Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream...

I have a loud voice, which surprises no one who knows me. Verna used to hide in the bedroom when I used the phone in our cramped San Francisco apartment in the early 1990's. My normal voice is booming and it drove her crazy. I am the guy who can deliver a speech to 250 people in a crowded hall and not need a microphone for everyone to easily hear me.

Having a voice that vibrates the air close to the speed of sound helped me when I was a schoolteacher as well. I had to raise it slightly, what I called yelling and what others termed screaming at ear-splitting decibels, to get everyone’s attention at the school and in several nearby towns.

But I consider myself fairly normal, meaning as a parent with two kids I yell at times when I am angry, but I don't think I overdo it. Maya doesn’t like it all when anyone raises a voice to her. She says, “Don’t be mad at me,” and then cries. Miguel, I always thought, seemed rather nonchalant when I vented at him or expressed displeasure with a scream. He always had a detached look on his face and seemed to be saying, “Whatever.”

As it turns out, however, I was wrong.

Last Friday night, Miguel admitted my loud voice or yelling scares him. I don’t recall now only three days later what triggered our conversation, but it was an eye-opener. Not that I am a candidate for anger management classes, but given Verna’s health these days I am going to be more stressed than usual, so I need to control myself before things do spin off their axis. What I mean is just because I may be relatively calm most of the time doesn’t make me feel good about scaring my son.

“Miguel, I never knew my yelling scared you,” I said that night. “You never showed that it bothered you.”

“I felt it internally,” he said. “It caused an internal conflict.” Then he smiled and added, “We just learned about internal conflict in English class.”

So now Miguel is using literary terms to describe his inner being when his father occasionally yells at him. I immediately internalized this revelation and went around muttering to Verna and myself, “I can’t believe Miguel’s been scared by my yelling.”

I felt guilty and ashamed. Anger has its place in parent-child relations, but I felt crappy that my loud voice scares him. So I declared to Verna and myself, “That’s it. I am not going to yell anymore.”

“Yeah, right,” she said. “Why promise something that is next-to-impossible?”

Thank you for that vote of confidence, honey. But Verna is a realist and knows that most of us have various boiling points at which we erupt. And she certainly knows mine quite well given that we’ve been together for more than 19 years.

But I have been known to alter my lifestyle nearly immediately in the past. I became a vegetarian within a week in 1979 after proofreading a friend’s freshman English composition paper about the benefits of a plant-based diet (OK, I abandoned it several weeks ago). And I started running to train for a marathon in 1978 right after talking about amazing athletic feats with the security guard in my college dorm.

So I do believe I can change and I have faith in myself. I know that yelling is considered normal, but why can’t I avoid losing my temper except with political cretins and anti-semites?

The true test, I know, comes with time. As Verna approaches cancer treatments (chemo or radiation) and Miguel nears being a teenager and Maya remains her amazing and temperamental-at-times self and I am balancing a job as a funeral director, part time teacher, tutor, and freelance writer, I will find myself overcome by daily frustrations and anxiety. It will be easy to lash out at those closest to me. Or…

I can be like Gandhi (did he ever yell?) or another modern day saint. Does one have to be sainted to avoid yelling? Hey, weren’t the saints just regular people who accomplished the extraordinary until after they died? Anyway…

So far I have passed the tests (OK, it’s been about two days) I have imposed on myself. Yesterday, Miguel, our teenager-in-training, somehow clogged his ears several times when I asked him to put away a few things. Then he finally got up and just dropped the items on the landing going upstairs. I felt the anger the rising and my response was about to be, “Miguel, what’s your problem? Are you listening or not? Put those things away in your room exactly where they belong!”

But I didn’t. I just repeated myself a few more times, with a mild warning about being imprisoned in said room, and Miguel reluctantly completed his task. Not that anger is wrong, but I liked being in control.

Then Maya, who hadn’t taken a nap and was feeling a bit frayed by life, started acting out over something everyone else on the planet except her would've deemed trivial. My first impulse was to rage, “Maya, stop it right now!” But I didn’t. I let her flail on the floor and then asked her if she needed a hug. She ignored me and continued crying. Finally she stopped and I read her a book on the couch.

If she had persisted with her temper tantrum and even yelled, I wonder if that would’ve caused me an internal conflict?

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