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Burning Man

I like my anger. As a man. As an American. When bad guys tread on me, by God, it feels good to retaliate. Yes, deep in my tiny brain, I do understand that unlocking anger’s cage rarely improves the situation. But . . . mayn‘t I please scream my lungs out, strictly on special occasions? Exhibit one international finger salute per billing period? Ream one phone solicitor per annum?

No, I’m told: Anger can be dangerous -- and not just to the bad guys. So I‘ve been thinking I might shut some of it in the safe deposit. Manage my anger, as the people in the white coats and the black robes have it.

But it’s hard. Because there are so many things to be angry about.

I‘m not talking about the givens. You can’t go wild over events -- no matter how dreadful -- that you already know are going to happen. Like death: It sucks, but it‘s not like anybody’s skating. Or movies: I know from experience that most excursions will be logistically, financially and aesthetically masochistic; I‘m only mad when the guy next to me has scarlet fever. When I visit Seattle, it’s gonna rain, period; shake fists at the sky I will not.

What‘s tough is change, and our lives have changed so much in a few decades, for better and certainly for worse. Unlike America’s various desperate waves of immigrants, who were grateful for a bowl of slop, people under 60 right now are running into thousands of new and exciting ways to be disappointed.

Where each generation used to figure on being richer than the last, now we‘re lucky if we can afford to buy our dad’s 10-year-old Toyota at half Blue Book. When I was a kid, the USA had never lost a war and always stood for justice; now, no number of pseudotriumphal Panamas, Grenadas, Gulfs and Kosovos can make up for Vietnam, Chile, El Salvador, the Philippines, East Timor and you name it. Where we used to only suspect that our politicians were liars and thieves, now it‘s proven past dispute, and withholding our votes has provided little satisfaction. Where vast open spaces used to beckon, now overpopulation means you’ve gotta sweat blood to mail a package or park a car. You get exactly as much legal justice as you can afford. Kids have to join a gang to go to school. TRW knows the size of your penis. Most of the wonderful ”freedoms“ in whose name America has subjugated the world have proved to a be either empty fictions (democracy, free enterprise) or shackles sold as necessities (cars, credit cards, computers). And the modern American worker, always expected to do his laid-off buddy‘s job on top of his own, has less leisure time in which to buff his manacles than a medieval serf did.

Et fucking cetera. Kind of makes you mad, doesn’t it? BLOODY DAMN RIGHT IT DOES. And it‘s going to come out somewhere. ”Senseless“ rage is exploding all around: in the schools, on the roads, in the post offices and in the air, against minorities, against families and against the government, from Brentwood to Littleton to Atlanta to the North Valley Jewish Community Center. And the magazine covers blare, ”Why?“ While a lot of us are wondering, ”Why the hell doesn’t it happen more?“

Animal studies suggest that aggression flows bountifully from deprivation, overcrowding and the integration of disparate elements. Sound familiar? Yet as the heat rises, few dare suggest that our corporate and civic masters stop deceiving, exploiting and overstressing us and instead address the conflicts of an ever more widely stratified society. Why kick? As the new lab rats, we‘ve come to consider abuse our destiny. Policymakers like Bill and Hill do have suggestions on lowering the mercury, though. One is ”civility“ -- a.k.a. ”stuffing it down.“ Another is to leach the violence out of movies and video games, since the pundits have conveniently persuaded themselves that fake gore is the cause of aggressive behavior, not a reflection of societal frustration or a harmless outlet for same.

Face it: People are not pissed because of movies. They are thoroughly pissed, though, some more than others, and the classes with the sorest butts are those with the highest expectations. Black males, for instance, after being emancipated first by Abraham Lincoln and then by the civil rights legislation of the ’60s, were told they had the right to join mainstream society; when they were disproportionately rejected for lacking mainstream attitudes and mainstream education, and therefore forced to compete with whites for the rewards of mainstream crime, they were disproportionately imprisoned. Feeling slightly less chafed, it seems, are Latinos, Asians and working women, who‘ve made marginal social gains -- and anyway, they’re used to being kicked around. Sure, they‘re mad, just not as mad. The most numerous hotheads are -- surprise! -- white guys like me. In bygone days, we could rely on deference from all the aforementioned underclasses -- who now not only won’t kiss our tender posteriors, but are after our jobs!

 

So how am I supposed to soothe my acculturated, cultivated and often justified ire? Shout it loud: Anger! Management! Training! But first, I need a little motivation.

Sweet rage. Mainline it. It comes on like an amphetamine rush, and with some of the same physical symptoms: the accelerated pulse, the clenched hands, the blurred vision. Venting anger is a high. And as with other highs, you pay for your fun.

