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When Man Held Anger in the Palm of His Hand

March 18, 1993|T. Jefferson Parker | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month.

Since my idea of the perfect breakfast is coffee, a cigarette and 20 mg. of Prozac, I've been giving some thought recently to the idea of mental health.

The question of central import seems to be this: What do we do with our various energies, especially anger? Working on the premise that to understand the present one must understand the past, I took a long drive around the county not long ago, in the hope of nailing down some specifics.

It was a terrible day to be on the road--right in the middle of our torrential February rains--but for some reason this only added a certain spice to the mission. I put on a tape (loud), turned the windshield wipers up full blast, placed an open note pad on the seat beside me and set out north on the 405.

My personal modes of anger maintenance had changed a lot in 39 years. I was a bucktoothed, fairly unlikable kid, a condition aggravated (both internally and externally) by the severe crew-cut forced upon me by well-meaning, orderly parents.

And, oh, what a terror I was! I could distinctly remember many acts of violence: beating up a neighbor boy because he was fat; bashing holes through the garage door with a baseball bat because my brother struck me out; breaking down the bathroom door to accost my brother, who had just shot me with a BB gun; using a Wrist Rocket to launch unripe limes into the backs of people walking into Sav-On drugstore in Tustin. My report cards inevitably had some snippet like "Jeff refuses to join in group activities, preferring the company of a chosen few."

I leaned over and scribbled on the notebook: Youthful reactions to anger often violent. When was last violent reaction?

Steadying the truck on Harbor Boulevard, I looked out at the swollen Santa Ana River, where millions of gallons of brown rushing water were just now sweeping away the side of a golf course. A hole marker melted into the current and disappeared into the whitecaps.

Anyway, when was my last overtly violent reaction to anger?

This took some remembering, as there were so few instances to choose from in adult memory. All I could settle on was an incident five years ago when, enraged over the terrible service in a restaurant favored by former President Richard Nixon, I swept all the dishes and silverware into the window with my arm, then clutched my fiancee and stormed out.

I noted: made scene in restaurant, circa 1988.

The discrepancy between a violent-prone childhood and an overwhelmingly nonviolent adulthood was evident. Where, when and why, exactly, had civilized behaviors replaced the thoughtless explosions? Moreover, had the test organism--in this case, myself--been better or worse served with this sublimation of basic anger?

I steered my windblown truck onto the Garden Grove Freeway. The storm had caused a bleak pileup involving what looked to be about a hundred cars, all jammed together in the slow lane. I veered around them.

It was not difficult to look back and realize the why, when and where of my sudden attempt at a comprehensive anger-abatement program. Her name was Kathy Hulet, and she was quite easily the most beautiful girl in my fifth-grade class (1965). I could specifically recall carrying her books home for her, trying to befriend her dopey little brother and actually curbing homicidal impulses when Kathy dropped me for my best friend, Rick.

Taking this rejection hard, I went into politics, running for vice president of the fifth grade, an election in which I was soundly trounced. The simple truth began to dawn on me then: No one likes a bully.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had pretty much mastered the art of nonviolent expression. I played sports, wrote poems and bodysurfed large waves instead of beating up people. I read books.

After splashing through miles of rain-soaked freeways and getting off at Bolsa, the idea hit me that even if I'd given up violence as a daily activity, I had surely chosen to write about it.

This realization was brought on by seeing the Little Saigon sign on the freeway, which I am secretly proud to say was put there after I wrote a book of the same name in 1988. Reviewing the basic story of that novel was a bit of a shock, because one of the fundamental premises was this: In order to assure that justice is done, it is sometimes necessary to become violent. Some of the images from that book came back to me, and I understood how little I had actually changed, internally, in a life now approaching middle age.

I leaned over and scribbled on the pad again. Refusal to behave violently does not mean violent feelings disappear. How, then, do we handle them?

The obvious answers seemed abundant: dreams, imagination, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, sporting activities.

Heading south on I-5 I saw another smashup. A slicker-clad CHP officer directed traffic around the wreckage. A few miles farther down the road, a freeway construction grade had slid over its retaining wall and buried a line of orange machines in mud.

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