My wife gave me that look again yesterday. It’s not really a bad look, but it is specific to certain situations. I like to imagine that at some point General Custer was talking about whether to ride down to Little Big Horn or to just go home and drink beer. And I like to imagine that during that discussion Custer’s aide looked at him the way my wife looked at me last night. It’s the look that says, “I don’t know why you’re saying these things, but I hope we end up having a party instead of pulling arrows out of each other.”
I started off by telling her I had an unimportant question, and then I asked what the idiom “the carrot and the stick” means to her.
“It means you reward someone to get them to do something, and you punish them if they don’t do it,” she said.
“Yeah, that’s the common definition,” I said, “but that’s not the way I learned it. The carrot is a reward, and the stick holds the carrot in front of the donkey where he can’t get to it. He just keeps pulling towards it.”
I paused to let my wife say something in response. Instead, she gave me that look.
“Nobody gets punished,” I said.
She kept that look trained on me, even though the cat chose that moment to dig his claws into her leg and launch himself across the den like a cruise missile.
“You don’t hit the donkey with the stick,” I went on. “The stick just hangs there.”
My wife rubbed her perforated trousers leg and said, “Is this for something you’re writing?”
“No, I’m just thinking about it.”
She leaned away from me a fraction, the way you’d stand back to get perspective on a magnificent tree, or to get perspective on a manic person who’s talking about pudding enriched with brain-strengthening vitamins.
“Really! Think about it!” I said. “If you hit a donkey with a stick, you may get bit. Even the stupidest donkey in the world isn’t going to think the stick hit him by itself.”
I paused again for my wife to speak, but she just gave me a glacial nod to continue.
“But if you just use the stick to dangle the carrot, the donkey won’t get pissed off and bite you. Even if he gets aggravated, he’ll probably just bite the stick. It’s better all the way around.”
My wife crossed her legs and said, “Okay. And why did this come up?” Followed by the unspoken, And were you stockpiling food and Geiger counters at the time?
“No particular reason. It’s just, you know, the donkey never sees the stick that’s holding the carrot. So, when I look around here I can see the carrots. Where are all the sticks?”
“Are you complaining because you can’t see invisible sticks?”
“No! But if I’m working for carrots that I can never get because some hidden something is keeping them out of reach, I want to know what that something is and do something about it!”
My wife leaned back another fraction. “Are you complaining because you can’t see invisible sticks and then bite them?”
“Well… yeah. Kind of. Not literal sticks. The sticks are metaphors.”
She waited for a bit. When I didn’t continue, she said, “Metaphors for what?”
“I don’t know! That’s what I want to find out!”
“Should I clean out another closet so you can fill it with bottled water?”
“No, you’re missing the point!”
“It’s hard to explain,” I said.
“Does it have something to do with the donkey? You have to give the donkey a carrot before all this, or he won’t know he likes carrots.”
“Yeah, it goes without saying that the donkey likes carrots!”
“And if you don’t feed the donkey sometime he’ll die.”
“Just forget about the damned donkey!”
“You’re the one who wanted to talk about the donkey. I was watching TV,” she said.
The truth of that statement kicked me in the larynx, and I stopped talking for a moment. Then I said, “You were right, this is for something I’m writing.”
I saw her shoulders relax. That look disappeared from her face like a pricked soap bubble. “Oh, okay. Anything else?”
I shook my head, kissed her, and went back to my office, where I further contemplated the question of donkeys and invisible sticks. That question had become secondary, though. My primary interest had become appreciating the complexity of my wife’s job.
My wife contributes to our partnership in a lot of ways, and one of them is observing my behavior. She doesn’t so much observe it as she scans it with the diligence of a forest ranger. But she’s not scanning trees for signs of fire, she’s scanning what I do and say for signs of an irrational brain that needs tweaking. You could say that she’s a Brain Ranger.
It’s a hard job. People pay me to say things that no one would expect a normal person to say. Even when my brain is working fine, I sometimes say things that make everyone stop for a moment and then look away. How can a Brain Ranger tell when I’m malfunctioning and when I’m just being my normal, strange self?
I can’t explain how she does it. But I will say that for a person like me with an unruly brain, a vigilant, no-bullshit Brain Ranger is invaluable. There’s nothing like having someone who can listen to you talk about your metaphorical donkeys and invisible sticks in the context of your metaphorical forest and figurative fire, and assess whether your behavior is abnormally weird or just regular weird.
Public domain photo by Karen Murphy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service