My father used to tell me a lot of stories about his life. When I was a young, I believed them because he was my dad and I had no reason to suspect that they weren’t true. Like the one about how he was playing bass guitar with his band at some bar in Cheyenne during Frontier Days. According to him, mid-show none other than Johnny Cash stuck his head in, made eye contact with my dad on stage, gave him a thumbs-up, and then just left. I mean, who wouldn’t want to believe that the Man in Black personally signed off on their father’s bass-playing prowess?
As I got older, however, I started to question both the truthfulness of his stories, as well as the motivation for telling them. At this point, I honestly have no idea how much of what he told me actually happened or was just made up, but I find myself leaning more towards the latter on most of them. Some of this comes from the far-fetched nature of them, but my shaky relationship with him at the time of his passing has also affected how I remember him and who he was.
Despite all of this, I can still remember some stories he told me that shaped how I (at least partially) view other people in my life. The one that sticks out the most was one about my mother’s father. Apparently, my maternal grandmother and grandfather came to visit us when I was around eight years old. It was in January and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was approaching, and according to my father, my grandfather said that if Dr. King got his own holiday, then James Earl Ray should be given one, too. My father then threatened to throw my grandfather out of the house for saying something so offensive.
Why did my dad tell me this story? I already knew he did not have a great relationship with his father-in-law, as evidenced by the other story he told me about him. According to my father, during one of the first times he stayed over at my grandparents’ house, my grandfather busted into my dad’s room before the sun was up, demanding that my father get up and go mow the lawn.
So, I knew they didn’t get along, but why did my dad repeatedly tell the story about how my grandfather wanted a holiday for the man who assassinated Dr. King? Was it because he wanted to demonstrate how he, my father, was willing to stand up to racism and show me that such views would not be tolerated in his house? Maybe. But if this was the case, he probably needed to be more consistent with his own vocabulary if the lesson was going to stick with me. You see, my father very commonly combined words to describe people who weren’t white. Like “wet” and “back”, or “towel” and “head”, or “camel” and “jockey”, or “sand” and “nigger”.
Threatening to throw a racist out of your house doesn’t seem so noble when you, yourself, are racist.
Or was it to just tarnish my view of my grandfather? Again, maybe. He was more successful in this, though. I didn’t have much interaction with my mother’s side of the family when I was younger, mainly because my father decided that all holidays and vacations would be spent with his side. So I didn’t have a lot of information to shape my impression of this grandfather and to be honest, when I think of him, I picture a racist who demanded people help him with his lawn and garden.
Is that a fair assessment? I don’t know if I can answer that. Obviously, I don’t believe that he was perfect, but I also don’t believe he was entirely evil. He, like everyone, was/is somewhere in between. Does he get a pass for some of his views because he was the product of a different time? Or how about because he was supposedly discriminated against when trying to set up a business in Hawaii because he was white? Or are the good things he did cancelled out because he thought it was appropriate to joke about the murder of a civil rights champion?
What about my father? Am I being unfair remembering him for how he cashed in all of my and my brothers’ savings bonds to buy himself who knows what? Or how he took out credit cards in my older brother’s name and ruined his credit for years? Or how I had to pay his bail to get him out of jail for kicking my mother’s car? Or does he get a pass because he was bi-polar?
Or why not, what about Dr. King? Is all he did for the civil rights movement in this country negated because he allegedly plagiarized his doctoral dissertation and/or engaged in multiple extramarital affairs?
Again, I don’t know if I can answer these questions. But I’m going to keep writing about them anyway.
Most people are nuanced; I don’t think there are many out there who are just one thing. And obviously, the more interaction one has with another person, the more one is able to see those nuances. Yet, I think that we still tend to perceive others as being only a few things, and then we allow ourselves to fill in the rest based on how we feel about those few things.
This was evident during the somewhat recent controversies about what should be done with statues commemorating Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee. Talking heads everywhere have debated who General Lee was and what these statues really stand for. And depending where you come down on those issues, there are plenty waiting to ascribe many other attributes to who you are because of it. Or they’ll ask why if you feel this way about this one thing, why you haven’t taken a similar stand about anything and everything remotely related to it.
Seriously. can we stop doing this? “Well, if you oppose this statue because it commemorates a guy who you say fought for slavery, why aren’t you protesting statues of George Washington? He owned slaves.”
Because those statues of George Washington aren’t there to commemorate his owning of slaves. If someone asks you who George Washington was, are you really going to legitimately respond, “He was some guy who owned slaves”? No, you answer that he was a guy who “had wooden teeth, [and] chased Moby Dick.”
Sure, we could acknowledge the nuances of people. We could even acknowledge the nuances of those being commemorated through statues on the statues themselves, but then basically every plaque on them would be the same:
This guy was imperfect. Some people liked him, some didn’t. He did some good things, some bad things, but really, who are we to judge?
But we do judge. When someone is mentioned to you, you have an impression of who he or she is, based on the information you have or are willing to accept about the subject. So, you have that impression and you can just stick with it, even when conflicting information is presented. Or better yet, you can set out to find more things that confirm your impression, while ignoring the things that don’t.
