We love our buzzwords, we do, we do. We glom onto an expression or term and then we begin to apply it to virtually anything that might apply, no matter how tenuous the connection might be.
One such word is: Dysfunction, and its adjective, Dysfunctional. In certain ‘helping’ circles nobody is ever a drunk, a pervert, a druggie, a thug, or just a plain asshole. Everybody is dysfunctional.
I probably use the term too much myself, mainly because I used to be in one of those damn ‘helping’ circles, providing whatever skills I might have as an addictions counsellor. Not that I didn’t feel the work was important – it was and is – but it was just that in my mind a client I was dealing with was really a ‘crackhead asshole’ (by his behavior, at least), which seemed more realistic than, “Oh yes, Bob is dysfunctional to a degree.” Bob is dysfunctional in every respect, damnit. Bob does no functioning at all other than scoring and going back to the pipe.
Also, even though dysfunction is intended to be a ‘gentler’ term, in a way it’s harsher, because it tends to indict the so-described as being virtually valueless in all areas of his or her being. What dysfunctional tends to overlook are the virtues an otherwise screwed-up person might have. We all have our moments, after all. Or, at least some of us do. I’ve known long-time heroin addicts who are otherwise hellishly interesting people. We’ve all known obnoxious drunks, but we’ve also known some delightful and funny drunks, their alcoholism notwithstanding.
Dysfunction has a special disregard for charm.
I once knew a charming man who would definitely be described as dysfunctional. Seamus McCarthy was his name (no, it wasn’t his real name), and he was an Irish-American cabdriver. He propelled his hack around Miami as a day job, but I met him in Ireland.
Back in 1981 my first wife and I took a 10-day coach tour of Ireland. We were living in England at the time, and she thought such a tour would be a splendid idea. I thought a tour would be wonderful, but the ‘coach’ part left me cold. But, as it turned out, it was OK. That was because Seamus was on the tour.
Seamus was dysfunctional. Or, to be more precise, he was a drunk, alkie, sot, pisstank, boozer, and any one of dozens of descriptors you might want to utilize.
He was a single guy, former Great Lakes seaman who had a great love of Canadian beer, since he grew up in Buffalo, which is practically in Canada, and he was fun. A lot of fun. By 10 a.m. he would pull out his bottle of Jack Daniels and two paper cups, one of which he would pass back to me. I wasn’t used to tippling prior to lunch but, hell, I was on vacation. My wife was less than amused.
Eventually Seamus and I took to hanging out. We had a few things in common, and be it understood, he was a bright and well-informed guy, despite his ‘dysfunction.’ We toured the cathedral in Galway and he told me: “I had to do this because Galway is where my mother’s from and she’d be furious if I hadn’t gone. I won’t tell her I didn’t take Mass. I haven’t taken Mass in 20 years. She doesn’t know that.” See, dutiful, despite dysfunction.
Oh, there were other interesting people on the coach. There was the French father with the three gorgeous teenage daughters; the Scottish guy who had been smashed to ratshit in a road accident, but he and his wife were determined to make the best of it; a couple of loud Aussies; the elderly French academic lady with a passion for the writings of Hillaire Beloc; and the upper-class and very attractive middle-aged Englishwoman who touched the back of my hand and told me in the bar one evening, she well into her cups, that she was a pee fetishist, in one of those TMI moments. And so on, and so on.
All of that notwithstanding, Seamus was the guy who charmed me the most. I was there to have fun, and he was a great guy to have fun with.
We went to a pub in Galway one evening. There were four of us: Seamus, myself, my wife, and a German girl. It was great. It was a hole-in-the-wall operation with fine Guinness on tap, and a local band that came in with spoon player, fiddler, bodhran expert, and an accordionist. It was great. We all drank too much, no doubt. Then, Seamus got into a contretemps with a guy. He was a Protestant from Belfast and he drunkenly began making disparaging comments about the “fucking Papists”. Seamus took understandable umbrage, and cautioned the guy. We felt it was time to leave before a brawl broke out. Relishing some fresh air we walked the mile back to our hotel.
Seamus came in later. “What happened with that guy?” I asked. “Well,” he said. “I asked him to step outside. Then I thought, I can’t punch out his lights. I’d be arrested and thrown in an Irish jail. So, I did the only thing I could think of; I bitch-slapped him. I slapped him and he started to cry. Then I hailed a cab and got the hell out of there.”
Yeah, pretty dysfunctional behavior all right, but it still sticks in my mind, and it still amuses me.
I never again heard from Seamus after the trip, but have often wondered how his life panned out. I kind of hope he modified his behavior for the sake of his health, because I’d like to think he was still around.
Charming dysfunctionals should be able to last. The world needs them in a way, even if one wouldn’t want to live with one.