Stories of Anger from Peary Street

This is the first of four posts using stories of anger from Peary Street to illustrate the second of twelve ways that storytelling defines creativity in the way we talk to each other, a process that I call symmentropy.

Second rule of nonlinear storytelling

Storytelling preserves the whole story, even the little things.

And oh the fights we had
When my brother and I got him mad;
He'd get all boiled up and he'd start to shout
And I knew what was coming so I tuned him out.
And now the old man's gone, and I'd give all I own
To hear what he said when I wasn't listening
To my old man'
My Old Man
Steve Goodman

Try to imagine a measuring stick that permits you to hear a story and assign a number to the story that tells you its significance. What values would you include in your measurement? Would you try to assess the quantity and accuracy of the details? Would you only be interested in how closely the story relates to your life or beliefs? Or would you limit your assessment to stories that you are likely to retell or appeal to your emotions or sense the human condition? The problem with trying to talk about the impact that stories have on people is that we tell stories for many different reasons. Your measuring stick probably does not look very much like mine and it is likely that you would not use the same measurement tool each time.

In the late 1940's while my parents were busy starting their family, Claude Shannon was working on a similar measurement problem as it applied to expanding telephone service to a nation that was recreating a peace time economy. His formulas allowed quantities of information to be measured statistically and became known as information theory. In simple terms, Shannon's theory filters static out of telephone lines, making them sound better and allowing voices to travel greater distances. He accomplished his goal by amplifying the part of the sound that was most likely to be the voice and removing the rest. His formulas measured the amount of information that was in a phone call to allow the electronics to do the filtering to improve sound quality. Shannon made it clear that his formulas would not work for measuring information in human communication because people will not remove or forget any part of the story. In fact, storytelling gains one of its greatest strengths from our ability to remember the seemingly unimportant parts and weave them into new stories.

Anger on Peary Street provides a great example of how stories and parts of stories can be told and reshaped to increase our understanding of people and events. My father had quite a temper when he was a young parent, I know because I was frequently the object of his loud rants about the behavioral inadequacies of his offspring. Fortunately for me, he was not violent or verbally abusive, just loud and, he did not cool off quickly. He could simmer for hours when the best approach was to find someplace to be that he could not see you or hear you breathe. To his credit, he worked hard to get his quick anger under control, so that by the time the youngest of my siblings were testing his patience, he had plenty to go around. Maybe having seven children in one house teaches patience better than any other therapy imaginable. The story of anger in our house is almost totally different when it is told by the older siblings than the younger. Part of that difference can be explained by my father's changes, but part of it also comes from the difference between the early and late baby boomers who were born well after the start of rock music.

My father hated rock and roll. Elvis completely destroyed his ability to watch Ed Sullivan. I remember being in the car with him when Danny and the Juniors song “At the Hop” came on. I was enjoying the song until he snapped the radio off saying, “How can you listen to those screaming niggers?” I had seen them on television and told him that they were white. His response, “They may be white, but they sound like screaming niggers.” If there had been some discussion, maybe a story of why he liked the music he liked or why he did not like the things he rejected, we might have been able to build some understanding of each other.

Two sentences said in anger and frustration that cannot be unsaid. I remember that day vividly as the day I tried to talk to him, only to be shut down. Those two sentences came to mean so much more than they should have meant because there were no stories to explain or soften the impact or reduce his racism. Like Steve Goodman, I tuned him out. Like Steve Goodman, I wish that I could hear what he said when I wasn't listening. Even more, I wish that he could hear what I said when he wasn't listening.

Instead, we went our separate ways culturally and I can only imagine what he thought when I started playing Pete Seeger, Odetta and Bob Dylan records. The reason I can only imagine is that we never discussed it. The further I went from the political views of my family, the further I went from their embrace. I cannot say that I was troubled by the widening gap between us because I had survived all of his barking and he did not seem to ever bite.

It would be so easy to end this post here. The loud and volatile incidents would form the lasting impression that shades all the understanding of Peary Street's memories and influence. It would be easy, but totally incorrect both for the story and for the second principle of symmentropy that says that we remember the whole story permitting it to evolve naturally with our understanding.

I have another story of my father's anger. We were on our way out of the neighborhood, when we saw a boy younger than I was lying on the ground crying and wailing in agony or fear, right in front of the car that had just hit him. We stopped and my father went to check on the boy and his injuries. Meanwhile, the neighbors were streaming out of their houses to see what the commotion was about. Their loud protests to not move the child interrupted my father's examination and we quickly got back in the car and left. He was furious and I, of course, had lots of questions, like why wouldn't they let a doctor help? And why didn't he do more? Through his clenched teeth, he assured me that the boy was fine, just scared. Then, much louder, he vented his frustration with being handcuffed by malpractice lawsuits and police investigations of accidents keeping him from applying his years of training to treat injuries. His gentleness and concern for other people slammed into a wall of regulation to place him between rules and his skills.

The problem here is that for every time I can remember my father's quick temper, I remember eight or ten times that his gentleness took center stage. I asked once why he had gone in to obstetrics. He told me he had friends that saw patients every day to tell them serious and difficult news, but he spent his days sharing wonderful news and the birth of a child. He told me he did not think he could handle having to tell people bad news day in and day out.

You see, my dad was really a sensitive and caring person at heart. He was closed minded in so many ways and a bigot, but every time he talked to a person, ethnicity and background disappeared. Without all of the stories and the little details, you might see only the bigot or you might see the caring and flirtatious physician. I see my father for the complicated man that raised me on Peary Street. Even though I tuned him out when he was angry, I can still hear his words in the stories that we have that are still evolving six years after his death.

I will continue the story of anger on Peary Street in the next post.

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