I told a drawing class this morning that my goals as a professor are to teach as many concepts and techniques as possible, and to deliver the material in the most direct and easily digestible form available. I want them to succeed. I said that some students inexplicably believe that I’m trying to block their paths to success by making things difficult, by arbitrarily throwing up road blocks. I countered that by saying that my life is much too complicated at the moment to take the time and energy to come up with diabolical schemes. I’m 100 percent on their side. Really. I am.
But I’ve been told on a number of occasions that I’m considered to be a tough teacher who is very blunt. I think that I’m just the nicest guy around, very kind and diplomatic, but when I say that to my adult children they snort and roll their eyes. Their opinion is probably prejudiced by memories of a few times when I laid down the law when they were little. At odd moments I channeled my father’s parenting techniques and gave them high decibel orders while staring down at them with a Wrath-of-Godlike glare. They fail to recognize that I disciplined them purely out of loving concern, and never out of annoyance and impatience. My brother has reported that one of my “special looks” is like a slap in the face, but he must be mistaken. Sometimes folks confuse an expression of nearly violent concern as one of angry contempt. Go figure.
When I went to Quaker Meeting several years ago I noticed that some of my more vivid stories and colorful language made my listeners cringe and withdraw. I learned eventually through trial and error to avoid talking about traumatic childhood experiences, painful operations and current symptoms of undiagnosed diseases during coffee hour. It’s uncouth and jarring, apparently, to introduce such topics immediately after congregants have left behind the ineffable peace of meditative worship. Live and learn.
When I was a child my family sat around the dinner table and discussed Uncle Ralph’s bouts of alcoholism, Aunt Betty’s shotgun marriage as well as Grandpa Bob’s body odor and psoriasis. Tales of death, misery, misdeeds and moments of tragic miscalculation accompanied dessert and coffee. I grew up believing that folks discussed these matters frankly while in company, and that adding a few snide remarks as editorial commentary was also in good form. Who knew that other people avoided such topics and hid awkward moments in family history in repression closets filled to overflowing? I discovered these tactful people when I left home and Ohio, and it was as if I had crossed over into another dimension.
Now that I’ve seen the error of my ways I strive toward gentility, to an aristocratic sense of restraint and dignity. Lord Grantham in Downtown Abbey is my role model. Not his blood vomiting ruptured ulcer scene, of course, but the moments where he absorbs yet another blow to his standing and reputation with barely a murmur of protest.
I tell my painting students that painting is a process of making mistakes and learning how to fix them. My life has been a lot like that, but I live in hope that one day my nature will become less erratic and explosive and more docile and tranquil. I want to guide my ship through rough waters into a safe port.
But if that finally happens I may have to deal with one more problem: my wife’s expectations. She has become accustomed after 32 years of marriage to the vagaries in my mood and character, and any true sea change in my personality may cause her undue distress. She may have to go through a period of withdrawal not unlike an addict kicking meth.
I remember one morning several years ago when we sat down together at breakfast and I took pains to conceal my residual anger from an argument we had the night before. After ten minutes of polite conversation she put down her spoon and demanded, “What’s wrong?”
I said evenly, “I’m being a perfect gentleman.”
She answered, “I know you are. That’s how I can tell that something’s wrong!”