You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know the Anger is Blowing in the Wind

This is the third 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.

Swiller's Record Store introduced me to music. I bought my first 45 rpm discs for about fifty cents each. The first one was Buddy Holly's “Peggy Sue”. I pretty much lost interest in music on “the day the music died” until Bob Dylan, Tom Lehrer and a list of folk singers began to record music that spoke to me. When the 1963 march on Washington, that became Martin Luther King's seminal moment for the “Dream” speech, was being organized, I had lived fourteen years in the turbulence leading to that day and I had listened to two years of music that addressed the ideals of that march. I really wanted to join the crowd on the mall, hear the music and hopefully be heard by being there, but met the twin brick walls of racist parents who insisted that I would just get knifed while I was there. I could have easily walked the six miles from Peary Street to the Mall but chose to avoid the anger. The conflict that I felt marked a generation of anger between parents and teens that has not been seen since. My sense of the anger in our house cannot overcome the fragrance of tear gas from the sixties.

My coming of age, my teen angst, was dominated by politics and the sounds of an acoustic guitar. My rebelliousness focused on the divide between the baby boomer generation's awareness of the outcome of nuclear war and the GI generation's determination to keep the world safe from Communism. I know that if our family had encouraged discussion of ideas during the early sixties, it would have been so much easier to sit at the family dinner table and tell the stories of the day. By the time the decade ended, my stories of racial harmony and peaceful coexistence that were summarized by the Youngbloods version of “Get Together” could only be shared if they were shouted at a family that rejected both the message and the messenger.

Fifteen years and hours of anger management therapy later, I told my parents that I could not attend family functions because it was no longer possible for me handle the conflict. Sadly, I had learned my father's explosive anger too well and found the source of most of it interwoven into everything Peary Street. I had to find ways to accept my family without condoning their beliefs. The only relief I could find involved separating myself from the family gatherings that inevitably included angry diatribes against my most cherished values. I did my best to explain to my parents that in order to love my family, I had to not be a part of their activities. They did not take that news very well. My father's anger that night facilitated my absence for the next 25 years of birthdays, Thanksgivings, Christmas' and arguments.

The separation proved cathartic. I started a doctoral program that led me to reading about chaos theory. At first, it seemed to be an interesting diversion, but I quickly found that the absence of calculus in either high school or as an undergrad, kept me from fully exploring the concept. The next six months were devoted to reading everything I could get my hands on while I taught myself calculus. I started working on statistical applications of chaos theory and dynamic systems to explain how we communicate with each other. Mathematics freed me from the burden of having to reconcile the contradictory world views that my family and I held. Through deterministic chaos, I could explain and understand all of the range of possible meanings that we develop from events and how each little event becomes important as time passes. Mathematics brought me back to simple stories, the initial conditions so important in chaos theory, as the foundation of our social structures, like family.

In the middle of this intense period of reading and pondering great questions, we spent a week on the “Redneck Riviera” near the mouth of Mobile Bay. I had just finished reading “Cosmic Joy, Local Pain” by Harold Morowitz that discussed his idea that the activity inside a system serves to keep the everything organized. In his view, the energy of the smallest parts of the system serve a large role in the overall organization, whether we view things on a local, global or cosmic scale. We walked on the beach near sunset knowing that the weather forecast showed a major hurricane headed for Mobile and that the area would likely be evacuated in a matter of hours. The air was still and the waves were hardly more than a gentle ripple as I looked out over the Gulf of Mexico to the huge cloud mass of the leading edge of the storm that dominated the horizon. I knew that we would all soon be piling in our cars and heading north out of the storm's path and that when we did, those thousands of cars would be creating a plume of heat that would shift the wind patterns and change the behavior of the storm. I understood in clear first hand experience the wisdom of Morowitz's thinking. A person seems small and insignificant in the face of hurricane, but I stood on the beach that night, tall and proud, knowing that I was important to that storm by when I chose to get in my car and leave.

Families generate a complex system of stories that serves to define the way things are done, holds the members to a common experience and constructs an ecosystem for parents and siblings. As I watched the hurricane creep toward Mobile and knew my importance in its path, I learned of the true importance of my story to my family. All the anger that I had ever felt at not being heard or hearing the constant demeaning of ethnic groups or the frustration of being unable to respect the members of my own family washed gently away with the waves back into the sea. I understood that no matter how much my family tried to censor thoughts they did not like, that my story was part of theirs. I knew that I had forced a change in the fury of their bigotry, even if I had could not prevent it, and for the first time in my life, I felt whole, that I could look in the mirror to see a true image of myself and how important I was to my family.

After my encounter with the hurricane, I made numerous efforts to share my insights with my family. When I left, the story available was the angry brother who would not attend family gatherings. The story they told included only personal anger, but excluded my anguish over trying to be part of family that shared none of my values and the political anger of the 60's. One of my father's pet peeves had always been people with Ph.D.'s being called Doctor instead of reserving it for those with MD's. When I graduated, I spent nearly two hours explaining my research in statistical shades of gray to two people who lived their whole lives seeing only black and white. I am not certain that they understood a word of it. At the end of the conversation, my father said, “Congratulations, Dr. McGavin.” In that moment, my father understood the whole story, with all of its messy little parts, and welcomed his prodigal son. He was assembling all of the stories into a new one with a different outcome and a very different meaning.

I had a friend who told me that it was important to attend events like the 1963 march on Washington because we were the “vanguard of the revolution”. I do not recall anything in the protests of that era that ever made me feel that romantic or heroic. I remember the anger. I remember families torn apart and Thanksgiving dinners that turned into shouting matches. For me, the anger on Peary Street was political. My siblings and parents would not or could not hear that story and saw the anger very differently. Fifty years later, in an effort to help our parents, we were unable to build a unified story that made it possible to overcome all of the little incidents in our childhood.

The next post will tell their view of those times.

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