Anger Management

by Matt Olson

I think it is a general rule that fathers are suckers for their daughters, willing to do almost anything to make her happy. This assumes that the daughter doesn't come home at age 13 with multiple piercings and a butt tattoo, but maybe that's just me talking. No doubt there is a father out there whose daughter has a butt tattoo with angels and flotsam that says "Like What You See?" and the dad is just proud, proud, proud.

When my daughter was 13 and about to begin 8th grade, she was a mess. Her mood was a roller coaster, and almost every day I would ask my clinical colleague (who was not only a clinical psychologist but also a woman) if this was normal. The good professor assured me that she would not get married on this carnival ride. And I trusted her. Thank goodness she turned out to be right. 

My daughter's selection of friends at that time included one of the lost boys who handed out his Ritalin at school so that the other kids could enjoy a little buzz and like him a little better too.  Also included were two relatively harmless guys who were chronically stuck in the characters of Beavis and Butthead. They had most of the cartoon dialogues memorized, and they wandered about muttering that nonsense relentlessly. It was pretty much impossible to talk to them about anything at all. And then there was Jewel. Parents should know that if you give your daughter a stripper name, she is going to turn out badly. Her parents could have gone with Cinnamon or Champaign or some other exotic dancer speciality, but this one was Jewel. henever she was over for the classic sleepover, I would wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning and hear a murmuring from another room. I would slowly and carefully pick up the telephone in our bedroom-- just to be sneaky-- and, sure as hell, Jewel would be on the line. Sometimes it was a local call. Often it was not. Great kid. For those of you who are young, long distance calls used to cost extra, lots extra. 

And so, as 8th grade was beginning, my daughter asked if she could have a "Welcome Back to School" party. What the hell? What could go wrong? I told her that it would be great to invite 20 or so kids over to the house. I would cook Santa Fe food for them. We would buy a couple of cases of soft drinks... Wonderful idea.

I remember clearly how she burst into tears. "Twenty doesn't even include all of my best friends!" and she sobbed. Kids have an interesting definition of "best," so I asked her to make up a list so that we could plan. How bad could it get?

A couple of days later, on a Thursday evening, the vice principal from her middle school called. I hoped it might just be a social call. His son and our daughter went to pre-school together when they were a harmless 3 and 4 years old. Just a coincidence that he landed the job out in our neighborhood. Maybe it was just another report that her pal had given her a tab of Ritalin. But no. He advised us that Jewel had made up 10 or more posters advertising the "Welcome Back to School " party. They were all over the junior high, and future stripper Jewel had even posted them at the nearby high school. he party was advertised for Saturday. 

My first idea was just to shut it down. If I had been sane and less of a father/sucker, I would have. Of course it would have broken her heart, and I feared that she already hated us enough. I didn't want to drive the wedge deeper and wind up with a kid who disliked her parents as much as I disliked mine. So, Party On!  

First order of business was the Rent All store. I picked up some extra little tables and a VolleyBall net, along with a volleyball just to complete the theme. Next morning, I talked with a friend who was a Minneapolis cop. He suggested that I just inform the police in our little suburb that this beast had been born and ask that they drop in once an hour--- just to be a presence and keep things settled. Better than hiring a rent-a-cop, and, in his view of things, cops in our little town don't have anything to do anyway. Next was to ask parents of the friends we knew if they would like to come over and share the duty. Not one of those bastards even blinked. Let that be a lesson. If you are the parent of an early teen-ager, the people who you think might be your friends are not. Get rid of them as soon as you can. They will only break your heart and then blame you later. They are the trash in you life that you need to throw out.

Seven o'clock rolled around on that special Saturday night, and the usual crowd of friends rolled in with it. Beavis and Butthead were there, along with Jewel and perhaps ten other kids. I was harboring a delusion that this would be the show. Seven-thirty and the first cop rolled up. He introduced himself as "Bobby." He looked to be about 16 years old with a fresh cut Crew haircut. I'm only 5' 8'' --tops-- and this guy was smaller than me. At least he had a gun.  I offered him coffee and a bowl of chile-con-carne and he declined. He strolled to the back of the house, where the kids were, and made his presence known. They found him amusing but tolerable. Time progressed.

