Here’s my father, in a nutshell (which is probably where he belongs) –
If you don’t know him, he looks pretty intimidating.
If you’re an acquaintance, he’s the best guy in the world.
If you know him well, you have to admit he’s a bit of an ass.
If you’re family, he’s a selfish, hateful tyrant.
If you live with a tyrant, you learn how to negotiate that tyrant. My siblings and I were quite young when we figured this out.
First, you have to realize that his anger is illogical and unpredictable. Don’t try to make sense of it. It’s all about him. You could do the same thing 20 days in a row with no trouble, but on day 21 it might be a capital crime. He’ll start yelling, and you just listen. Under no circumstances should you attempt to defend yourself.
At some point he will ask you why you did something or other. This is a trap. If you attempt any explanation you will only prolong the yelling. Instead, adopt your most pathetic expression and say the words, “I don’t know”. He will yell at you for not knowing, but trust me on this… “I don’t know” is the quickest route to the end, which is your goal.
Be alert for a change in the volume and tempo of his rant. When he begins to run out of steam, this is your cue to start crying. Do not cry while he is still in a full rage. This will cause him to offer to “give you something to cry about”, and it will prolong the episode. When the time is right, begin to cry. Use any device you need at this point. Try thinking of your last hamster that died, or that cute boy who never pays attention to you in class. Providing he has worn himself out a little by yelling, the tears will cause him to feel some guilt. He is a tyrant, but even his cruelty has boundaries, and he can only scream at a crying kid for so long before he folds.
By the time I reached my teen years we had all been working this routine as long as I could remember. We had it down to a science. But one day… and I can’t explain why… righteous rebellion, maybe… one day I decided that I wasn’t going to play the game. He yelled, I defended myself. He yelled more, I stood up straighter. The time came to cry, and my eyes remained dry. He yelled and screamed for so long that I think the rest of the family got bored. And finally he ran out of things to say. I was hoping he would just wander off at this point, but instead he began what I like to call The Litany of Insults.
He started with something simple, like “You’re selfish!”. I was getting bored myself at this point, so I echoed what he said, “I’m selfish”. Then the next… “You’re ungrateful!”… “I’m ungrateful”… and down the line we went. He called me every name he could think of, some more profane than others, and each time I followed up with the response. It went on, and on, and on, and to his credit, I don’t think he ever repeated a single one. And then finally it happened… my father… master of insults… virtuoso of profanity… had run out of things to call me. There was a pause, and then, from the dimmest recesses of his memory, he found it… one last insult. “You’re a ne’er-do-well”.
According to the routine we had established in this conversation, my response should have been, “I’m a ne’er-do-well”. But I didn’t say, “I’m a ne’er-do-well”. Instead I stood there, biting my lower lip, and focusing all the effort I could summon into keeping the corners of my mouth from rising. In all of our practice at being yelled at, no one had ever attempted laughing at him, but instinctively I knew this would be a bad, bad move. We stood there for a minute or two, and finally he walked off one way and I went the other way. I ran into my room, buried my face in my pillow to muffle the sound, and laughed like I had never laughed before.
To this day I still occasionally get called a ne’er-do-well by someone in my family (never my father) and it never fails to cause laughter all around. And you can be sure I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve been called every name in the book!