When I was young I used to love it when dad took us out for something to eat. It was a real treat until something happened that would set him off.
As there is no longer any point in my trying to hide my age from you I’m happy to reveal that one of my favourite places to go was Wimpy.
Wimpy was an amazing place. Long before McDonald’s appeared, it was a version of an American diner and the only place you could get real burgers and hotdogs. The food used to get served on stainless steel plates. When we went there, which was only for birthdays or special treats, it was like being transported to a different world. But…
My dad couldn’t stand the sound of the metal knife and fork scraping on the metal plate. It would set his nerves on edge. Now, I do get that because the sound of finger nails scraping down a blackboard did the same to me (the sound of nails scraping down an interactive white board doesn’t have the same effect). So dad would want to speak to one of the servers or the manager to get his plate changed. And of course that was not always the easiest of things to achieve in a joint known for its stainless steel plates.
I can still feel the embarrassment rising in my cheeks as he got into his negotiations. As I got older and dad got better jobs, we started to go out to better places, where they didn’t use stainless steel plates but there always seemed to be something else wrong. Something that a poor waitress or the manager had to be informed about.
We (the family) got used to this pattern and to some extent immune but there was always a residual feeling of discontent that left with us when we’d finished our meal.
When we tried to explain to him that his complaining was spoiling our enjoyment he would override us with his view that it was his duty to explain the shortcomings of the restaurant to the manager; or they would never know that they were falling short of the standards (he) expected.
Fast forward 40 years and now he is grandfather to my two kids, who are now old enough to start exhibiting some choice over what they do with their time. And they are starting to say they don’t want to go out with grandad because they get embarrassed by his moaning all the time. Their mum supports them in this because she also feels the same way.
For the first time I find myself actually thinking about the behaviour of my dad and how it had affected both his enjoyment of life and those in his life. I thought back to the trepidation we would feel before we went anywhere; wondering what he would find to complain about.
By now he was on his own, mum had passed, the kids were adamant that they didn’t want to go out with him; so it was only me and my brothers who took the time to take him out. And after yet another complaint, about the food he’d received, a question came to me that I had to put to him in that moment.
“Why was he coming out to eat? Was it to enjoy the company of the people he was with or was it purely about the food and service he received and the companionship didn’t matter?”
As we discussed this the veil started to lift and he stopped complaining when he and I went out together. But a new behaviour started to emerge that was to reveal to me much more than I would realise at the time.
Dad only wanted to go to cheap places to eat. Gone was the gourmet dining and the gastro-pubs and he’d finally revealed what had been driving him for all those years.
His level of expectation when he went to expensive places was so high that it was almost impossible for him to be satisfied. And the gap between his expectation and the actual experience created such a tension inside him he couldn’t control it.
Now my dad was an accountant. He had been trained to make decisions based on facts and figures not on the emotion of the moment. A very necessary approach when running a business but something he was singularly unable to do when it came to his private life.
All of the emotional control he exhibited at work went out of the window when he came home; and the consequences for him and everyone in his life were huge.
Now in case you’re wondering; I am not sitting in judgement of him. Although you don’t have to go back that many years and I would have been. Because the truth is I had become like him and I didn’t know it.
Your emotions are amazing things. They are what makes life worth living or makes it a living hell and here’s the thing: the choice of which it is, is yours.
So when it comes to who runs things where you are; who is it? You or your emotions?