Lessons From People You Hate

Aficionados of I Love Lucy know the sad backstory that Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played bickering landlords Ethel and Fred Mertz, truly disliked each other in real life. In fact, there is an apocryphal story that when Vance learned Frawley had died while she was dining out at a restaurant, she stood up and yelled, “Champagne for everyone!”

I relate that story because I have a split of Veuve-Clicquot chilling in the refrigerator for when I get the same news about my father. Yes, I know that sounds terrible, but the fact is that my father should never have had children. Alcoholics should not procreate, simple as that. Kids need stability and consistency, and the outrageous behavior and cutting words that alcohol triggers fashion children who don’t know what to believe, who to trust, or what’s appropriate. (And yes, I do acknowledge the irony of celebrating the passing of an alcoholic with champagne.)

When I think of the emotional distress he visited on my siblings and me when we were growing up, and the way it impacted my first thirty years – my social life, my work life, my whole life – I just want to scream. And this is after years of therapy.

My father even admitted many years ago that if he had it to do over again, he wouldn’t have kids. I think it was because he thought we made his life difficult. Introspection was not his strength.

And yet …

I have to begrudgingly admit that my father was not all bad. He got a Stanford MBA long before they were sexy, and created his own highly successful real estate business. We lacked for little, materially (love and affection were quite another matter). His investments kept him and my mother in a comfortable retirement and are still paying for his wonderful care today.

He may have been a lousy father, but as a man and a husband, he did okay.

Politically, he was a man of principle. He was outspoken against 1964’s Proposition 14, an initiative put together by the California Real Estate Association. It would have legalized discrimination, allowing homeowners to decline to sell to minorities, and his visible antipathy to it could have affected his business. He didn’t care. In 1966, he sponsored a Japanese restaurateur for membership in the Elks’ Club, which did not accept minorities at that time. When the application was denied, my father resigned.

There may have been whispers around divorce and affairs, but no evidence. He and my mother were married a few months past sixty years. I look at myself and realize the solicitousness with which I treat Monica comes from the way my father treated my mother. I look at the fact that I’ve been self-employed for a dozen years and realize that the focus and discipline with which I do my work comes in part from my father.

At the same time I struggle with my feelings about my father, I struggle with my feelings about my college fraternity. I was a dedicated alumni volunteer until the collective inanities of both the undergraduates and the alumni forced me to distance myself from the organization. Subsequent horrifying revelations about other Stanford Kappa Sigma members (see the Evan Spiegel debacle) and other Kappa Sigma members elsewhere (cf. college rape issues) make me wonder where the national organization is focusing its energy. It doesn’t seem to be on the molding of character.

And yet …

Many of the people Monica and I socialize with today are the friends I made in the fraternity, either in college or through my alumni work. We’ve seen each other through career ups and downs, weddings and kids, funerals and football games, too many poker games to count, and, oh my goodness, more laughter than anyone has a right to expect in any one lifetime.

What’s the takeaway? You never know what people are going to teach you. Sometimes the same person or entity teaches you things you want to emulate, and sometimes they teach you things you want to subjugate. The hardest part is figuring out which is which, and jettisoning the bad while cherishing the good.

 

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About middleagecranky

The Middle-Age Cranky blog is written by baby boomer Howard Baldwin, who finds the world, while occasionally wondrous, increasingly aggravating.
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4 Responses to Lessons From People You Hate

  1. Steve Love says:

    We all have our crosses. Thanks (and sorry) for bearing yours out loud. I am reminded of the short version of your essay in a sign posted on a manager’s door at work that read, “Everyone brings joy to this office, some when they come, some when they go.” As you say though, the trick is knowing which one they are in time.

  2. Lisa says:

    Everybody has a lesson to teach us, if we’re open to learning it. Sometimes they’re things we never wanted to know, like how it feels to be beaten by a spouse, but if one can get through it and eventually learn from it, it can make one a better person.

  3. Robin Snyder says:

    I had no idea. Not surprised, as most alcoholics can hide it well for a long time. I admire your candor and courage writing about this disease. I also appreciate you helping me get sober way back in ’83. R.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  4. Dick Brown says:

    Powerful message, Howard. Thanks for sharing this. I’m grateful for your friendship over the years.

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