Southern Legitimacy Statement:
As a boy raised in Alabama, I was raised to believe that all people were equal, that George Wallace was a lunatic, that Alabama football should always best Auburn football, and that my Daddy didn’t have to go to church with the rest of us (turns out, he was Jewish). Living and teaching in South Carolina for the past thirty years, I try to influence my students regarding issues of race, class, and the need for an appreciation of literature and film. Such literature runs the spectrum from Faulkner to the comic book, Southern Bastards. I teach Creative Nonfiction, Southern Jewish Literature, and Southern Film. I value The Bitter Southerner, the Drive-by truckers, and the Dead Mule. Plus, I love bourbon, particularly 4 Roses, Faulkner’s favorite brand.
Fit-Pitching in the Age of Trump
“No, No. I hate that shirt. I hate it.”
My mother had taken me to Belk to shop for my birthday. Throughout my elementary school days, she wanted to dress me as if I were a model boy, as if, in my matching pants, shirt, and socks outfits, I could be a Kennedy. She didn’t understand when I rebelled during the blue jean mania that came during my high school days, the late sixties and early seventies, even though back when I started first grade, she dressed me in the stiffest Farah jeans possible every day. But always with a “cute” shirt to match.
For my birthday this past year, she sent me a powder blue seersucker Polo shirt, the rider/pony a bright red. I wear it on special occasions, purely out of guilt, because of last year, the Belk year, the year when I “pitched a fit.”
It surely can’t be pleasant to watch your child pitch a fit in a department store in the middle of an otherwise pleasant outing taken solely to buy him his birthday present.
His 59th birthday present.
I really didn’t want that Columbia brand shirt she wanted to buy me, the one with air vents that make men look like they’re wearing a sail.
I’m in reasonably good shape for a man my age, though I do have the slightly protruding stomach found on one who was never an athlete and who loves southern food too much.
My daughter, Layla, had accompanied my mother and me, and during my tantrum, she looked on in disbelief. Though I apologized to both later, Layla still admonished me: “Ok, you really hated that shirt, I get it. But Granma didn’t deserve that.”
“You’re right sweetie.”
I didn’t know what made me feel worse: making my mother ashamed of her taste or being reprimanded by my twenty-one year-old daughter. I made it up to Layla the following year by letting her take me shopping and select outfits that she thought flattered her now sixty-year old father.
I made it up to my mother by, as I said, first apologizing—“I’m sorry Mom. I didn’t mean to get so angry, but I truly didn’t want you to spend your money on that shirt”–and then by suffering in silence as she told the story about a day when I was five, a day when she took me to Highland Bakery to buy me baseball cards.
“You should have seen him, Layla. I hadn’t pulled out of the parking space good, when he started screaming, threw all those cards on the floor of the car, and shouted ‘Doubles! They’re all doubles!’ He cried all the way home too, and I had spent a whole quarter on him that day. He pitched the biggest fit I ever saw!”
Quarters in 1963 were worth twenty-five cents.
Fit-pitching in 2016, however, is priceless.
Pitching fits within family, I think, is a more common occurrence than most of us will admit. Mainly we can forgive our family. Mainly, we know that the fit pitchers don’t mean it. Mainly we act this way when we haven’t had our naps or are really hungry. I have even seen grown men on fall weekends pitch the biggest fits of all when their running back fumbles or defensive back fails to cover the right receiver.
What I am not used to, however, is when an adult woman pitches a fit in front of me and to others about me. A woman I barely know whom I can’t name or truly explain because, in so many words, her next fit might take an entire court to untangle.
I thought of these varied scenes just this week when a colleague used that expression, “I heard she pitched a real fit,” to describe the woman in question. The fit she pitched was on the phone to a busy worker, about me,
“In all my years of doing…[this] work, I’ve never had a…[generic executive] get irate because we ran a positive review of a…[product]. This was a new one on me. I got an earful—and then some. It was pretty surreal.”
I don’t know what surreal words he heard, but in the fit I experienced both on the phone and through emails from this woman, I heard the following names attached to mine: “pissant,” “fucker,” “liar,” “douche-bag,” “snide,” “egotistical,” and my favorite, “shit-ass.”
I would confess here to what I did, but I don’t know what I did. The messages appeared like the proverbial storm at sea, out of nowhere, only with storms, there are causes: pressure, depressions, perfect wind conditions.
Actually, that’s the story of humans too. For when you’re bi-polar, when you drink on top of that, you sometimes think everyone is out to get you. You don’t trust people you once helped and who helped you. The pressure gets to you and amps up to gale force. Back in 2011, I watched a massive tornado pass my mother’s house in Bessemer, Alabama. She and I survived and her house wasn’t touched. Two blocks away, another house was torn from the ground.
Sometimes you’re in the way; sometimes you’re not.
After this woman’s fit, torn from my ground, I checked with others who knew her, worked with her, and discovered the reality of her bi-polarism, her alcohol abuse. “It’s so sad,” one of them said, “for she truly wants to make a difference in her field.”
Then, I checked with my wife, who is a psychotherapist and has weathered me, for thirty-two years: “You did nothing wrong. You did nothing to her.”
This morning I looked for the origin of the idiom, “pitching a fit.” Word-ancestry.livejournal.com, believes it to have started as far back as the 1200’s, back when mental illness would have meant things like consorting with demons or being possessed. The fate of such sufferers is more horrible than I can imagine.
Today, though, most “normal” fits are seen as momentary losses of control: something to laugh at after a grown man has thrown his clipboard or headphones to the ground on national TV; something to gawk at when during a presidential debate one candidate says to the other “You’re a puppet,” and the other, in true pitch-a-fit form, yells back “You’re a puppet.”
Or something to lose several nights’ sleep over after pretending to rip a shirt to shreds in a prominent chain store. Though crazy in their own way, we can usually see the cause/effect of these spoiled tantrums.
When someone threatens us with a “gag order,” however; when someone says “You better call me unless either you or your dog has a lung hanging out;” when someone who has been absolutely vital to your realizing a significant professional accomplishment phones you in a crowded restaurant where you are celebrating with your mother and the rest of your family and tells you that you are “not the sort of person” she wants to be associated with any longer, hangs up on you, and then later blows your phone up with obscene, threatening, and demeaning messages–well, you don’t apologize, of course, for why should you, but you do get thankful pretty fast for seersucker, inflated-sail, or any other shirt your mother gives you.
You see yourself as you truly are and head for home, taking your ball, or book, and protecting them for all they are worth. And then one day you look out your window. The skies are clear, and right beside you on the table, where’s it’s always been, is your pen.