Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Hulk Smash

I'm about 3/5 through Malcom Gladwell's "Outliers", and it's an equal to two of his other books that I really enjoyed, "Tipping Point", and "Blink".  I just finished the chapter discussing the 18th century European "culture of honor" among small herding families who lived in the hills, and how necessary it was to be prepared to fight to defend your herd, and hence your livelihood.  If there was any threat to your herd, you had to take very prejudicial action, and having other families be afraid of you and your overreaction was a boon for you, and may just keep your family from starving to death.  So you end up with insecure feeling and loud and proud acting people all living up in the hills, away from large cities, away from the rule of law.  Yes, there will be blood, as the saying goes.
That mentality, and some of those families, made its way to Appalachia, where it was hard for a European to do much besides goatherding, and eventually gave us several blood feuds that could have started as something significant, like which side of the Civil War your family fought on (think Hatfield/McCoy), or seemingly meaningless things like a social cut or cheating at cards.  The culture of honor demands men who answer insults immediately and strongly, to maintain the family reputation, to scare off any threats to your herd... except the mentality stayed strong through those families' descendants, who may not have been herdsmen.
Fast forward to the present day, and you still find remnants of the culture of honor.  In search of this, "Outliers" reports of a study conducted of how different groups of young men react to insults.  Those who reacted the strongest all had one thing in common.  I'll summarize with a line from the article:  "Call a southerner an asshole, and he's itching for a fight."
Here's a link that discusses the study in detail:

Of particular interest is how much leeway is given to a much larger man with "business" on his face by you cocky Yankees, and we polite but irritable Rebs.  How many people in the study went on to murder someone later that day is not mentioned.
When I mention to people that I have rage in me, and it takes strong mental effort to keep it under control, it usually gets laughed off.  Most people I know have never heard me raise my voice, I have not struck or attempted to strike another human being in 24 years, kids trust me, etc., etc., and I assume people think I'm joking or being melodramatic for effect.  But the rage is a real thing.
What I perceive as an insult is more suburban, though: a slight to my daughter Stacey, an implication that I am not smart, and being ignored by someone who can see me, those are my big three.  The first, a slight to Stacey, is the biggest.  It has caused me to ask people to leave my house.  It has caused me to write off close friends.  It is the only thing since my first marriage failed that has caused me to shed a tear.
Over the years, I've grown some control over my reactions, but not over the feelings.  Insult my kid, call me stupid, or act like I'm not there, and until I regain my senses, you aren't human, you're the enemy.  I regain my senses very quickly these days, and with the exception of Stacey-related issues, the whole thing has been reduced to a mental puzzle, like trying to patch a misbehaving perl script.  It can almost be fun.  Almost.  For Stacey issues, I usually need to leave the room, possibly take a walk, do some chin-ups in the garage, some physical action to distract me.
If you believe the study, my problem is rooted in my culture.  Not only am I from the South, my family are from the Virginia hills, farmers and herdsmen living in places still not accurately displayed in Google maps, having just in the last 3 years received 911 service, still using traveling preachers who get to your small church one week in four.  We're an "assume good faith" family, though.  The stranger is your friend, to be helped as much as you can, until he proves himself not your friend.  Then you act with extreme prejudice.  I'll give you an example of both my family's tradition of being good neighbors and friends, and of my family itching for a fight.
Example the first:
My grandmother was born in 1921, and was one of 12 siblings.  Her family had a farm, and hired local people to do some of the work.  One particular family, we'll call them the Joneses, was pretty bad off, possibly losing their livelihood in The Depression.  They were always dirty, and had ragged clothes, and the mother and father brought their kids with them to the day jobs they got.  Part of the day-labor ethic in the hills then was to feed your workers dinner.  When the Joneses helped other families with their farms, the other workers and families were so put off by their appearance and smell, that they were made to eat outside.
Not so at the Melvin farm.  My great-grandfather would have the Joneses come sit at the dinner table with the family, treating them as equals, gregariously talking with them as honored guests.  After all, their hard work just helped the Melvin farm stay functional for another day, and the gratitude should be mutual.  A glance to his children, my grandmother and great-aunts and uncles, said simply that you had better not say a word, you had better not let a single snicker escape.
Example the second:
I am about 9, and watching cartoons at my grandparents' apartment while my grandmother cooks dinner.  My grandfather is 63, near penniless after failed businesses and failing health have taken their toll, and the cancer that no one knows about yet is eating away his stomach.  He has just returned from a long day of labor, exhausted and in pain, and wants nothing more than to sit at his table and eat dinner, and prepare to struggle on tomorrow.  My stepfather comes over after having had an argument with my mother, and causes a scene at the apartment, behaving erratically in his drug-induced mania, yelling at the injustice of it all.  My grandparents are concerned, but let him have his little fit.
Dave has been a long-standing problem with them.  He once stole my grandfather's hunting rifle to pawn for drug money, and on a second occasion broke in in the middle of the night and stole money from my grandfather's wallet, and jewelry from my grandmother's bureau, including the wedding ring that Liberty wears today.  And yet, they are patient with him, wanting happiness for their daughter, and wanting Dave to come to his senses and behave the way a man should.  This is new, though.  He has never had a public tantrum in front of them, but they are trying to do the right thing now, trying to treat him like a son should be treated.  And then he says the wrong thing.
"You should have spanked her more as a child, and it wouldn't be like this now."
It was like flipping a switch.  My grandfather was no longer 63, suffering, exhausted, and trying to do right by the disturbed man.  He was angry, and strong, and stood up from his chair and spoke in a voice I had never heard from him before, with vitriol, command, and rage, a voice that still haunts me three decades later.  "It's time for you to leave!" he said.  Dave also did something then that I had never him do before or since:  he blanched, and left hurriedly, without saying another word.  Yankee.
So that's my emotional heritage.  Trying to do right, to show love and humanity whenever I can, with flaring anger that comes out of nowhere.  I've got it under control for the time being, but do yourself a favor:
Watch what you say about my kid.

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