Making the Grade
By Ronald P. Culberson, CSP
An optimist laughs to forget. A pessimist forgets to laugh. –Tom Nansbury
Is Your Glass Laugh Full? Sample Chapter
By Ronald Culberson
Note from Brad: This wonderful article is a sample chapter from Ron’s awesome book, Is Your Glass Laugh Full? Some thoughts on seeing the humor in life. I love this book, and my bud Ron has agreed to let me make a sample available to you here. Enjoy!
My wife told me I’m more pessimistic than I used to be. I told her to quit bothering me. Not really. In fact, I thanked her for telling me. She opened my eyes to something I didn’t realize was happening. I was becoming cynical. It’s a reasonable line of thinking since the world is full of crap, people are no good and everything sucks anyway. Nonetheless, I had gotten a bit cranky in my middle age.
I don’t mean to put you in the therapist’s chair but I believe my cynicism comes from my own fears and insecurities. As long as I can criticize others, I still look good. Once everyone else looks good, my view of myself is in the toilet. It’s a never ending battle to balance my view of myself, my view of the world and my reality. So my wife has to intervene every once in a while to keep me sane. How’s she doing? Don’t answer that.
Wendy and I are very different when it comes to the way we behave yet we are very similar in our core beliefs. We have the same values, the same views of the world and total trust of one another. We are true partners and we love and respect one another. But it wasn’t always that way.
When I first met Wendy Colclough (pronounced cole-claw) on the balcony of my college dorm, I was immediately infatuated with her. Unfortunately, she did not feel the same way about me. She reminds me that when she met me, I was wearing bibbed overalls with no shirt. OK, so I came from “the country” and that’s what we wore – not all the time, just for special occasions.
At lunch a few years ago, a friend of mine asked me what the “bib” in bibbed overalls was. I proudly explained that the bib was the portion of the overalls that covers your chest and is usually equipped with two straps and a pocket. He glibly replied, “Then what are the overalls without bibs called?”
I panicked. No one had ever challenged my mountain heritage so directly. As I thought about it, I realized overalls without bibs are basically jeans. That can’t be right. There has to be a better explanation. As perspiration built up on my forehead, I felt myself becoming a hick. I actually thought I felt one of my front teeth loosening. I could see the reflection of a country bumpkin in his eyes.
I said, “If you don’t know that, then I’m not going to tell you.”
He chuckled and returned to his mixed greens salad. I finished my chicken fried steak and felt clueless. I still wake up in the middle of the night wondering what bib-less overalls look like.
Needless to say, Wendy was not impressed with overalls or my bib.
Then, one November night during our freshman year, we went out on a “group date”. Group dates are conveniences for college students who don’t have steadies. On a group date, no one is romantically connected to anyone else in the group. I should know. I had a lot of group dates in high school and early college.
On that group date in November of 1979, while watching the Skip Castro band at the Mineshaft Bar near the University of Virginia, I reached over and held Wendy’s hand. And she held it back! I was all gooshy inside. This must be love. Where I come from, holding hands was serious. For some of us who were less experienced, it was a sign of impending marriage. I was on cloud nine. I had a real date and maybe even a girlfriend.
The next day, my dreams were crushed. Apparently, in New York, where Wendy was from, holding hands meant nothing. It was as common as saying “bless you” when someone sneezed. How could this be? The skin on our hands touched. We intertwined our fingers. It was sensual. It was nothing like gesundheit!
She explained that she had a boyfriend at another school and she had no intentions of dating someone here. Our “date” was insignificant to her and I was dropped before I was even picked up.
To make a long story short (ever notice how when people say this, it’s already too long?), I ignored Wendy after that. You see, I had been way too infatuated with her. Once I knew the score, I couldn’t hang out with her anymore. It would be too painful. So, I used the only method I knew to avoid the discomfort; I avoided her.
I sat at a different lunch table with other friends. Whenever I came into a room where Wendy and other girls were sitting, I acknowledged everyone else. I never made eye contact or else her brain waves would somehow detect that I had weakened. For several months, I was quite successful. And I was miserable. Avoiding her did nothing to anesthetize the pain of wanting to be around her.
The following February, our dorm had a Valentine’s dance. Once again, a “group” of us headed to the dance. Not expecting to find anyone special, I bobbed and weaved in a group dance with 50 other people to Bruce Springsteen’s Rosalita and the Who’s Magic Bus. We were drinking, laughing, singing and dancing. It was a typical college party.
Somehow during the confusion of the alcohol and the group-ness, I ended up next to Wendy. Before I could successfully ignore her, she took my hand.
I said, “Bless you.”
She didn’t get it, but then she hadn’t lived in my hell for the past few months.
She said, “Why don’t you talk to me anymore?”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to be blunt and tell her she had ruined my existence and that I had considered the priesthood. If I admitted how much she meant to me, she would win. Yet I felt like she was giving me an opening that might actually quell the bleeding ulcer I had developed since our pre-dating breakup.
