Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Power of the Bite

My parents taught me to be kind. If I complained that a kid in my classroom smelled bad, my mother would explain that she probably didn't have as many clothes as I had; and she probably didn't have a supportive environment at home that encouraged nightly baths, like I had. I should make friends with her, she said.  And I did, until I discovered that she also cheated in hopscotch (which she probably did because she wasn't allowed to win any games at home).

If a kid was mean to me, my father would tell me that she was probably jealous because I had advantages that she didn't; maybe her parents beat her or fought all the time or forgot to feed her.

My parents always reframed my persecutors to be the victim of my story. My parents rarely (if ever) took my side.

Of course, they were right. The girl who was mean to me did not feel loved at home, and probably sensed that I was loved to a degree that rankled.

My father taught me something else, too. He often talked about restraint. Physically, he was powerfully built--much stronger than the average dad.  He was very conscious of choosing not to use physical force on another person if he could possibly help it.  My dad had a temper, and a forceful personality. But he also had a gentle heart, and a strong sense of fairness. He chose always to exercise  restraint.

As though I were a son who would inherit his physiognomy, my father conveyed to me the importance of exercising restraint.

Of course, I was a girl, and the value of this lesson was not entirely clear, as I grew into a woman. On the face of it, my father's code of restraint was meant for the big brother that I never had. It is a lesson for boys growing into men--how they should relate to other men, and to women, and to all vulnerable creatures.

But the lesson was given to me, so naturally I assumed that I possessed some kind of power within myself so far beyond average as to pose a potential threat. I assumed that my power must be mental (since it obviously wasn't physical).

I imagined the damage I would do if I used my mental powers to lash out.  If I combined the force of my intellect with the force of my Barmackian temperament, I might do serious damage--beyond what I could possibly repair.

Rightly or wrongly, that was how I interpreted my father's lesson. As a result, while I certainly can't say that I've never hurt anyone, I can say that I have consistently exercised restraint.  I may not have had the intellectual resources or power that I imagined, but there were times when I saw myself as a wily coyote among house pets, and I never preyed on them. (I am irresistibly drawn to roadrunner types. Despite my mental acuity, I never catch them.)

To recap, my parents taught me to reframe my persecutor as the victim in the greater scheme of things. And my father taught me Restraint the way we teach puppies to have bite inhibition.

At summer camp, I was cast in the role of "Piggy" (reference Lord of the Flies) and picked on mercilessly.  I wasn't clever enough to talk my way out of it, and the torment didn't end until I finally delivered a badly aimed punch to my antagonizer. (I could feel my fist recoil from its task in mid-flight.) She wasn't hurt; in fact, she laughed. But, for some reason that will never be clear to me, that one feeble act of aggression was enough to redeem me in her eyes. I was reinstated in the Queen's court, as it were, and all was well for me for that one last week of summer camp. I would beg my parents to send me back for another three weeks of unremitting torture the following year.

My father's message of restraint was such a deep part of my inculcation that I never questioned its objective value until my twenties, when someone whom I respected and admired questioned their value.

We were in our late twenties. My friend (we'll call her Diana, not her real name) had a tall, physically powerful boyfriend (we'll call him Zeus) and an equally yang-soaked dog, an Akita named Bang (not really).

I was at their apartment with my friend Peace, who had a bite inhibition as strong as mine, when Diana calmly explained to us that Zeus had to beat the dog (deliberately) in order to assert his superiority in the hierarchy.

Peace and I were shocked into silence (shamefully, perhaps) as Zeus exercised physical force against the dog, intentionally hurting it, as Diana explained that if he didn't, the dog would become a danger and a menace.

It was the law of tooth and claw, in that New York apartment.

In a way, I've never stopped thinking about that night. Everything that happened upended what I thought I knew about everyone in that apartment.

In a subsequent conversation, Diana observed out loud that Zeus was not a particularly kind person--nor was kindness of particular importance to him, as a value.  If I remember correctly, Diana was conflicted about this. She didn't feel quite safe with him. She didn't quite trust him. But she also considered his moral indifference an asset.  Diana was an ambitious young woman (at the time, she had her sights on the White House). Before my eyes, she was shaping up to be a modern-day Lady Macbeth.  Zeus would be her avatar; she would guide him through his political career....

Some of it didn't add up. I knew Zeus from before he met Diana. I hadn't known him long or well, but I knew this: He wasn't especially ambitious.  And he wasn't entirely unkind.

And I knew this about Diana:  She was ambitious and manipulative, but she was also empathetic and sensitive. You couldn't untangle these qualities. Empathy made her brilliantly manipulative; and a desire to do good had been the true impetus of her ambition.

In the years that followed, she chose to steer her own course through a career in which she became very powerful, did great good things, and very little (if any) damage.

