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Chill Dad: How My Father Taught Me to Be Laid-Back

Over the last 33 years, my dad has taught me a lot. Whether it’s how to jumpstart a car (I killed the family minivan’s battery while parked with my girlfriend in the woods) or the finer points of IRA rollovers (that was, um, a couple of months ago), he approaches the lesson with good cheer and a wealth of knowledge, neither of which is likely to be exhausted. But we know that parents also teach by example, and one way I hope to live up to my father is in being chill.

“I think it’s true about me,” said Ken Klee, my dad, when I asked if he sees himself as a guy who keeps his cool. “And there are some life lessons there. Mostly, it’s for good, and maybe there’s a downside, too.” He sees a few of these traits in me, he added, which of course is not so strange. The difference, if I could name one, is that I had to work at it. I remember being a bit of a high-strung, type-A kid, prone to the occasional meltdown, and in middle school I developed a weird bald spot from stress. I had to train myself to relax. Dad, meanwhile, has always been inclined, in his words, “to stand back and be observational, think things through before I commit myself or take a position. That helped me be a writer [Ken worked for many years as a journalist] and talk to lots of different kinds of people. In some ways, I have an ability to listen and be patient with people and find them interesting, and to me that’s a related characteristic.”

He recalled an episode from his own youth that led to “a moment of self-recognition.” Working a series of construction jobs to put himself through college, he joined a crew that was pouring concrete for a parking garage in Towson, Maryland, near his hometown, Baltimore. “This parade of concrete trucks would arrive, and they’d pour their concrete into a pump” that led to a “huge hose” running up the side of the structure to the higher floors. “There was a whole gang of us, 15 guys, that’s how many it took to move the hose around. The guy who hired me for this job came up to me and said, I want you to be lead man on this hose. I’m thinking, ‘Really?’ He goes, You’re the calmest guy. It’s gotta be you. It’s an intense situation, loud machines, men rushing around — I guess I am calmer than some people, and that can definitely be an advantage.”

That calm would later extend to family life. Looking back over our relationship, I told him, even when he was (justifiably!) mad at me, I never felt he was unhinged or overreacting. “What about when I kicked you out of the car?” he asked with a laugh, referring to an episode in which I made a smart-ass remark and had to walk a couple miles home from the next town over. I countered that this was so memorable because it was the exception, not the rule. “It wasn’t as steep an escalation as it might have been in some father-son relationships,” dad agreed. “I think part of it was, I enjoyed you [and your siblings] so much. Mom and I had a few anguished moments with all of you. Afterward, sometimes, you’d be in bed, and we’d just be laughing about it. We always had a sense of fun and optimism about it. You kids were really easy.”

He’d already anticipated my next question, on the importance of humor: Ken and I share a tendency to offer a joke at tense moments, which doesn’t necessarily help. But does it generally? “It can,” dad said, “and part of that is that we’re always trying to impress each other, too. And you weren’t that old before you figured out how to relate on that level.” I brought up another piece of family lore, and he laughed again, telling me, “I love that story, you have to use it. Even though you get the best line.” What happened was, my dad came into a TV room while I was vegging out there, and he noticed that the wonky door was more broken than ever. He was fed up. “This damn door wouldn’t be like this if you kids weren’t always opening and closing it!” he shouted. To which I could only reply: “Dad, it’s a door.” He totally cracked up on the spot.

The irksome door is especially interesting in light of my own rage trigger: inanimate objects. I don’t explode in people’s faces or get road rage, but if I break the toilet and can’t get it working again, I’ll definitely see red. I wondered if dad had experienced anything similar. “If I’m trying to fix the toilet, and I broke it, I do get progressively more frustrated,” he said, “but I get more obsessed with fixing it.” Then there are the workplace annoyances. “I can think of a couple of times when I got mad to good effect, and a time or two I wished I’d gotten mad,” Ken said. “Once I was frustrated with my editor, who didn’t like the story we’d turned in. He’d been present for the main interview; the problem was, there wasn’t really a story there. But he hadn’t said anything. He was under pressure, too, and taking it out on me. So I blew up at him. And that was actually beneficial. It put our relationship on a very different level for the next several years.”

As for an example of when a dose of anger could have helped? “With your Little League coach, Stanley, one of the biggest jerks in the world. I felt sort of guilty because I wasn’t coaching myself, but he wasn’t playing you, and finally it was mom who marched in there and got in his face. And I thought, ‘That’s my job! I should have done that!’” In Stanley’s defense, I was a lousy ballplayer, but I take the point as to the danger of holding back too often. My own fear is that by giving vent to a rising temper, it may get away from you, out of your control. “And you might lose [the argument],” dad continued. “If you’re the one who stays cooler, you might do better. It’s also the fear of making a fool of yourself…I get l’esprit de l’escalier, realizing afterward what I should have said. What a perfect quip, I wish I’d said that! I’ve retained a whole lifetime of those.”

Given our similarities, does a talent for serenity run back another generation? “Grandpa was an interesting mix,” dad said. “Of course, he was a psychiatrist, he had that psychiatric distance, and he was like that 85 perfect of the time. The other 15, boy, did he have a temper. But what does it mean to say someone has a temper? I think it reflects conflicts you had in your early life, that you’re still mad about.” I told dad what a good sport he is when the rest of the family — typically ribbing one another anyway — decides to gang up on him. This, I said, is in marked contrast to his distaste for the Berenstain Bears books, a childhood favorite of mine, because they make Papa Bear out as the fool. “And I’m right!” dad reiterated. “But a father may be too scary, so you have to defuse him a bit.”

If there’s a concerted effort to remain unruffled as a dad, he said, buffoonery is a part of it: “Dads like to clown around, to be the goofy one, and maybe showing themselves to be harmless is a way of showing love and fitting in.” When he did get mad, he said, it was “about stupid things.” The “biggest fight” we had when I was a kid, he elaborated, was “at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Newark. You were maybe six, and you really wanted an inflatable airplane. They were like $9. I was really adamant that you weren’t gonna get one, and you were adamant, too. You started crying, and I ended up yelling at mom,” who had tiredly suggested it was probably easier for everyone to just buy the useless plastic junk.

And that brought us to the heart of our discussion. Why do we both, between long stretches of peacemaking and non-confrontation and civil debate, erupt over nothing? Can anyone be chill all the time? And to what extent is getting mad a choice? “I think in the culture now there are lots of opportunities to pump up your anger,” dad said. “People enjoy that. It’s another part of the evil genius of capitalism. Our system figures out how people are wired, and they tap into that. They like salted fats? Then someone will build an empire of salted fats. There are hormones, or whatever, released in anger. There are vast swaths of programming dedicated to that. But watching that isn’t ‘giving in’ to anger, it’s indulging it. There’s plenty to be angry about, but all things in moderation. You don’t want to abuse it or indulge it frivolously. You want to let it go at the right time. Does that make sense? If you disagree with me, I’m getting pissed off.”