us. People in our circle of acquaintance have been bitterly in conflict with each other, or suddenly out of touch, just too busy with their own lives and concerns. Places weíve volunteered our time have basically treated us like an imposition, and an ill friend Jan recently visited berated her for not doing it often enough. I feed a lot of other families and other peopleís kids but no one reciprocates. Most exasperating to me, a very dear friend Iíve know since high school moved out of the city a few months ago and seemed entirely pissed off and judgmental when we finally got back into contact. He seems to have stockpiled aggravations from his time here that he never talked about until they reached some kind of critical mass, and what I find the most painful about it is that his emails seem to be talking about that nasty period here three years back, when other friends were being frank with me and we started healing, as if he was so offended at the time that he stopped paying attention and never got to see things improving. Itís no wonder the household resembles a pressure cooker sometimes Ė itís just us, and weíre mostly all the support weíve got. So weíve got to stay civil with each other.
am a peaceful parent, and Iím going to keep saying that until it always
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