Thursday, March 15, 2007

Anatomy of a Fat, Stupid Jerk

I have long since confessed to being a fat, stupid jerk. I'm sure the last post is merely a confirmation of that. How did I get to be that way? Here are a few details of the process. I don't recommend subjecting your children to this, however.

I was born in a certain state of the U.S. which, on more than one occasion, someone has failed to guess in 50 tries or less. (It's not fair to go down the list in ABC order. You must think of the states off the top of your head.) I was the older of two sons born 16 months apart. My parents' marriage was falling apart before my brother was born.

I love, love, love my family with all my heart. I need to say that up front before I start dishing serious, bad-ass dirt on them.

My father has a way of making me laugh, and of making me feel loved, though once in a while I have also found him very intimidating. My mother has a completely different way of making me laugh (and I love making her laugh), and I'm sure she loves me, though there have been long periods when we weren't on good terms. I probably picked up a good deal of my argumentative streak from listening to them bicker and, more and more often, brawl.

Towards the end of their marriage they threw dignity to the wind and began propagandizing my brother and me, with the idea that we would side either with him or with her. At least my mother did this, though she incessantly complained that my father was the one doing it. It was really, really uncomfortable for a while, but I got used to it. This may explain why I don't seem to feel quite at home unless I'm at the center of a storm of controversy.

My father came from a large family of devastatingly clever people who, on their bad days, can sometimes strike other people as meanspirited. To borrow a phrase from the British, the Fish family excels at "taking the piss." When you're around them, the flow of biting wit is nonstop. It is a family of droll, stand-up comics (Dad even won a talent contest in stand-up comedy once); they are so naturally good at it, and have so much practice, that there is almost nothing you can say that won't suggest a punchline - one that flows out so naturally that it never occurs to them to stop. I find this same tendency in myself at times, especially when I am around other members of the Fish family, or when I am nervous and under pressure. Unfortunately, some of our jokes are pretty weird and, if you don't quite get them, you might get the idea that we are being unspeakably rude.

My mother came from a large family of Sicilian immigrants whose values and habits are so close to the "Corleone family" stereotype that, whenever my mother tells me who said what at the last family reunion, I invariably find myself humming a tune by Nino Rota under my breath. If I take after them at all, which I doubt, it may be in a certain emotional reserve (which outsiders may interpret as coldness) and a fondness for food (though that runs on both sides of the family).

My immediate family, on the other hand, was quite small. My father studied to be a pastor and I looked up to him with pride and admiration. My mother vacillated between being a submissive housewife and a feminist rebel, but mostly excelled at embarrassing me in front of my friends and playing the kind of emotional games that the mothers of serial killers play in the movies. I didn't spend much time with my other relatives, but with my mother's family I was the oldest and favorite grandson (until I grew up to have nothing in common with them), and with my father's family I was the smack-in-the-middle, least-regarded grandchild (until I let them down less than the other grandkids and wound up being sort of a favorite for a while). So I was a little spoiled and coddled, somewhat forced to fend for myself, often allowed to engage adults in conversation at their level, and always surrounded by people who enjoyed arguing for its own sake.

Then my parents split up. I was 11 years old. So I have tended to think of the divorce as a fault line running down the center of my childhood. Before the divorce the only thing remarkable about my family was that my father often made me proud and my mother sometimes embarrassed me. After the divorce I felt like the only kid in the world going through what I was going through. I partly got that impression because the small-town, Lutheran school I attended was full of kids whose parents were still married to each other. I was almost the only kid in the seventh or eighth grade who could talk about "my Mom's boyfriend." Another reason for the sense of isolation was that I belonged to two different households now, in two different states, and what with a bit of moving around (including a parental kidnapping caper I'll tell you about sometime) and a bit of paranoia (fallout from the aforementioned caper), I didn't have much involvement with other kids outside school and church. I developed different interests, different habits and values...and an inability to partake of "groupthink" that persists to this day.