On the physical side, the frequent expansion and contraction of blood vessels in the body of a chronically yelling, steering-wheel-pounding citizen can render him susceptible to high blood pressure and heart attack; the tension of repressing the emotion can generate ulcers. Then there‘s the psychological side. If angry behavior has ever done you any good -- intimidated the mother-in-law, say -- you’re much more likely to resort to it again and again; that is, you become an anger addict. (In my own case, I used to be a punk rock singer. I actually got paid for being angry.) And the psychological side leads to the social, or antisocial, side: You don‘t get invited to parties.

Anger addicts might get into fights. They might beat their wives and kids. They might wreck opportunities. They might drive people away. They might self-medicate their anger addiction with other addictions (booze, cigs, drugs). They might get themselves locked up. And though nobody seems interested in curing the disease, there can be, y’know, crimes involved, so the watchdogs of society have been sniffing out new ways to deal with the symptoms. Anger-management training -- not as messy as the National Guard or as sneaky as Prozac in the water supply -- is the crowd-control tactic of our time.

In the last couple of decades, judges and lawmakers have increasingly used counseling as a supplement to prison sentences (incarceration does little to address the roots of aggressive behavior and the risk of repeat offenses). But celebrity enrollees since the mid-‘90s have juiced anger management into pop consciousness: paparazzi popper Tommy Lee, tourmate clocker Courtney Love, road ragers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Mike Tyson, beer-bottle menace Shannen Doherty. Just last month, Sean ”Puffy“ Combs, who pleaded guilty to harassment after being accused of sending his label honcho to the hospital with multiple injuries, got sentenced to one day of anger-management training for the infraction. Now a character in a TV commercial can burble, ”Where’s your anger management?“ and get a laugh. Strange as it may seem, the whole idea of taking counseling seriously enough to require a serious hunk of it in sentencing started with a celebrity, too.

The murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in June 1994, along with attendant nonstop broadcast of the terrified 911 calls Nicole made during earlier encounters with her husband, O.J. Simpson, caused everybody to think a little harder about the issue of domestic violence. The immediate response of the California Legislature was to mandate that, as one condition of probation, those convicted of domestic battery participate for at least a year in a batterers‘ counseling program. (Previously it had been required, but a judge could elect to assign as little as a day.)

Now the same kind of treatment is being applied to crimes ranging from retaliatory magazine-subscription forgery to spanking a neighbor’s child. A typical California sentence to anger-management counseling (which covers a lot of the same territory as a batterers‘ program) has risen in the last several years from 12 to 52 weekly sessions. Because there’s no legal requirement for such counseling, the methods vary. Some programs are approved by the county for use in the justice system because of the counselors‘ level of training, some are not, but ”approved“ status isn’t necessary in nondomestic situations.

If you‘re just a hothead who wants to cool off and has yet to butt up against the law, you may opt for a less orthodox approach. One anger workshop lets you scream and pummel pillows. Another, run by an ex-Marine, gives you a dummy to beat up on. This ”getting it out of your system“ tactic might work for some folks. For others, nothing’s gonna work. Anger is a complicated and often deep-seated emotion, in both its origins and its treatment.

There are even those who argue that if you target anger in combating domestic violence, you may be barking up the wrong tree. Such critics say that many men, particularly, rush to blame their actions on anger -- just as they might blame booze or stress -- instead of realizing that they need to make the most difficult kinds of adjustments: give up manly control, stop seeing the woman as an inferior, take responsibility for their behavior. Be reborn, essentially.

 

In any case, thanks to O.J., domestic-violence arrests in L.A. went up 11 percent from 1993 to 1995, and counseling programs have proliferated. Proportionately, this is even true of women. By way of example, Russ Meyer‘s gal pal was recently sentenced to 45 days on a work crew, 104 A.A. meetings and a year of domestic-violence counseling after beating up the filmic breastmaster -- who’s twice her age, but still: The bitches are getting theirs! In many states, including California, an arrest is mandatory if police called to the scene find evidence of physical abuse. Even considering women‘s ”advances,“ though, you can guess which sex is overwhelmingly more likely to wear the cuffs. Experts on aggression say that the cultural conditioning still prevails: When anger erupts, men hit, women cry.

The Weekly’s editors wanted a story on anger management. Who to write it? How about that guy who interviewed Motley Crue and listens to Coroner? The one who wrote about film violence being good for you, and about the time he smashed that newspaper machine with a tire iron? The one who fantasized in print about burying a deliveryman in his carrot patch and throwing the Dodgers‘ owner from the top deck? The one who pounds his desk and walks around with his brows knit like Richard Speck?

