Odd as it may seem, I was worked up yesterday about a random tennis player. I’ve had a big problem with Novak Djokovic long before his recent crisis, being denied entrance to Australia because he’s unvaccinated. Maybe it’s absurd to hold public figures to any standard of behavior, except for those who’ve been elected by voters. Generally, elected officials have made commitments about their approach to key issues. If they fail their electors, they can be voted out of office. Then there are those public figures who made no promises about anything. Their fame arrived, not because they have anything to say about matters which affect the public, but rather because they’re athletically gifted, excellent actors or exceptional musicians, among other careers. The sad truth is that people whose lives play out under public scrutiny often lose the privilege of anonymity. They also reap the benefits of their fame. The classic double-edged sword quandary. Djokovic is the top-ranked tennis player in the world. I’ve never liked him because of the multiple temper tantrums he’s displayed on the tennis court throughout his career. He’s not a kid. He’s an adult. Watching him break rackets, shout, and hurl objects that have even hit a volunteer in the face is disgusting. His anti-vaccine stance which led to him throwing his own tournament in 2020, and which ultimately got other players, along with himself and wife infected with Covid, was just an example of his arrogance. I won’t even address his other science-denying opinions, such as the one that prayer can purify food and water. He’s just an obnoxious person who wants to be beloved and who can’t understand why his behavior is off-putting to so many people. I hope the Australians don’t cave to pressure from those who think he should be given a pass because of his status. No one else is off the hook. He shouldn’t be either. The question I ask myself is: why do I even care about this guy? I get cranked up about lots of irrelevant people like him. I’m still annoyed with some folks who are not part of my life any more. Some would say that the amount of energy I expend on things like this is toxic. That I should let it all go and become more Zen. Michael used his annoying phrase, “ mellow out,” to try toning me down. He was worried that my vitriol would have negative impacts on my health. Well, he’s been gone almost five years. I’m still here. On most days, I’m mad about something. Here in my eighth decade, I’ve had the gift of a healthy life. What does it all mean? I thought about this for a long time last night. I drew some interesting conclusions about myself. I wound up mulling over my family history. What were the lasting lessons I took away from my early years? I can still hear mom and dad’s pronouncements and advice. Through my own filters and maturation process, some of those were altered. But apparently, the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Evidently I was a really kissy baby. At least that’s what my mom always said. In our complex adult relationship, she frequently remarked, “What happened to you? You used to be so sweet.” I’ve thought about that observation a lot. I don’t know if kissing is the equivalent of sweetness. If it is, then I’m certainly more sour than I once was. I haven’t had a real juicy romantic kiss since 2017, before Michael died. Except for the ones which pop up in my dreams of him, that kissing is gone forever. I will always miss those. And kisses of the more casual kind are gone too, victims of social distancing and Covid anxiety. In truth, I don’t think my sweetness has been around for a long time. I can be kind. I can be compassionate. But sweet? My mom and dad both ensured that the sweetness of my childhood didn’t have a place in my adult development. I learned my lessons about the risks of that trusting naïveté from them.
Mom and dad both lived through difficult childhoods. Mom was the only surviving daughter in her family. My grandmother had eight live births, but lost three of those children to early deaths. Girls weren’t valued in their family culture. Mom had heavy household responsibilities even as a young girl, and spent a big part of her early life fighting off undesired sexual advances. She felt unloved and abused. She said no one at home ever taught her anything, that her mother never told her she loved her. She was eighteen when one of her brothers introduced her to my dad, also a teenager. His father died when he was eight. He stepped up as the “man of the house,” selling apples from a wagon to help support his mother, his older sister and his younger brother. A streetwise kid, he dropped out of school after his sophomore year in high school. Disappointed that his father’s financially comfortable family did little to help his mother, he scrabbled hard to make a living, never forgetting that sense of familial abandonment. He was always skeptical and mistrusting, a perennial boy with a grownup’s life. He and my mom were married at nineteen. They were deeply in love with each other, a couple of romantic kids who had a child ten months after their wedding.
Plunged into adult responsibilities before having much of an opportunity to fully develop emotionally, my parents brought a curious mixture of lessons to their parenting skills. They were both loving although dad was a terrible teaser, part of his boyish affect. Although they each experienced disappointments in their family lives, my siblings and I were raised to believe in fierce loyalty to our relatives. That paradigm was challenging as they both, with my mother leading the charge, made sure we were all in the know about every failure of that loyalty. I don’t think either of them forgot even the smallest slight or shortfall within our tribal allegiance. I became a repository for all their stories of betrayal. I learned that in life you never forgot who in the family made you feel terrible or why, nor any outsider who’d hurt anyone in our clan. My dad’s older sister resented my mom, found her weaknesses and dominated their relationship. After living in the same Iowa city for my early years, mom insisted that we move back to Chicago to put distance between them. Within minutes of my dad’s death, the first thing she said was that dad’s sister wasn’t invited to his funeral. An astounding moment. Even though she and my grandmother had lifelong issues, her own family was preferable to dad’s. He was willing to do anything for mom and so was distant from his immediate family. They certainly remained dedicated to each other. My parents were the center of my universe. Because I loved them, I incorporated their feelings about everyone into my worldview. Anyone who was portrayed negatively to me, who had hurt them, became my enemy. I think all four of us kids came away with that attitude. There was none of the forgive and forget philosophy. All slights and perceived treacheries were kept passionately alive. What was emphasized as central tenets in our lives was to always remember the bad, to be guarded and to be mistrustful. As I grew up and developed myself, I realized that I’d internalized this philosophy. My family was bigger than my blood relatives, expanding to include close friends, but nonetheless, I always prioritized within my circle. As I’ve reiterated multiple times throughout my years, I play for one team within the context of my familial network. If someone hurts my teammate, my fierce loyalty becomes the operative factor in subsequent interactions with the perpetrator. Although I’m willing to try settling problems and entering into negotiations before ending relationships, I’ve wound up shedding anyone who’s broken the essential trust with me and/or mine.
I seen to have the same unlimited passion for my perceived unforgettable wrongs that my parents did, although I think I come at them from a more rational internal center than the grievances of childhood. I have a solid intellectual foundation for my opinions about what constitutes unforgivable behavior and am not prone to childish unfairness. What separates me from my grudge-holding parents is a willingness to confront these issues when they’re with people in my life, instead of letting them smolder into perennial resentment. My parents were never as forward as me about direct clashes. I prefer to clear the air, to express myself instead of either burying the feelings, or letting them govern my life. Often the other party is not so willing to go through that direct process. I do try. But there’s no doubt that my fundamental evaluation of behavior standards, rights and wrongs, and the permanence of those evaluations, were passed on to me as a standard at home, when I was growing up. The irony of my mom wondering what happened to my inherent sweetness was lost on her but not on me. Life happened to me. My interpretation of my personal experiences was informed by both her and my dad, within the framework laid out by them. The way I handled myself as an adult was simply different from their approach. But I could easily say to her, “look what you made me do.” My penchant for judging the people in my life was honed at their proverbial knees. The energy required for living this way has to this point, been inexhaustible, despite the opinion that anger is bad for my health. I even have enough bandwidth for annoying individuals like Novak Djokovic, who’ll never know what I’ve thought of his behavior. But I know what I think, and that will do.