But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
– 1 Thessalonians 5:4-11
I think that my mother’s only goal in my upbringing was to avoid ‘giving me the big head.’ She never complimented me. At my moments of greatest accomplishment, she berated me in front of others for not doing better than I had done. In her opinion, when I was the best, I could have been better. Many great people would be fueled by this to prove their mother wrong. I just thought that I was worthless. It fueled me, but down deep inside…
My mother’s method of ‘praise’ is not unique. A lot of people did the same thing in those days. It was as if self-esteem was not a thing. The thought was to beat down, never build up. They might get the big head. After all, “it is not how many times you get knocked down that count, it is how many times you get up.” – George A. Custer. For all those who use this philosophy, take note of who was quoted and what became of him.
Today, it is the opposite. Children are given participation trophies. I wonder about these 40-year-olds out there who have a few shelves full of trophies – never accomplishing anything. Do they have the big head? Are they better motivated to achieve greatness than my generation?
I know that I was not unique. I loved reading the Nero Wolfe stories written by Rex Stout, about half of them written while I was growing up. I have read them all. I am one or two stories shy of reading all that Robert Goldsborough wrote using Nero Wolfe and Archie as well. In at least one story, Archie Goodwin, Nero’s leg man (Wolfe rarely left the brownstone.) and chief detective, talked about Wolfe’s method of praise. Archie would die, if needed, for a simple “Satisfactory” from Wolfe. That praise was rare. You say that “Satisfactory” is not praise at all, but usually Archie got criticism. I could empathize with Archie. But I never got a “Satisfactory.”
The Scripture says that we must encourage one another. There must be a happy medium between ‘not getting the big head’ on one side and participation trophies on the other.
It is possible that my drive to excel, to get someone else to say that I was adequate, maybe even good at what I did, stemmed from never hearing those words from my mother. Maybe, maybe not. I had a couple of bosses that were good over my career, a couple ambivalent, the rest rotten – understand that almost all my bosses were engineers who understood engines and had problems with people. The good ones let me know how valuable I was.
But this story isn’t about them, or even the negative words from my mother. This is about how I started trying improvisation while ‘entertaining the matriarch.’
I have mentioned this before. As an adult, when I came to visit my parents, my mother would hold court. She sat in her rocking chair, never rocking – still and stiff, and wanted to be entertained by intelligent conversation. I have mentioned before that I loved it when my brother-in-law dominated the conversation. He had a lot of stories and was never shy in telling them, multiple times. That let me sit quietly and listen. But it invariably happened. Someone would ask, “Mark, what is new in your world?”
When I worked at a government nuclear plant, what I did was classified and what was not classified was so technical that the rest of the family would cry about how boring my story was. In other words, they had no clue what I was talking about. For example, I could talk for at least an hour on the subject of Xenon Poisoning in nuclear reactors, thus requiring a 24-hour waiting period before you can start the reactor again. That’s basic science, but at a level that no one in the family had achieved other than me. To my mother, this subject would be unfair and thus was off limits. As a result, anything that I ever did for a living was off limits. They had already talked to my sons, so there was nothing new there. That left virtually nothing to talk about.
One night, my brother-in-law told his funny stories that might have been true, but they might not have been true. They were amusing yarns from his days in the Air Force or, later, as a school teacher. Since we had no idea whether he was telling the truth, I decided to do some improvisation when asked how things were going. I started talking about some totally ridiculous idea, using word play to add humor. I had no idea where the story was going. All I did was link one groaner of a word play into the next. My brother-in-law and sister laughed. My brother laughed – when he was there. My mother had this look on her face that was a cross between two thoughts. Thought 1: “I think the potato that I ate tonight had gone bad.” Thought 2: “The world would be a lot better off if my younger son was dead.” I’m not saying she had either of these thoughts. That would simply be the conclusion of any reputable body-language expert.
Through all this ‘entertainment,’ demanded by my mother, my mother rarely commented other than a curt “Change the topic” spoken in my direction, never telling my brother-in-law that she’d heard that last story ten times, come up with something new. She took her angry gaze from me and stared at my wife. She asked, “Does he run a fever with these fits?” My mother never cracked a smile while everyone else was laughing. It seemed as if steam was emanating from her ears.
My wife said that she wasn’t sure. She had not heard that story before, so she could not give an answer. Of course, no one had ever heard the story before or would ever again. I had just made it up.
What I heard when my mother said those words was “Satisfactory.” My mother insinuated that I was insane or subject to some kind of verbal seizure. She was letting the room know that if I continued, she’d require me to say, “Unclean, unclean” until I ceremonially washed myself and presented myself to the priests at the temple. BUT she did not find fault in any of my words. She did not correct my grammar. She did not say that what I had said was unworthy. She just thought what I said was “crazy.” I could live with that. Here I was, an upper 30-something – and on for 20+ more years, getting satisfaction from a ‘neutral’ insult. That, I think, is crazy, but there you have it.
If you are wondering about the answer to the question, my forehead gets a little warm. It is probably from the laughter. Red Skelton said something like this. “I know that you are not supposed to laugh at your own jokes, but this is the first time I have seen some of these.” If I am writing something original, it is the first time I have seen it.
I did not do improvisation that often, but in all my stories (true or fictional), I yearned for my mother to ask my wife that question again. “Does he run a fever with these fits?” Those words became honey to me. I would leap for joy greater than Archie’s leap when Wolfe said “Satisfactory.” I was beyond Cloud Nine. Would the next one be Cloud Ten or is the scale logarithmic?
What brings this up? This morning, the third episode of my fictional stories regarding Deviled Yeggs, Detective Sergeant, homicide, was posted. My mother is gone, so maybe a fellow blogger might ask, “Do you run a fever with these fits?”
I would hope that you might admit that you laughed. I would hope that the Scripture above would provide guidance. Mention my typos, but encourage me to keep writing. You might even say, “Keep it up, someday, you might even get good at it.”
Don’t worry, I critique my own stories. A day after Charlie the Tuna met his demise (on November 15), I yelled at the image that I saw in the mirror. “Charlie would have never been ‘fired’ by his employers, Dummy! He would have been canned!” Please don’t use that. I might redeem myself if the Jolly Green Giant ever bites the dust. Although he’d have to fall a long way just to reach the dust.
We should be honest with one another, to a point. Sometimes, I cross that line. For those that I may have confused, perturbed, etc., I apologize. But the Scripture above is good advice. We should be sober-minded (even when we are trying to be funny) and encourage one another. It makes that next step along the journey of Faith a little easier to make. We individually walk along our path to glory, but, hand-in-hand, together we each become a bit more like Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.