I have been known to complain, from time to time.
For 60 years or so.
I think I picked up this approach to life as I was growing up in the Chicago area. I perhaps observed that there’s a lot wrong with the world — Chicago does have that pesky reputation for murders, for example, so you can see how a kid might acquire a negative perspective — and I instinctively felt it might be helpful if I commented. Not just on the murder rate, however. On everything.
I never liked to think of my temperament as a “complaining” temperament. I have always tended to frame it in more justifiable terms. I had “a keen sense of right and wrong.” I had a “sharp mind,” an “acute sense of justice.”
At worst, I was willing to confess to a “prosecutorial personality.” Prosecutors are professionals, see. With college degrees and government paychecks. Some go on to become district attorneys, or Dick Tracy. Or politicians, even.
In any case, I complained. About traffic, about the temperature, about the cat. About the idiosyncrasies of my clients, about the scarcity of my favorite coffee, about the size of the type (not to mention the choice of font) on the microwave buttons.
When we got a new cat, I complained that the new cat wasn’t more like the old cat.
When we left Scottsdale, Arizona, and moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, I had the audacity to complain about the twisty roads (“Didn’t these people ever hear of master planning?”). If the Town demonstrated a reluctance to embrace some newfangled approach to an issue (say, putting up signs to point visitors to the Riverwalk), or if my neighbors offered a less-than-thrilled response to a thrilling opportunity (say, the donation of the Silverman tree sculpture downtown), I was occasionally known to grumble. When a coyote killed the cat I complained about before, I complained about the coyote.
For the most recent half of my life, the one person on the planet who has borne the greatest brunt of my complaining habit is my wife. She is naturally even-tempered, longsuffering, and quiet. She did not grow up in the Chicago kill zone, where you had to form opinions as a self-defense tactic. She grew up in a family where people, to this very day, calmly observe, and patiently listen to each other, and then — if necessary — diplomatically express a well-reasoned point of view, for consideration only.
So the day finally came (inevitably, I guess) when she let the truth slip.
“You complain,” she said.
I was aghast. I had never tuned in to this charming detail about myself.
And you know how it is, in that moment when somebody criticizes you, how your brain flashes through a million rationalization and justification options. She’s just having a bad day. She remembers something I did in 1997, and she’s blown it all out of proportion. She’s comparing me to her “nice” brother. Or George Clooney.
But then I realized what really happened: I must have recently developed this unpleasant habit. Just in the past few weeks, right? Months, at the most?
No. As it turns out, I’ve been complaining since before the wedding. Unfortunately for her, that was a third of a century ago.
And then, there’s the worst moment of all, when that person who’s criticizing you offers the KILLER EXAMPLE. Which she did. As follows:
We met in community theatre, all those years ago, she directing, me acting. When Kristina founded the “Castle Hill Productions” theatre group for The Trustees at the Crane Estate in Ipswich, she of course directed, and I of course acted. But last winter, with various family schedule conflicts, we agreed that I would not be involved in her next production. I attended the opening-night performance, of course, and saw her before the curtain.
And I pointed out a problem with the temperature in the room.
And I pointed out a problem with that noisy antique clock on the wall.
And she pointed out that she had made it through the entire rehearsal schedule — eight glorious weeks — without listening to my complaining.
Yes, it’s automatic. I complain.
And so, today, I acknowledge my sin. I also commit to reforming. I will not complain to my wife. I will not meet you for breakfast at some North Shore eatery and ruin the meal by complaining.
Perhaps I cannot realistically commit to never again complaining. But I can make a solemn commitment.
I will isolate my complaining. I will keep it under wraps. I will only let it out here. As “The Outsidah.”
And you, dear reader, will experience it, in all its glory.
What? You don’t want to hear complaining? Why ever not? What’s wrong with you? People are so sensitive these days. It’s impossible to write anything without being criticized. It wasn’t like this in the old days. I don’t know why I even try….
Doug Brendel lives a sweet, sunny life at Dragonhead, his (viciously named) home on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Follow him here at Outsidah.com, and follow his even more prosecutorial daily blog at ComplicatedEnglish.com. For Doug’s more significant pursuits, visit NewThing.net.