Seven forty-five. We were now up to, perhaps, 40 or 50 kids. Some of the moms and dads would linger in the driveway as they dropped their spawn off. I would extend the offer, over and over--- Please stay and help out. Free Chile-con-carne. I could almost hear them laughing as they drove away. I hope their daughters come home with butt tattoos, especially one moron who was always decked out in a black leather motorcycle jacket and called himself "Snakes." He even encouraged other people to call him "Snakes." Born to be an asshole and he was already successfully on his way. 

The next round of cop rolled in. She was very nice, and did not ask me if I had lost my mind. No coffee, no chile.

It was now past nine. No cop. The crowd in the backyard and basement had bloomed into more than 300 hormone-addled, shitty kids. I wandered into the basement to find it littered with popcorn and other debris. Most of the hard party animals were outside where they could smoke and consume substances without detection, but there were a dozen or so in the basement. I loudly asked what the hell was going on. Why were they making such a mess of my home? One of the little fuckers threw a handful of popcorn at me. Without a thought at all, I opened the sliding glass door beside him, grabbed him by his neck and, with the other hand, got a good grab on the back of his baggy pants, and threw him headfirst out onto the patio. Got a good three or four feet of distance toss, despite my short stature. The other kids instantly got quiet.

"Do I come to your house and fuck it up? Do I come and make a mess all over your place?" One kid in the mix, apparently someone who these urchins respected, said "I see where you are comin' from. We'll help clean up." I wheeled out a vacuum cleaner, and thanked him as he got to work. The little, momentary, oasis of sanity in the basement was not contagious, however, and the chaos outside was intensifying. There were fights breaking out. There were girls crying because someone called them fat. There were more kids there than I have ever seen. Jewel was not on the house phone, so I called the cops and asked where my routine patrol was. They apologized and said that they forgot. 

When Bobby pulled up in front, I told him that he needed some help...that there were too many kids out back. He puffed up his little chest, and told me "Settle Down. I'll take it from here!" A minute later he was back at my front door. He was hyperventilating and all the color was drained from his little face. "Do you know how many kids are back there?"  Yup. "Can I use your phone?  I've locked myself out of my car."  Good control, Bobby.

Three or four patrol cars arrived, and they began to clear the place out. "Did you know that Richard Smith was here? How could you invite Richard Smith?" I explained that I did not know most of the kids that were there, and that I most certainly did not invite their friend Richard. This did not calm them down. The clearing process took the better part of an hour. "Snakes,"  who I had earlier asked to stay and help yelled at me because his daughter told him there was alcohol at the party. Before all of the cops assembled,  I reminded him that I asked him to stay and help and offered to kick his candy ass, and he huffed away. The rest was a mess. And here comes the prelude to the Anger Management story: Beavis stayed to help. There was debris all over the backyard and well into other neighbors' yards. We and he gathered it all up and bagged it. We and he got all the paper plates and other food stuff together and disposed of it. We searched for the volleyball and found it on a neighbor's deck. Beavis actually helped do dishes. I was stunned. I thanked him profusely, and although he kept drifting into the Beavis character off and on, he managed to come out to acknowledge my thanks. I told him that he was always welcomed to ask me for a ride or to visit. The night ended on that good note.

Shift forward two weeks. Another party for 8th graders off in another neighborhood. Could she go? Why not? It was not my party. In addition, she was now a legend. No need for her to do anything at all teen-deranged. She had thrown the party to end all parties. Police had to come and break it up. Cops in our little town would talk about it for the next three or four years. They would wave at me and laugh whenever they spotted me out walking the dog. Why not go to someone else's party? I reminded her that I would buzz her pager (yes, this was before kids had cell phones) at 10:30 or 11... just to let her know that I was on my way to pick her up. When I buzzed, I got a recorded message. It was Beavis, talking about drinking urine and other assorted nasty. How could my new trusted little ally get into her recorded message and leave this disgusting mess? I was in the car instantly and on my way.

After banging on the door of party-central for a minute or two, an actual parent appeared, and I asked--politely, mind you-- for my daughter. She came to the door, deeply humiliated that I was there and asked why I didn't page her. I asked her to go back inside and call her own pager. When she re-appeared, she was almost in tears. She said only "Beavis"--actual name withheld to avoid a lawsuit. I asked her to go inside and retrieve him, and of course she hesitated. I promised that I only wanted to talk with him and that I wouldn't do anything. I lied. 