Mostly I learned to think of myself as alone from the lesson my parents' divorce taught me: even within your immediately family, you can't rely on anyone but yourself. Especially when everyone is vying to be the one indispensible person in the household...and they'll make you the bad guy for a day if they think it will help them.

My stepfather and I didn't get along very well, as I think I have mentioned in another post. By the time I was 12, he was already skewering me with remarks like, "You always have to be right, don't you?" Well, I did have some pretty firm convictions by then, and I had thought them out for myself, and once you agreed to engage me in discussion about them I didn't let up until you enforced a change of topic with threats of bodily harm.

My stepfather actually didn't do any bodily harm. He perfected a range of punishments that hit me where it hurt: the intellect. Things like forbidding me to practice the piano for a week, or canceling my music lessons; making me sit idly in a room by myself with nothing to read; forcing me to read something odious and then to write an essay on it; etc. When I grew up beyond his ability to set punishments, things really got ugly. Hours went by when we said nothing below the top of our voices. Years went by when we didn't exchange a word. I don't know if I learned anything positive from this, except perhaps some basic survival skills - and a habit of losing my temper when pushed around in certain ways that remind me of my stepfather.

Meanwhile, I grew closer to my father and began seriously considering following in his footsteps. One of the best things that happened to our relationship resulted from my musical skills. For the last two and a half years of high school, while he served a dual parish, I played the organ at both of his churches and rode to services with Dad. I got to spend a lot more time with my father than many pastors' kids do. Which also meant observing a lot of preaching, teaching, arguing, and pastoral thinking-out-loud (which combines all of the above). In our discussions, my father was never high-handed the way my stepfather sometimes was. It helped me see the reason in what he was saying...even when we disagreed!

My poor stepmother didn't have the kind of upbringing my father and I did. She has never quite understood our magnetism for trouble and conflict. She's a saint for putting up with us. When I have argued with her it was like communicating with an alien life-form; her approach to "dispute resolution" is so completely different from the one I was brought up on. But we managed not to scratch each other's eyes out during my teen years, and we're good friends today. My stepmom's main impact on my fat-stupid-jerkitude is her good cooking.

In high school and college I surrounded myself with friends who enjoyed spirited discussions of political and religious issues; but I also got in trouble, now and then, for disturbing the peace. Clearly, not everyone likes the kind of animated, argumentative discourse I thrive on. I still haven't forgotten the time I was debating religion with my Catholic buddy on the school bus, when a girl took an apple out of her lunch bag and stuffed it into my open mouth. The really humiliating bit was when everyone applauded.

I think I have valuable things to contribute to the church and the world. I judge myself to be a good writer. I have been told that my sermons and Bible studies are effective; nothing is sweeter to my ears than "Pastor, the way you explained that, I finally understood it for the first time in years." When I talk to a group, unscripted, I get a jazzed-up feeling and the ideas flow freely. I have gotten good feedback on my conduct of liturgy, singing, keyboard playing, and general musicianship. I work well with kids, disabled people, the elderly, the sick, and the mentally ill.

But I also have some weaknesses. Chiefly, I am a big, fat, stupid slob and, at times, a total jerk. Heavy, malicious, and unrelenting opposition unnerves me. I lasted less than four years in the parish before I reached my threshold for stress, after which point I simply couldn't deal with church meetings any more. If the ministry were all about preaching, teaching, visiting, and administering the sacraments, plus weddings and funerals, study and prayer, I would be all over it. And in my opinion, it should be. But the reality also includes interminable meetings with people for whom Word and Sacrament isn't good enough, and for whom pastor is an employee (in my case, a grossly insubordinate one). It's a truth that does not bode well for the church: guys who are good at handling board meetings, but not much else, succeed in the ministry while guys who are good at everything else, but bad at the meetings, drop out.


Cuda said...

It is always interesting to look, however briefly, through the eyes of another.

Unknown said...

Oh, Robin! I love that the two tags on this are "family" and "stupid." We shall definitely have to engage in some foreign libation and discuss stupid families some night...