“I liked you so much last fall,” I said, “I just couldn’t be around you if you didn’t like me back.”
Now, you have to give me credit. That was a killer line.
She said, “Let’s dance.”
So we danced. First, we danced fast. Then, we danced slow. I now understand why some Baptists don’t like dancing. It felt great and yet I didn’t take advantage of the moment. I was afraid of being dumped again. I was the perfect gentleman.
During one of the slow dances, we kissed. Apparently kissing means more than a sneeze in New York.
This is how I met my future wife. The South had risen again and I am still in heaven.
Wendy and I are very different when it comes to how we view the future. I tend to assume everything will be fine unless I find something that proves otherwise. I expect the positive and then deal with the negative if I need to. Part of this is my avoidance of negativity. I figure if I don’t think about it, it won’t happen.
Wendy, on the other hand, would prefer to assume the worst, on the off-chance things don’t turn out like she hopes. That way, she is not disappointed. By expecting the negative, she is pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t materialize. This is what I call Reverse Escape Pessimism and by the way, it’s incurable.
We discovered this difference early in our courtship at UVA. Wendy was an engineer and I was in liberal arts (whatever that means). In some ways, she was in real college and I was in unemployment training. Not that my classes were easy. I was destroyed by Organic Chemistry and Cell Physiology. But I also took classes in Perception, Abnormal Psychology and The History of Circus in America! I did not have a compelling argument for a Rhodes Scholarship.
Here’s how our differences usually played out. Wendy would finish an exam. When I would see her later that day, she would be devastated. She’d mope around, saying over and over, “I know I failed that test.” In specific detail, she would describe the questions she missed and how she just knew she could never have passed with those incorrect answers. For the next couple of days, she would live in this un-comfort-able funk, convinced she would flunk out of college and end up working at McDonald’s with me. Needless to say, she had higher aspirations.
At UVA, and I assume at most colleges, professors posted the grades on their office doors and we, the victims of their psychological torture, would gather ‘round the list like Romans at the gladiator matinee.
Wendy would make her way to the “coliseum” and force herself to look at her score. To her surprise, she not only would have the best grade in the class, but the professor would set the curve based on her grade. In other words, she was the standard by which her classmates were measured. She was the Grand Poobah. The Queen of the Exam. Best in Show. In four years of engineering at the University of Virginia, my lovely Wendy received one A minus. And that was the worst it ever got.
I, on the other hand, had a slightly different experience.
After I took an exam, I was ecstatic not just because the torture was over but because I knew I had done very well. I would proudly sashay back to my dorm with the look of a poker player who has no idea his pair of threes is just not that good. I would announce to my roommates that I had finished my test and in fact had “aced it.” I would exchange high fives with everyone in the room and would confidently explain that I knew I had done well because I was the first one to leave! Obviously, you can see the tragedy of my feeble mind.
For several days, I would not only live on Cloud Nine, I would own it. The sky was blue, the birds were singing and I was probably going to be asked to live with the exceptional students on The Lawn during my last year. Confident I would be accepted at Harvard Graduate School or and perhaps given a He’s a Jolly Good Fellowship, my troubles were over. I was smart.
Then the moment of truth would arrive. The affirmation that the last minute studying had paid off—that you actually could party too much and make good grades. That there was no genetic defect in growing up in Appalachia.
I went to my professor’s office to get the final proof of my achievement and to leave the coliseum as Galadiatorus Unum.
I glanced at the list of grades and quickly noticed I was not in the first few on the list. Perhaps he accidentally put my first name last. I looked again. Not there. I kept going down the list. Not there. Not there. As I crouched down near the bottom of my professor’s door hoping at this particular moment he did not come rushing out, I noticed my name.
Culberson, Ronald 68 C-
Crushed, I would escape to the local student bar and hope to spend an evening in the supportive reassuring arms of my A+ girlfriend.
Unfortunately, she was studying.
Is your cynicism and pessimism causing you to fail life’s multiple-choice exam? There really are other ways to look at most experiences. Even when the world around us seems to be frowning, we can stand on our heads and it will be smiling. With a bit of humor, we can all score big.
Copyright 2005 by Ron Culberson. Reprinted with permission. Ron Culberson, Director of Everything! at FUNsulting, etc., is a speaker, humorist, author of Is Your Glass Laugh Full? and former hospice social worker whose mission is to work with organizations that want their people to lighten up by using humor to minimize stress and maximize effectiveness. He is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), the highest earned award from the National Speakers Association, and is one of less than 7% of speakers worldwide who have received this designation. He has provided entertaining and informative programs to over 70,000 people in more than 600 associations, government agencies, non-profit organizations and Fortune 500 companies. Reach Ron at www.Funsulting.com