Beavis came out, and I asked how he could do such a thing. He refused to look at me and muttered-- in his real voice rather than the cartoon one-- that he didn't know what I was talking about. And here it comes: I reached out and slapped him. Not a bitch slap, not a dope slap, not a slap that would actually cause anyone pain. It was a little tap with open hand to make him raise his head and look me in the eye. I told him that I heard the message, that I knew it was him. And he nodded. I asked how he could do such a thing after helping out at our party disaster, after I had opened our home to him. He just said "I didn't mean to." Then came my moment in the sun. I told him that if he ever did anything like that again, I would come to his house, set his dog on fire, and beat the hell out of his grandmother. I forget where I got that line... Maybe Zap Comix, maybe National Lampoon, maybe Hunter Thompson. For a professional academic, my reading is deep. I had always wanted the occasion to use that line. And now I was complete. 

My daughter got into the car seething in shame and anger, and I drove us home. We did not talk, and all the way home only one thought kept rolling through my mind: I had put my hands on a kid who was not my own. Granted, I didn't really smack him or kick him in the knee, but I had touched another person's child. I felt horrible by the time we got home, and the first thing I did was call the Beavis family. His father answered, and before I could get my apology out, he informed me that he already knew the terrible thing I had done, and, even better, he had called the police. I asked if he knew what his kid had done, and he told me "Kids make mistakes. We don't hit them and threaten to burn down their grandmother.  We forgive them...." and his little monologue went on a bit. I begged to interrupt. "Your son didn't make a 'mistake.' What he did took planning. He somehow managed to break into my daughter's pager service, delete her message, and replace it with his obscenity. It had to take a half hour or more. That was not a 'mistake.' It was a plan."

He asked me if I was drunk. I told him that, of course, I was not. When my daughter was growing up, we had no alcohol in our home, nor did we drink out side the home. He slammed the phone down, and it was time to wait for the cops.

Twenty minutes or so later, the knock came to the door. I would like to say that the "doorbell rang," but my wife and I are, well, asocial. Our doorbell hasn't worked in over 20 years, and we like it that way. Nonetheless, the cop knocked, my wife went to the door, and I grabbed my toothbrush and put it in my shirt pocket. I met the officer at the door, and told him that I was ready to go. He asked that I calm down and asked further if he could come in so that we could review the incident. First question: "Are you drunk?" Same answer as to Beavis's dad. He looked me over and seemed satisfied. He asked me to explain what had happened, and I did. Beavis, in all his brilliance, hadn't yet erased his message on the pager, so the cop got to listen to it. When I told him about setting fire to the dog and beating up the grandma, he stifled a laugh. And then he asked if I actually hit the kid...even asked me to hit him the same way. He assured me it was OK. When I showed him what I did, he actually said "It is a good thing it wasn't me. I would have smashed his head." I could see that I might not be spending the night in jail..

Then he said "What you did... the part about threatening to set fire to the dog and beat up the grandmother is 'terroristic threat.'  It could be construed as a misdemeanor or a fifth degree felony, depending. We have to offer something to Beavis's dad."  We.

And here it is: "What if I offer to go to Anger Management?" He jumped all over it. Yes! That was perfect. I, of course, would have to complete a course and produce the certificate, but that would do it. He was confident. And he was off to take the offer to the Beavis family. He assured me that this was the ideal solution--he would be sure of it, and we exchanged the appropriate information so that he could keep track of me.

I made all the arrangements through my HMO, and on the first night of class I arrived early. Didn't have to, but I was unfamiliar with the location and didn't want to wind up driving around looking for parking and all that. Imagine my delight when I arrived! One of our former students, a guy named Tom, was there. My first thought was that I would be in Anger Management class with a former student, but that wasn't it at all. Tom was the instructor. He asked what I was doing there, and I told him to look at his roster. His mouth dropped open for a moment, he blushed, and said "Oh." Here we go. 

The other members of the six-week class started to arrive. It was a class just for men, apparently. None of them looked particularly psychotic or dangerous, so it felt OK-- not great mind you, but OK. Once assembled, Tom explained that we were all here because we needed to get better control of our anger. He explained that anger was not bad, but that it could turn bad unless we knew how to deal with it in better ways. He gave some examples from his own life, his own dealings with his partner--who turned out to be his wife-- even though though he called her his partner. And then came our turn. We were asked to introduce ourselves and tell the group why we had been sent to the class. Fun? You bet!