Okay, sure. One sunny day, I bounced through the metal detector of the Hollywood Municipal Court, where, I’d been told upon calling, I could get a list of group anger-management programs approved by the L.A. County Probation Department. The young woman behind the counter handed me a blue sheet with well over 100 addresses and phone numbers on it. The listings were native-language-specific; some were even described as ”gay & lesbian sensitive.“

”But this says batterers‘ programs,“ I said.

”Same thing,“ she shrugged.

That’s when I learned about the gray areas in counseling terminology. Nobody likes to be labeled a spouse batterer, and telling your friends you‘re attending what’s now usually called ”domestic-violence counseling“ isn‘t much better. So if you let it drop that you’ve been sentenced to anger management, all but the cruelest will let the euphemism slide. You‘re going to be learning many of the same tactics anyway, whether the beltee was your wife or a drunk in a bar. And the connection between fury and domestic strife is essential. Lest we forget: Anger tends to fall on those closest to us, whether or not they’re the cause of it.

At first, I thought I‘d do what a reporter usually does -- check out the situation and write about it ”objectively.“ But the counselors I talked to reported back that their students, for obvious reasons, didn’t want an outsider hovering over them with a note pad. When I told my editor this, she looked at me as if I might need a white cane.

”Why don‘t you just enroll?“ she said.

What? Was she suggesting that I had an anger problem that might benefit from treatment? Then I thought about it: my wife cringing in the passenger’s seat as I excoriated miscreant drivers; my daughter mimicking my language when I raged about the ”idiots“ delaying my paint job; the periodic hurled object and overturned table. Though none of these incidents constituted battery, I had to admit they pointed to chronic anger, with enormous potential for getting my ass dented. This was what the angels call a fortuitous opportunity.

I sneaked up the stairs of a blue-list domestic batterers‘ counseling center in a slapdash office building near my home. Squirming, I told the director I wanted some tools to manage my rage. He said I probably needed a shrink; nevertheless, he allowed that he occasionally got volunteers such as myself. He would let me try the weekly two-hour group sessions three or four times, as I asked, and see if it clicked.

I guess it clicked: I stayed for five months. Tommy Lee only did 12 hours; his subsequent assault on wife Pamela Anderson Lee and jail term suggest he might wish he’d dragged it out a bit.

Before admitting me, the director warned that I would be exposed to some rough characters -- most of them had, after all, been convicted of inflicting bodily harm. So as I settled into my a first session and heard the culprits talk, I couldn‘t help grinning.

 

”What a great bunch of guys!“ I thought. ”Where’s the beer?“

See, these were hardly scarred lifers. There tended to be about 10 men in stiff chairs around the tiny room, one departing the group every few weeks to be replaced by another as they fulfilled court-mandated sentences, which were usually 52 weekly sessions that followed days or months in jail. Their occupations ranged from small-business owners to wage slaves to Ph.D. professionals. They were young, old and in the middle. They were Latino or white or African-American or Asian or European or whatever, a complete mix. Not one was a repeat offender, though it happens. Rarely had one drawn blood. In fact, some were there for no more than yelling. Often, the party who‘d been struck, yelled at or terrorized was not the one who called the police. I was just lucky -- even though I’d never hit a family member (or anyone else), a few public incidents in my past suggested that my enrollment in a similar program could easily have been part of a sentence. When I told the guys that I was attending as a precaution, they frequently said they wished they‘d done the same.

New members quickly relaxed into the organized but casual atmosphere established by our group leader, who is working on a masters in marriage and family therapy. As the room filled each Tuesday evening before class, the gang would hang out like students on library steps, talking about sports and movies. Bitch-slapping techniques rarely entered the discussion.

Our leader had a theme for each meeting -- verbal abuse, fair fighting, anger, etc. -- and would draw us in with questions.

”What precipitates a violent confrontation?“ he asked once.

”Marriage,“ one guy offered.

”What’s an example of the kind of thing you don‘t say in an argument with your partner?“

”’Your mother‘s a whore. No? Whassamatta, she retired?’“

Irresistible opportunities for comedy aside, the men took the classes seriously, and nearly all acted as if they were trying to learn something.

They might well try, because their dance with the justice system had tied their shoelaces together pretty tight. Once you‘re convicted of spousal battery (the latter can entail as little as scaring somebody), you have a criminal record, which participation in a program can often expunge or diminish. A conviction means that carrying a pocket knife or getting stopped for drunk driving can be enough to violate your probation and bounce you back to jail. In cases where there’s a restraining order, meeting with your ex -- even if it‘s her idea -- can have the same result. If you’re a businessman, your rap sheet will make it difficult to get or extend a license, as a restaurant owner among our number found out when he applied to serve liquor. If you‘re a professional, it will significantly reduce your options.