In the seventh grade, there was a kid in my Language Arts class named Eddie. He was the class clown, making jokes and quips every chance he could. And I hated him. Our teacher, Ms. Reed (who I may or may not have had a crush on), could barely get through a portion of a lesson without Eddie saying something he thought was hilarious, punctuated by his braying laugh. He wasn’t funny; he was annoying and I constantly wanted to throw something at him.
Looking back on it, I’m pretty sure there was some underlying reason for his attention-seeking behavior. Maybe things at home weren’t great for Eddie and all he needed was someone to reach out to him. Instead, I just quietly despised him from across the room. It even got to the point that I instantly disliked anything that came out of his mouth. I wouldn’t even let myself to accept that maybe that one thing he just said was actually pretty clever. Nope. Eddie said it, so it was automatically not funny and annoying.
I have no idea where Eddie is now. I had no interaction with him after seventh grade, so in my mind, he’s still that annoying kid disrupting Ms. Reed’s class. But what if tomorrow I saw that he has an upcoming comedy special premiering on Netflix? I’d probably check it out, but likely with low expectations given how I didn’t see much raw talent all those years ago.
Or what if I saw him on the news because he broke into some empty offices and set a couple of fires that would ultimately cause around a million dollars’ worth of damage?
If this seems oddly specific, it’s because another guy I went to school with allegedly did this very thing. And I liked this guy. One time, he rode with me and my best friend to a football game and we passed a consignment store called “A Lot of Panache” and our alleged arsonist pronounced it “Pa-natchie”. Every time I hear the word now, I think of him and the amount of “pa-natchie” one must have to set office fires in the early morning hours.
Sure, it would be a leap going from class clown to arsonist, but I’d probably congratulate myself for being right about how he was bad news all this time.
Obviously, you don’t have to go far to find countless examples of confirmation bias, but sometimes new information comes to light that actually changes the way another person is viewed. This reminds me of an old joke that I’m sure existed long before I heard a variation of it told by Norm Macdonald, but I still think of it as his joke:
So, do one abhorrent thing (or even just be accused of it) and most people forget about everything else. For example, OJ Simpson is now known by many as the guy who got away with murdering his ex-wife, and not so much the Hall of Fame running back, the Hertz spokesman, nor the guy who played Nordberg from the Naked Gun movies. Jared Fogle is a guy caught with child pornography and who paid to have sex with minors, not the guy who inspired people to lose weight by eating at Subway. You bring up Bill Cosby today and you’re likely talking about the guy who has been accused of drugging and raping more than 50 women, not the guy behind the top Nielsen-rated sitcom for five straight seasons in the ‘80s. And let’s not forget about Adolf Hitler; people always bring up how he was responsible for the deaths of millions during the Holocaust, but how often is he celebrated for being the guy who killed Hitler?
Huge things like murder or rape or genocide can get people to re-evaluate how they view others, but I know there are people who will defend any of the people I just mentioned. For reasons legal or emotional or anecdotal, there will be always be those who will maintain that people couldn’t possibly be what others are saying they are, even despite evidence to the contrary.
Maybe a year after my father died, my brothers and I were going through some old things of his and came across a video from a previous Christmas. My father had filmed us and provided narration while we opened our gifts. Watching that video, I was reminded that he could be really funny. I had completely forgotten about that aspect of him. We used to crack each other up, but I could only see him as the person he was at the end of our relationship and his death.
It’s not like watching that old Christmas video was a turning point for me, however. I still have a difficult time remembering the good times with him. In fact, every couple of months or so, I have dreams that he’s still alive, but still doing all of the things that infuriated me in his last years. And I wake up angry at him all over again. My older brother and mother have told me that they have had similar dreams. For years, however, my younger brother didn’t have that level of animosity towards our father. He would sing his praises to the point that I really felt he was talking about a person I never knew.
I guess that’s what this whole essay is about. My father was who he was, but my impression of who that was may completely differ from other people who knew him. I know my view of him should not supersede anyone else’s, but I also know that others’ impressions of him probably won’t change mine. The thing is, I don’t know if I can articulate how I feel about my dad..
I can definitely tell you how I feel about other people, though. For instance, I can tell you all about my feelings for certain people who I encounter during my daily commute. I get to drive among those who: are camped out in the far left going slower than every other car, are swerving in and out of their lane because they are looking at their phone, are not using the on-ramp to get up to highway speeds, and worst of all, after I let them merge over into my lane in stop-and-go traffic, never give the courtesy wave.
Whenever I encounter one of these monsters, I instantly convince myself that I know who they are. They are selfish. They are inconsiderate. They are dangerous.to others. And not just in that one instance behind the wheel; I tell myself that they must be all of these things and more in every aspect of their respective lives. Very rarely do I allow myself to believe that it was a momentary mistake or that there might be a legitimate reason for what they are doing. And I certainly never linger over the things I’ve certainly done on the road that have likely enraged other drivers.
Nope, when it comes to these horrible drivers, people who I will likely never encounter again, and who, for the most part, only cause a blip of an inconvenience on me and my life, I can tell you exactly who I think they are. But my dad? A man who had an effect on basically every aspect of me, and who continues to affect me even now, more than sixteen years since he died? Well with him, it’s complicated because I knew him.