The first guy, Mr. Volunteer, explained that he worked for the power monopoly that has its death grip on the Twin Cities (those weren't exactly the words he used--again-- lawsuit). He recounted how, on three different occasions, he reacted badly when a supervisor told him to do a particular job. His response to being ordered by a supervisor was to beat hell out of the guy. In the most recent incident, the supervisor was hospitalized. Free, court-ordered ticket to Anger Management! Next two guys were spouse abusers. Not the kind where you might call your wife "dumpy." They were the really bad kind where you burn her or beat her. Great guys. The next guy, Mr. Scary, igured that he didn't really want to share right now. Tom seemed to understand.

Next guy was another wife beater. The next guy, Mr. Snake, explained that his son made him insanely mad and made him abuse. The son, you see, pretended to be deaf after contracting Scarlet Fever; but he was only pretending to  be deaf so as to embarrass Mr. Snake. He knew that the kid wasn't really deaf. He was determined to prove it-- and to prove that the doctors and his wife were wrong. Here was a prince of a man.

Next guy to speak was me. I told my story about Beavis. When I finished, the room erupted. Mr. Volunteer said "I would have killed the little fucker!" Mr. Scary looked up from what he was doing. Mr. Snake asked "Why are you really here? What's going on?" I didn't want that level of rational discourse from the Snake, but I welcomed it at the moment.

Once the confession cycle was concluded, sans Mr. Scary, we did our first exercise, and I began to wonder how the hell Tom earned a diploma in our psychology major. He passed out paper and sent a box of crayons around the room. "Take a piece of paper and one crayon--just one-- and draw your anger." Great instruction. We all seemed to get the plan. I took my piece of paper and picked a red crayon. Everyone, including Mr. Scary got to work. I drew a human head, as best as my pathetic drawing skills would allow, with smoke coming out of the ears. Seemed like a reasonable thing to draw. The other guys were deeply involved--even Mr. Scary, although he was very protective of his crayon creation, covering his work one arm and keeping his back turned to the rest of us.

After 15 minutes or so, Tom announced that drawing time was done and that it was time for us to show and tell. Please put our crayons back in the box as it passed around and get ready to show and explain our drawings to the group. Everyone except Mr. Scary complied. He announced that he was almost done but not ready. Tom seemed to understand, once again, and said that the rest of us would start and let Scary jump in when ready.

Mr. Volunteer eagerly volunteered to go first. See? He held up his drawing and explained "This is a saw, because I like to work in my shop. And this is my dog, because  I take him hunting and he likes to ride in the car. These are my shoes. They are new Nike's and I want to break them in. This is..."  And then Tom interrupted. "How are these related to your anger?" Mr. Volunteer looked puzzled. "What?"  Tom explained that the drawings were supposed to depict our anger. Mr. Volunteer said "Oh, I guess I misunderstood the assignment." This was a theme that would repeat over and over during the weeks to come. 

In their turns, the guys showed their drawings, most of them depicting the victims of their anger-- usually not in flattering ways. I showed and explained my smoking head. And finally, Mr. Scary seemed satisfied and ready to join the fun. When he showed his drawing, it was a black circle-- a completely filled-in black circle. There was at least an eighth-inch thick, black crayon circle on the page. He had used almost one complete crayon to draw the damn thing. Just a big, thick,  black spot about 4 inches across.  Tom asked how this related to his Scary anger, and he said "This is what I saw-- just complete darkness-- before I had to kill them." Tom announced that it was time for a little break. 

During our break, I managed to find a soft-drink machine and bought a can of Coke. The Snake managed to find me and struck up a conversation about what a cheating bitch his wife was and how she was manipulating their son so that he would play deaf. He had a plan to fix the bitch.  For reasons that I'll never understand, the Snake always followed me on the breaks. Seemed to think I was his pal. I wanted to take up smoking again so that I could go outside and lock myself in my car.