One man in my class, a mild-mannered physician who agreed to have his story told here, was transformed into a felon when he left numerous messages on the answering machine of a former girlfriend -- and one of the messages, because of a language barrier (he’s from Eastern Europe), was interpreted by the court as a death threat. Fired from his position, he quickly found that he couldn‘t get work as a doctor or nurse anywhere.

If the offender has kids, and their mother doesn’t want him to see them, it may be a long time before he can. In the beginning at least, it won‘t matter what her contribution to the conflict was, or which partner is the more capable parent. Merely getting a family court to hear a man’s child-visitation request can take months. It will become an enforced case of ”I just called to say I love you.“ If anybody picks up the phone.

Another European in my group, a counselor in his own right whose attraction to herbal medicine and yoga makes him almost a cliche of pacificity, struck the mother of his child with a pillow and then slapped her, he said, after she carried on hours of verbal attack when he was prostrate in his sickbed. Absolutely, he admits, he shouldn‘t have hit her. But this single incident allowed the woman -- whose actions, as he describes them, indicate a radically unbalanced mind -- to take the child and move to another state. Red tape has prevented him from seeing his offspring for over a year, and the woman refuses to let the child talk or write to him.

This fellow liked the group counseling sessions, even returning now and then after his sentence was fulfilled. But few new enrollees in the program were initially grateful for the chance to avoid more jail time by learning a bunch of neat nonviolent tricks -- even though they all loathed the time they spent in the slammer. Many of them, like me, were new to perceiving themselves as having a problem, so they didn’t take to being ”cured.“ Since we all had experiences in common, the sessions sometimes resembled support groups, and regularly degenerated into frustrated rants. The men complained about O.J. poisoning the public mind. They complained about dick-lopper Lorena Bobbitt getting off light. They complained about the inequities of the system. They blamed the women.

 

If one believed the guys‘ sides of the stories -- and there had to be two very different sides -- some of the women had done some weird, weird shit. But our counselor was quick to break up the party with some perspective: Hadn’t each of us at some point been insensitive, harbored unrealistic expectations, gotten drunk, acted like an asshole, maybe even cheated? And anyway, who had ended up terrorized or bruised?

Oh. Yeah. Heads would hang at that point. There would be silence, and we would be a little readier to receive some wisdom.

The wisdom was pretty simple, obvious stuff, if you thought about it. But who had time to think about it, when the woman you loved had just . . .

Whoa, back up. In a crisis, the lack of time is one of the first difficulties. Within seconds, you have to recognize you‘re about to explode -- that crushed beer can in your hand might be a good indication. You have to figure out why you’re reacting so strongly. Are you really just afraid she‘s going to split on you? Maybe you should tell her you need to step out for a few minutes so you won’t do something stupid. You have to realize that blowing up is not going to serve anybody‘s best interests. You have to find calm ways of communicating your concerns and hearing hers. You have to wonder if she perceives you as the swell guy you think you are. You have to investigate why you’ve chosen to be with someone who‘s always pushing your buttons.

Things like that. Our counselor’s particular approach -- they differ widely -- concentrated on relationships, not just standards of behavior. And judging by the guys‘ responses, the drill seemed to work somewhat for most of them. The counselor said that it usually took an enrollee a few months even to acknowledge that an attitude change was needed, and to see a the class as anything but punishment. But with time and repetition, most of the men thought they’d benefited. Relationships reached accommodations; habits of conflict got short-circuited.

For myself, though my hearthside emotions weren‘t the volatile part of my personality, conditions improved. I seemed happier to my wife because of my elevated boiling point, which in turn made her feel more comfortable. And in situations where I was more inclined to breathe fire -- the road, the office -- the air cooled quite a bit. I hope it stays that way.

My individual anger-management process came down to a couple of basic exercises. One was reminding myself not to demand respect; once I resigned myself (with great difficulty) to the reality that vast numbers of those so-called humans out there valued me at the level of used tissue, it got easier to suffer the bullshit. Screw ’em. Another tack was asking one bonehead question 100 times a day: What am I getting so churned up about? I kept recalling an old personal experience that seemed significant, which went like this:

I hate self-centered, reckless driving -- mostly, I now think, because I never know what‘s going on in the other person’s mind, and automobile encapsulation prevents communication with him, so I make him the demon of all my frustrations and fears. And, of course, because he‘s a fuckhead. Anyway, I’m driving along, and this woman‘s car zips from behind, narrowly missing me. She’s weaving in and out of dense traffic on a two-lane street, and I‘m expecting blood on the pavement any second. I actually speed up myself, start chasing her, just so I can get close enough to flip her the finger. As I’m closing in, she makes a squealing left across oncoming traffic, forcing a line of cars into a panic brake. And then I see there‘s someone else in her car: a kid. And I spot her destination: the emergency-room driveway of a hospital.

