Yesterday there was rain in the air, and that’s a good thing for parched Northern California. But the gutters were choked with leaves, and I’d put off getting up there and dealing with it. I had two hours before my next client call, so I got the ladders and went to work against the elements, sweeping away a million little oak leaves, enjoying the dark, brooding sky.
I came down the ladder self-satisfied, even triumphant. Taking care of life’s put off to-dos always leaves me in a good mood, and butch projects involving dirt, rocks, or leaves are particularly intoxicating.
Putting away the ladder, thinking about power and accomplishment, I was reminded of a 35-year-old memory that’s been waking me up lately, an event from high school drama.
The drama club saved my life, and most of my memories are wonderful. But there was this one day, working on the weird Shakespeare play Taming of the Shrew. Our beloved drama director loved trust exercises and improvisation, and she was working with us on our characters. Fellow student Beverly was playing Katherine, the Shrew of the title, and I was striving to embody the Tamer, a cocky alpha male named Petruchio.
Perhaps I don’t need to explain that this wasn’t exactly a natural fit for me, but I wanted to do well. We riffed a series of confrontations, Beverly would oppose me and I would try to overcome her, modelling the power dynamic of our characters. I was having trouble finding it, and the director whispered in my ear: “Pick Beverly up and carry her up that ramp.” Physically it wasn’t difficult, and to Beverly’s shock I grabbed her, put her over my shoulder, and announced I was taking her up the ramp to, I dunno, some fictional place. I announced it very assertively. I was in character, and doing great.
Beverly freaked out. She was yelling and demanding I put her down. That was her character, but it seemed real too. Yet she was a good actress, and I got confused. “Keep going!” the director called out, and I swallowed and did it, my will winning out. I stomped up the ramp, Beverly shrieking and crying, angry, defiant, and finally defeated. I think it was just the scene the director hoped for, but when we were done Beverly was furious. Tears on her face, she looked me in the eye and in a solid, weirdly calm voice she said “I hate you David and I never want to see you again.” She left the theatre.
Eventually we figured it out. I apologized (a lot). Rehearsals resumed the next day, and the show went on. I think Beverly forgave me, or I hope that she did. But I was shaken by that very real moment in the midst of the pretending, and while I don’t think about it often, I never feel great when it flashes into my mind. Overcoming someone by force is not the kind of power I want. It feels terrible. (I prefer a leafy roof to dominate, any time).
Of course with kids, sometimes that’s what you have to do. If they’re headed for an intersection, an outlet, or the edge of, well whatever, sometimes you have to scoop them up and physically stop them. Sometimes you have to hold them in place to buckle the car seat. Taming is part of the job description. Many many times each week I have to push my willpower up against theirs: brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, getting ready for bed. Whether it’s outsmarting, bargaining, or forcing, I’m often called on to use my power against them. Their shrieking is often worthy of drama club circa 1981, sometimes for as little as cutting the PB&J into triangles instead of rectangular halves (or vice versa… it varies).
I’m pleased to say that in this role, Tamer of the Children, I’m less and less frequently pulled into the yelling. I get that they don’t like not being in charge, and need to express themselves. I’m the best target. Perhaps in this small way, I’ve learned how to be the one who does what needs to be done, exerts his will, gets his way (more or less), but without the raging need to overpower and dominate.