When break was done, Tom explained our assignment for next time. It was "journaling." We were to keep track of our anger episodes during the next week. Try to figure out what triggered them. Try to remember how we reacted and what we did. And week one of Anger Management was done. As I drove home, I kept replaying Mr Snake's voice in my head. Not the evil parts about his hatred for his wife and kid. Certainly not the nightmare trip through the crayon drawing of his anger. The part I heard, over and over, was "Why are you really here?"  Only one week of "therapy, " and I was feeling better. I was not those guys.


Our session for week two began much like week one. I arrived early. My wife points out that I do this all the time. My explanation is that I just don't want to miss anything. At least I don't have to touch the doorknob three times, turn the lights on and off twice, and clean the chair that I sit in. So there I was, early. Tom and I had a chat about his graduate school training after he left us with his Bachelor's degree. I didn't probe deeply. The other guys began to arrive, and Tom appropriately assumed his professional distance. Once assembled, we were off and running. First task was to share our journal entries if we had some.

Mr. Volunteer began, of course. During his week he had gone down to the power-company offices to talk with the Human Resource people about his situation. Something that one of the suits said pissed him off and he responded by threatening an ass kicking. He had to be removed from the office and escorted out of the building. One of the wife-beaters had kicked--yes kicked-- his wife out of their house, but he was pretty pleased that he didn't follow her out and beat on her a little more where the neighbors could see. Now there's improvement. Nobody else had much to say. My slate was genuinely clean for the week. Mr. Scary, apparently, was already cured. He didn't show up for Week Two, nor for the rest of the class. Somehow, it seemed OK, and I suspect that all of us felt a little better now that he was already cured and gone.

Next exercise was watching a bit of video from a film called The Great Santini, starring Robert Duvall and Michael OKeefe. The scene we saw depicted Duvall tormenting and abusing his son, Okeefe. In one scene, Duvall bounced a basketball off of Okeefe's face and urged him to cry.  Duvall can really play an asshole role. When the scene ended, Tom asked us to tell us how we felt during that scene and to relate it, if we could, to our experience of anger. Mr. Volunteer wanted to be first. And he was. He recounted, in high detail, the scene we had just viewed. He described the setting and the positions of the characters. He re-enacted the encounters between Duvall and OKeefe including the exact dialogue. Have you ever heard a little kid tell you about a movie? There you go!

Six or more minutes into his story, Tom interrupted. "You really have an excellent memory for the details, but how does it relate to your anger?" Mr. Volunteer just looked blank. "I guess I misunderstood the assignment." I wondered, silently, why it was that he was beating up his supervisors rather than the other way around.

We rolled around the table, each of us in turn delivering our reactions to Duvall's abuse of his kid. Mr. Snake remarked that he wished he could lay basketball like that with his son, but the little bastard was still pretending to be deaf. One of the other abusers suggested that Okeefe should be glad to have a dad like that and just "toughen up." Absolutely outstanding! 

Our assignment for the next week was to, again, document our incidents of anger and rage and, if we could, to think of strategies for diffusing them. If we got angry, we were to figure out ways to be angry but not act out. And away we went.

The weeks rolled on and sort of blur together. We learned better ways to talk about anger when we got some. We learned that walking away was OK. We learned breathing exercises to calm down. We, at least I, learned lots of stuff. Mr. Scary never came to class again. Mr. Volunteer persistently wanted to be the first to participate in everything and, just as persistently, always seemed to misunderstand what was being asked. Mr. Snake learned nothing at all. At least that's what I think.

I think I grew a bit. I was a fairly violent kid. Although I tried to shed that skin when I embraced the Peace and Love, I guess some of it stuck with me. After the class I was better. I turned in my certificate to the cop who was waiting for it, and never actually saw Beavis or his idiot father again. More than 15 years later, I got to try out some of my Anger Management skills. Two friends and I were moving some furniture into a Senior Living apartment that I had secured for my parents. As we were unloading, a really agitated man pulled up behind us. "Hey you shit-for-brains! Get that fucking truck out of here!" I told him we'd be out of his way in a few minutes. We weren't actually blocking his path. He just wanted to be where we were. As we off-loaded the last piece, he got out of his car and approached me. Of course, he didn't approach the actual owner of the truck, who is a long, lean 6 feet and five inches tall. Nor did he approach my other friend who is a clearly strong big guy. He got in my face and grabbed my shirt with both hands. "Move that fucking truck!"  I just smiled and said "Not my truck. And by the way, you are not a very nice person."