Sometimes, there’s an excuse.

Lord no, I don‘t feel I’m entirely saved. It‘s still there. Though the anger-management methodology emphasizes that the emotion is not always bad in itself, that if not expressed appropriately (through calm assertiveness) it will be expressed inappropriately (through fists and saucepans), the situation is not that simple. Possibly, you can resort to reason and psychological ”me-language“ techniques with your boss or wife. (”I’m hearing that you think I‘m a loud, drunken, lazy, slovenly, inconsiderate, genealogically indeterminate, sexually inadequate creep. Is that right?“) But how do you deal with the computer-virus saboteur, the tax man, the Deity? A letter to the editor just won’t cut it. When you start to think about the Injustice of It All, you may even begin to feel the slightest tingle of sympathy for Teddy Kaczynski or Osama bin Laden.

 

So a substantial portion of anger management amounts to a single word that nobody likes to use: repression. And repression is rolling the dice, because it can build up to that old ”inappropriate expression“ we were talking about. You can analyze your anger, sublimate it, head it off at the pass, understand the negative consequences of letting it erupt. With constant vigilance, you can control it, reduce it. But you can‘t make it go away.

One night early in the training, I had a dream. In it, my wife and I were sitting in a nice seaside restaurant, drinking red wine, when a waiter put some white wine, which neither of us drinks, in front of us. ”The Master recommends this,“ said the waiter. I was diplomatic: ”If the Master recommends it, it must be good.“ Suddenly I found myself seized by the collar and hurled out the door. I looked up to find a giant jester standing over me. ”You have disrespected the Master,“ he said. ”Apologize for your sarcasm.“ Then I spent a long time holding the jester’s hand, quietly pleading to be told how I‘d erred. When I asked a friend to explain the dream, he said, ”Great. Even in your dreams, you’re managing your anger.“

Repression, self-imposed. I was frustrated by it, but less so than were most of the other guys in my group, whose repression came from outside. With instant imprisonment hanging over their heads if they strayed, they felt bound and gagged, restrained from the expressive birthright to which millennia of history entitled them -- not to lash out, which they all regretted, but simply to scream, when they needed to, ”This sucks!“ Forget the wrath of Achilles; they weren‘t even allowed the fit of Fudd. Even I, with no strikes against me and positive reinforcement all around, felt deadened. It might be a coincidence, but toward the end of my attendance my stomach started hurting and I began to grind my teeth.

Oh, well. You win some and lose some, right? Not only are the gritting, dyspepsia and palpitations you get from repression probably less severe than the ones you get from venting anger, but they won’t land you in the Glass Tower. And overall, being on guard has made people like me more. I like it when I‘m liked.

Just one thing. While I know there’s a need for control, and I‘m behind it in spite of all my excuses, I need to apply it judiciously, differentiate between irrational and rational anger, and find ways to respond when I need to. I don’t think the Gandhi method will work for me. Bad as world conditions are, I wonder how much worse they‘d be if Patrick Henry, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara or Malcolm X never lost their cool. There’s a difference between a pussycat and a doormat.

I‘ve been writing about anger here mostly as if it were a simple stimulus-response affair. Like any emotion, though, it has a lot of personal, even genetic, aspects. Not so long ago, anger showed me another place where it lives.

Just as I was beginning the batterers’ program, my father died. We weren‘t close; I’d only begun to know him in the last couple of years, after my sainted mother‘s death. Accepting that he’d remain a stranger forever was bad enough. Then there was the funeral.

I thought I would say some words to the assembled few. About his sense of humor. About the intelligence behind his silence. About the way he could sing an Irish ballad. About all he sacrificed for his children.

I figured I could manage it. But when I started, I kept breaking down. I could hardly get through a sentence because of the sobs.

”Where did this come from?“ I wondered as I tried to compose myself. I looked down at the urn. In it were the ashes of a Navy man who‘d started out happily roaming the seven seas, and in his early 30s found himself entangled in the rigging of a wife and three kids he rarely talked to. Who constantly groused about the corporate desk job he’d had to take. Who muttered about the ”idiots“ on the road and in the legislature. Who drank himself to an early death he must have welcomed. Who nearly killed me one time.

 

And whom, apparently, I loved.

He‘s not gone.


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