Fathers Can Be a Pain in the Ass

I’m going to talk a little bit about fathers. Mothers are important too, but I’m a guy and I can talk about mothers another day. Because it’s a touchy subject, I’m going to begin with a Men in Black (MIB) joke, like I always do when I’m being defensive. There’s this MIB 3 scene in which Agent K and Agent J have this exchange:

Agent K: I used to play a game with my dad, what would you have for your last meal. You could do worse than this (explanation for this: they’re sitting in a restaurant and an eyeball in Agent K’s soup swivels around and stares at him).

Agent J: Oh, okay, I used to play a game with my dad called catch. Except I would throw the ball and it would just hit the wall, cause—he wasn’t there.

Agent K: Don’t bad mouth your old man.

Agent J: I’m not bad mouthing him, I just didn’t really know him.

Agent K: That’s not right.

Agent J: You’re damn right, it’s not right. A little boy needs a father.

On one level, this scene is just another way of showing the father/son, teacher/student, mentor/mentee relationship Agents K and J had with each other. By extension, their interaction says something about what happens in similar real-life relationships—in the shallow, cliché ways that movies always do.

I sometimes think about the relationship I had with learners when I was a teaching consultation-liaison (C-L) psychiatry. Often, I say to myself that I never had a mentor and I was never a mentor.

That’s not true. Although I never had a mentor who was formally assigned to me, there was more than one faculty member in the psychiatry department with whom I had an informal mentor/mentee relationship. And I was an informal mentor to at least a few trainees.

However, I was middle-aged by the time I entered medical school, which probably set the stage for awkward relationships with my fellow students and some teachers, partly because I was either the same age as or older than them.

That doesn’t mean I was wiser than them. It just means that I was conflicted about them. Later, in residency, I learned about transference and countertransference. In fact, I focused on the psychodynamic as well as the medical issues in teaching trainees. In the first C-L manual I wrote (the forerunner to the book I and my co-editor published later), I devoted a large section to psychodynamic factors relevant to doctor-patient relationships.

So, if you’re wondering when I’m going to start bad-mouthing my old man, you can stop wondering. I’m not going there. He wasn’t a hero, like Agent J’s father was (you need to see the movie to get this angle).

My dad was funny. I don’t think I got my own sense of humor from him, but it makes sense why I would have one—and just because “he wasn’t there” doesn’t explain everything. It never does.

Fathers can be a pain in the ass, not just because of dad jokes. Fathers can be a pain in the brain, too. Ask anybody who was a latchkey kid; I was one of those. We really don’t belong to any specific generation.

We also can’t just up and time travel like Agent J and find out about the father we never really knew. Mostly, it’s just bits and pieces, like a matchbook with a name and address from somebody on your paper route. The path it can lead to doesn’t always mean you find out that “Your daddy was a hero,” like a young Agent K tells young James (who becomes Agent J in the future) after he neuralyzes him to shield him from the hard truth about his father.

You’ll have to watch the movie to get that one.

My Father

Sometimes I think about my father, who died about 17 years ago. He was known in his neighborhood as “Johnny Hots.” He moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin when he was in high school. He enlisted in the Navy when he was in the 11th grade and served his country during World War II.

His obituary also says he was happiest when he kept busy. After he retired he helped with maintenance of the apartment building where he lived during his last years. He liked working crossword puzzles. He also had a pretty good sense of humor and liked to laugh.

I like working crosswords. I like to clown around and laugh. And I like to keep busy. I was never in the military although I tried to enlist. That didn’t work out.

He talked about the great time he had in Milwaukee. He said it was the best time of his life. My wife and I vacationed there a few years ago. It was fun. One of the residents interviewed for a C-L Psychiatry fellowship at Medical College of Wisconsin recently. She was wondering about places to site-see so I made a little video about it for her.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

He was a talented carpenter and built our kitchen cabinets. I remember struggling a little in Shop Class to make a wooden dice pencil holder. Mr. Rodomeyer, a man built like a bull, called my class the biggest bunch of characters he’d ever seen.

That was back in the days when the boys went to Shop Class and the girls went to Home Economics (Home Ec). Maybe that’s one of the reasons I don’t do so well in the kitchen. Anyway, that’s what I blame it on.

However, my father was pretty handy in the kitchen and could cook up a tasty barbecued anything.

He walked everywhere and he walked more slowly as he got older. I have always walked pretty fast. I think I picked up that habit when I was a young man working for land surveyors. When I walk around the hospital and up and down the stairs, the trainees tend to lag behind me.

I didn’t see much of my father while I was growing up. We have a few things in common. I am thankful for our differences.

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