Fightin’ Words


It turns out I have a dangerous temper.

Dangerous to my identity as a civilized being, not to anyone else.

I would have expected to reach this epiphany much earlier in life, but that’s the nature of epiphanies—they slowly form in the caverns of our subconscious and then, one day, when we’re slicing carrots or watching a squirrel cross the street, they dawn on us. We usually wish the flash of insight had struck, like, twenty years ago. Oh, all the embarrassment we might have avoided. My use of the plural pronoun here is to assure myself I’m not the only dumbass who learns things late in life.

The epiphany (James Joyce would kill me for using the word so casually) occurred a few days ago. I was driving to the YMCA where my wife had a five o’clock Zumba class and I was going to do my usual workout. As we turned off of Broadway on to Route 50, we came across a group of five or six high school guys—I’m guessing their age—standing by a crosswalk. I had a green light and there was a long column of traffic behind me. The sign at the crosswalk was flashing DONT WALK in big orange letters, a mere technicality to some people, I realize. One tall, arrogant-looking kid decided to cross anyway—not in a hurry, dodging speeding cars as you might expect, but slowly, tauntingly, looking at the approaching cars as if to say, “What? You going to hit me?” His friends were still clustered on the sidewalk watching this display with what looked like a mix of admiration and embarrassment.

Middle-Aged Hissy Fit

Now, I was an arrogant high school kid once. I did more than my share of stupid things, including getting called out by a guy in a bathrobe for attempting to dislodge (for reasons only a drunk adolescent would recognize) a stop sign near his house. For that reason, I try to temper my reaction to youthful misbehavior—it makes me feel enlightened and forbearing.  My car window was down, so as we tried to work slowly around the kid, who was now in the middle of the street and taking his sweet time, I said, in my most avuncular voice, “Come on now…” The kid heard me but wasn’t having any of my Uncle Jim forbearance. In a split second, he was hurling expletives my way—all while standing in the middle of a busy road. My switch from Uncle Jim to Scarface Tony Montana happened so fast and unconsciously that I shocked myself. 

“Oh, fuck off!” I yelled, presenting a middle finger out the window to underscore the sentiment.

With that, the guys who had been lingering sheepishly on the sidewalk stepped into the street, apparently excited by this introduction of bold, new vocabulary. I didn’t hear what they said, but their faces got all twisted up, and a couple of them flipped me off with both hands at the hip, like gunfighters. As we moved past them down Route 50, I watched in the rear-view mirror as they all moved into the street, blocking traffic more audaciously than ever.

My wife is a peace-loving Anabaptist with no patience for my bouts of anger; and she registered her disapproval with a heavy sigh. Still sputtering with anger, I tried to defend myself, and then gave up. I knew, of course, that I’d been wrong to blow up like that. A few minutes later, as I reflected during a set of lat pulldowns, I considered what might have happened if, for example, there had been a physical altercation at the crosswalk. What if those five high-school kids, all hopped up on testosterone and Red Bull, were in the mood to kick some middle-aged ass? What if one of them had stepped in front of the car, blocking my escape down Route 50, and another had grabbed at me through the open window?

The answer, I believe, is that Tony Montana would have been up shit creek. 

Fighting Just Because

The fact is, I’ve never been a fighter. My brother Geoff, who is larger and more athletic than I am, seemed to actually like fighting—at least back in school. I swear sometimes he used his innocent, altar-boy looks to lure in unsuspecting bullies. Geoff was a trained boxer with a fierce left hook, and most guys who took his bait ended up nursing a sore jaw. Though I knew how to box as well, physical altercations struck me as terrifyingly atavistic. It unnerved me that two people could become so infuriated with each other—over a smirk or a bump in the hallway—that they became violent. Whenever someone tried to pick a fight with me, my first reaction was, “Why are you so angry? You don’t even know me.” That was beside the point, of course. Boys that age are basically rutting stags banging on each other with their antlers, telegraphing “I’m fucking jacked and I have no idea what I’m doing…”

When I got angry, I tended to channel it inward. Maybe that was the Presbyterian in me, but my tendency toward nonviolence sometimes made me a target. When a kid started picking on me in fifth grade, my father taught me how to face the bully down. “Stand up when he stands up,” he instructed me. “Look him in the eye. Let him know you’re not going to back down.” Bullies, he said, are always cowards at heart. My dad boxed competitively in the Army, and even though he was a minister, he wasn’t opposed to settling matters with a well-placed undercut. So it wasn’t surprising that, after my teacher made no effort to defuse the situation, my father recommended I kick the kid’s ass. My dad was right about the coward thing. Just when I thought I’m going to have to punch this guy in the mouth, he backed down. 

Hearts of Darkness

Notably, I’ve never been risk-averse in most other aspects of my life. I jump horses over three-foot fences. I shoot 12-gauge shotguns for pleasure. I love a good zip-line. I even sample locally distilled vodka at the farmers market. So, I’m not a physical coward by any means; it’s just that there’s something truly awful about people in a civilized culture handling disputes with their fists—particularly adults, like the jackasses who brawl at their kids’ baseball games. Violence like that is so personal, so intimate and yet so anonymous. It rattles me, makes me think that we’re not as evolved as we like to believe—that we are all one temper tantrum away from peering into the heart of our own darkness. Fighting, to me, is an unwelcome reminder of our incomplete moral development, an eructation of the nasty, deplorable, simian self that lurks in us all.

Which brings me back to my altercation with those high school kids. Nobody dragged me out of my car and pummeled me. And I didn’t throw a punch—though the adrenalin rush that followed the encounter made it feel like I had. Yet, as I thought about my reaction to those young men, I knew my own nasty self had made an appearance nonetheless. That’s why my wife silently looked out the window for the rest of the drive: She didn’t admire the atavism evident in my contorted face and outstretched finger. Worse than her disapproval, however, was my realization that, for all my attained wisdom and claims to forbearance, I showed as much hair-trigger temper as that kid on the crosswalk—and, like him, I hadn’t thought through the consequences of the interaction. 

Fighting is really just a byproduct of violent inclinations. Yelling “fuck off,” or flipping the bird is another—just without the fists. Tweeting nasty slogans at a political candidate is yet another. That kind of verbal violence is way too easy, way too seductive. Our social media-addicted culture loves the quick response, the eviscerating insult, and all the drama that comes from hurt feelings and Internet feuds. Whether social media has spilled into our physical existence or simply given unfiltered expression to our darker inclinations, I can’t say.  But my three-second hissy fit with that kid showed me a side of myself, and, increasingly, of our culture, I’d prefer not to indulge—whether it’s online or on Route 50.

One thought on “Fightin’ Words

  1. It is not always virtue or wisdom that keeps me from losing my temper but rather, sometimes, my pride, my vanity. Jim blames a fleeting male immaturity for his expletives, yet maybe it was his urban adolescence–the fighting, the punching. Conversely, growing up in a small town we were expected to ignore obnoxious behavior- geography, family, and pride of place.

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