Angry? Count to Seven on Peary Street

This is the fourth 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.

“The morning always has a way of creeping up on me and peeking in my bedroom windows. The sunrise is such a pervert.”
― Jarod Kintz

“I avoid that bleak first hour of the working day during which my still sluggish senses and body make every chore a penance. I find that in arriving later, the work which I do perform is of a much higher quality.”
― John Kennedy Toole

Morning people are insufferable. Mornings should be spent sipping coffee and reading the news while you wage a tooth and nail battle to keep the day from scattering your dreams. Morning people might be tolerable if they did not insist on sharing their affliction loudly. Morning people take great delight in cheering and jeering the inevitable losers of that daily battle to enjoy five more minutes of slumber. Morning in a beach community usually respects that difference in how we greet the day. Cyclists head into the morning where they can spend the early hours with others of their kind. Walkers and joggers enjoy the fresh air and the pain in their knees. Consider what the cast of “Animal House” would do to that quiet scene if they decided that 7 AM was the perfect time for beer and ping pong on the back porch. I believe that this description captures the attitude of my youngest sister as she stumbled down the stairs to demurely suggest to her younger brother and his two friends that they reconsider their morning activities. Watching this scene I could tell that this was a rerun of a very stale family drama. I knew he would grow up one day.

A couple of years later, I pulled my tuxedo jacket from the closet to see if it needed to be cleaned or pressed. The last thing I expected to find in the pockets was a bundle of bottle rockets. Then I remembered that my ping pong playing brother had borrowed the tux to attend a New Year's Eve party at a country club. A couple of phone calls produced an interesting story of the three morning ping pong players attending party equipped with an assortment of fireworks. After several drinks, but well before midnight, my brother and his friends started pretending to light the fireworks in the candles on their table. (Was this scene in Animal House?) I am sure that embarrassing does not do justice to the way they felt as they were escorted from the party after order had been restored from the shock of having a string of firecrackers announcing the lift-off of several bottle rockets in that ballroom. While I took my tux to the cleaners, I hoped that he would grow up one day.

When I was invited to his wedding, I sent my regrets for the family golf outing, the dinner following golf, a second day of golf, the rehearsal dinner and the stag party. I arrived at the hotel that served as the command post for the party about 9 AM to find most of my family in a suite of rooms. The 3 ping pong enthusiasts were deeply into the “hair of the dog” approach to preventing a moment's sobriety from interfering with the wedding. My lasting impression was my father's big grin as he showed me the jacuzzi bath tub that was full of ice, beer and wine. This was definitely not the kind of wedding party that would have been tolerated when I lived on Peary Street. While my dad beamed, I can only imagine what my mother thought about watching her son get married after a hearty breakfast of beer. I attended the wedding and left the reception early giving up all hope that he would grow up one day.

Three snippets from anyone's life should not define them. Generalizing from such a small sample goes by the name stereotyping, which deserves the negative vibrations of the word because it is grossly unfair even if it helps reduce complex issues. Maintaining a cohesive family narrative requires a willingness to participate in retelling the stories with affection to allow each member of the family a sense of themselves and their evolving place in the family. A family narrative can empower the youngest by giving them a role in the history and direction of the group over many years and generations.

Inside the walls of Peary Street, none of this happened. The three oldest children could not leave Peary Street fast enough, while the three youngest maintained their connection. The fourth of seven suffered the fate of the middle child constantly pulling closer and pushing further away at the same time. Each of us knew the others by the stereotype that we generated from the limited stories we had available. Each of us prevented the others from ever being more than the single story told on Peary Street. Each of us kept the others from knowing the people we were becoming as we grew older.

Since I admit that the “frat boy” stereotype is grossly unfair, we have to include some of the stories that provide a more complete view of my brother and the younger members of the family. The dynamic of older children and younger children wasn't just a matter of age, it was set in stone by my parent's expectation that the older ones would help with the younger ones. My parents also had different rules for the girls than the boys. The result was that the two youngest brothers remained in a constant state of seeking recognition. They quickly adopted my mother's approach to problem solving but avoiding conflict at all costs. The older brothers and sisters did not hear any of the stories about the younger ones hiding from the angry moments of the 60's or avoiding conflicts because they had no chance to win arguments. We never saw the simmering resentment that was the lot of the youngest.

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.
— Mark Twain

Careful observation of the family gatherings would have provided an indication of the anger that was building. When the family hazing began, the youngest brothers embraced the process with the joy of a puppy with a new chew toy. They grew into adolescence in an environment that included cruel teasing as a normal part of their lives. They had no idea how the older siblings felt about it because there were no stories exchanged between the older, busy leaving Peary Street, and the younger still learning to be teens. They assumed that what they experienced was a part of the experience of their older brothers and sisters. They could not understand the distance between them and their married siblings and felt more resentment toward them from the apparent rejection of what had become their "normal".

Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
-– Malachy McCourt

On the surface, my “frat boy” brother is a successful person, a trial lawyer, married with children, involved in the community through coaching and the special Olympics and the nice house in the suburbs. Getting beneath this surface requires breaking down the enormous defense structures that he hides behind. He believes that he has never been accepted as a grown up in his own family. He adopted his mother's reluctance to share stories, her conflict avoidance and her policy of polite before honest. He still fears that his older brothers will “push him around” when it comes to family matters, but cannot do anything about it because he cannot bring himself to confront the issues.

Shortly after our mother died, this same younger brother quietly announced that he had taken on the role of “head of the family”. He is sure it is his rightful place as the oldest brother who remains in the area. He hopes to move life on Peary Street to his house to keep it alive into the next generation. He seemed offended that I did not want to select Christmas ornaments from those collected after I had left home. His quixotic focus will remain on the symbolic nature of Peary Street without incorporating any stories but his own. He believes that becoming pater familias will allow him to decorate the covers of all the family albums with the history that he knows. What he is keeping alive is the family tradition of suppressing stories that conflict with the family story he desperately wishes was real. He may never see that stepping up as head of this family compares to taking over the Titanic about 20 minutes after it hit the iceberg. He believes he is taking command of the glossy brochure version of Peary Street while everyone else sees the gaping whole in the bow of the sinking ship Peary Street.

People who fly into a rage always make a bad landing.
–- Will Rogers.

I am sure that if he had not chafed from years of believing himself to be the “frat boy” that nobody took seriously, he would have sought solutions to problems instead of ways to prove himself capable in the family. I am sure that if he had been able to tell his stories so that we could see his goals and ideals, he would not have had to plan a covert operation to take over the family. I am sure that if he had been able to tell stores of what and why he is so angry, he would not have found it necessary to attack and demean his brothers and sisters. Telling his stories and hearing ours remains the gentle path to acceptance of himself and his family in the real world instead of his fantasy of the Kingdom of Peary Street. Storytelling provides a roadmap to the landfill for suppressed anger. It is never too late in our lives to open our ears and hear the stories that set up a path to understanding. There is still a chance that he might grow up.

This is the nature of storytelling. We select the parts of the story we want to share for many reasons. We can choose to only tell the parts of the story that make us appear at our best. Or we can choose the parts of the story that promote the greatest understanding for the greatest number of people. Or can we choose to tell the parts that hurt someone else for our benefit. All of those things are understandable human responses to situations. When we chose our stories for our selfish reasons, we fed the anger and resentment that was part of growing up. The tragedy of Peary Street lies in the silence of stories that were never told, that never had a chance to show us at our best or reduce the anger over events from long ago. Those untold stories just hurt people to no one's benefit.

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