The incident with the dog (Bang) was, if not isolated, anomalous. The dog lived to a ripe old age, was loved, and survived my friends' disturbing early practices of behavior modification.

Diana and Zeus married. I haven't seen them in years. I lost custody of them in my own divorce (at 29).  I ran into Zeus in the city, back in the day, when, naively, I had not yet realized how far I had fallen in that social circle.  But he stopped, and he gave me a hug--a good, sincere hug...a good-bye hug...a sorry-this-is-the-way-it-has-to-be hug....

It was kind of him. And in the years that followed, as I came to appreciate the full tally of the damage I had done without ever wanting to hurt anyone, I appreciated this gesture of kindness even more.

I never saw Zeus again.

I did see Diana a few times--our friendship predated my doomed marriage. But it was tough to be my friend in the year or two following my divorce--with my life in ruins and my hopes and dreams in splintery disarray.

I wrote her a letter that I shouldn't have sent. I said things in it that I shouldn't have said. The damage  caused Diana to formally end our friendship over the phone. (My ex probably took satisfaction from that.)

But several years later, she called me at work--sobbing. The dog had died. She tried to make it seem like it was her duty to call and tell me this--as though I were family to the dog, and pro-forma needed to be told that he had died.

But I suspected she needed to speak with someone who would drop whatever she was doing in the middle of her day to cry over a dog. (I'm your man, as Leonard Cohen would say.)

We cried.  It was bittersweet. A dog's life is a measure of its people's era--and this dog's life had encompassed better days--dancing at weddings, falling in love, and the dreams and hopes of our modestly gilded youth; as well as, (speaking for myself) stumbling from grace into decline.

She was still mad about the letter, but the reason why she still needed to steer clear of me was that she was having a problem with fire. It was something to do with astrology--she either had too much fire or none at all; I can't remember, but the result was things burst into flames. If she was mad at you, and you were sitting next to a ficus, the ficus was toast.

She cited several examples of unintended karmic arson. Maybe it was a latent power only now made manifest--but she didn't have a handle on it yet.  Ergo, she was choosing to stay away from me because she didn't want to burn down my house. [You would be wrong to think that she actually went about setting fire to things.]

I know. It's heavy. Even I couldn't suspend my disbelief. Sometimes she would come out with things like that, and I would think, This must be the slightly crazy part of genius--the pith and pulp of genius. I took it with a grain of salt.

But then I looked out my window, to the right of my desk, overlooking Mass Ave in Cambridge and the little side streets wending off toward the Charles River. I saw an attractive double-decker engulfed in flames.  You couldn't hear the sirens yet--it had just happened.

"Funny you should say that, Diana, because I'm watching a building consumed in flames as we speak."

I did not tell her that. I kept it to myself. She did not need to know this.

When I heard the sirens at a distance, I covered the receiver.

Restraint, and the ability to exercise it, is important.

But why do we have these powers if we're never meant to use them?

At about the same time in my life, I met my future husband and we moved to a town south of Boston.  We got a dog. I found a park where I would walk the dog every morning, where I met people (mostly women) who warned me about a big mean guy who yelled at people for not having their dogs on a leash. He particularly liked to yell at women who were walking alone.

So, as I walked my dog, a friendly black Lab, I thought about how I would respond to the mean guy when I invariably met him.

Weeks went by, but I never walked my dog once without giving this matter a great deal of thought. It got to the point where I really wanted to meet him--to get it over with, to see what I was up against, and so I could stop preparing for it and thinking about it constantly.

Finally, it happened. I was just about to leave the park, and there he was--a large, white, oaf--straight out of Central Casting.

I did not consider that he might have grown up on a farm on this land that had recently become a town park. I did not consider that he must have had a rough childhood, a mediocre (at best) education, and a dozen reasons for becoming a malevolent oaf.

He walked toward me. "Why isn't your dog on a leash? You're dog's supposed to be on a leash!"

I stood my ground. "Who are you to go around yelling at women in the park?  Are you the police? Is it your job to enforce the leash law?"

He yelled back, repeating himself and calling me a bitch.

I yelled too, even louder, shot through with adrenalin, spraying him with a stream of expletives as I walked toward him.

He stopped walking in my direction.

I kept walking toward him, screaming.

He walked backwards, saying nasty things.  I kept walking and screaming at him until he had made a full retreat.

Thank God, he didn't have a gun. Don't try this at home.

But he never bothered any of us dog-walkers again.

I saw him once more, from across a dry ravine, in the spring, probably, when the weeds were down. I flipped him off. He called me a bitch.  He stayed on his side; I stayed on mine.

A dog doesn't know how big it is until it sees another dog.

It's not right to yell at lone women in the park.

I'll take that thought with me into 2017, as I prepare to greet the new administration.

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