The ultimate question is always: “What is your story, doc? Not just hints about your life or anecdotes that are instructive or amusing, but a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. What is the truth, if there ever is such a thing, about how you came to be the person you are?”
To start, I didn’t learn anything in my first 20 years. OK, I did learn some things, but many of those needed unlearning over the coming decades.
I listened to stories and — much later — became a good story-teller, to which my children will attest. I had to get over the awful stories I imbibed in order to tell my own. Mom’s stories were tragic, a snapshot of her childhood unhappiness as Jeanette Fabian: the misery of her starvation due to poverty, tuberculosis due to starvation, and the Great Depression driving it all. From these I learned fear of what might (and would, in her estimation) go wrong. Much time passed before I recognized many things were already going right for me; and I could improve still more if I took hold of the chances before me and deafened myself to the footsteps of disaster at my back.
My father, Milt Stein, told funny tales he made up out of nothing. Dad and I were co-hosts in an imaginary radio program of his invention when I was tiny. The “broadcast” was called the Jedna Chennai Peanut Show, named after two Polish language newspapers he sold on Chicago streets as an 11-year-old; and, I imagine, I was the “peanut,” an edible he loved to the end of his days. Real peanuts and me, I mean.
The major stories of dad’s life had to do with acts of self-assertion, something he didn’t always do, but made a difference when he did. The tales were told and retold. For example, he took a course in wood shop in high school, requiring him to make things with saws, planes, and other tools. He was poor at this, but did manage to build a shield, one of the items the instructor said was enough to pass the course.
Somehow he failed. Undeterred, Milt reminded the teacher of his statement about the requirements to get a passing mark. The instructor grudgingly changed dad’s grade to that of a “conditional” pass: if he completed the next course in the sequence with an acceptable mark, dad would be awarded the lowest possible “pass” in the one just finished, thanks to his barely adequate shield. It didn’t occur to me then, but there was a message within the oft-told anecdote: to stand up for yourself and keep plugging. In other words, not mom’s prediction of impending disaster: in effect, that a brick will inevitably fall on your head if you walk beside tall buildings.
My mother was trying to protect me from repeating the trauma of her own life, but succeeded only in terrifying me. How difficult for a parent to grasp the world has changed — the world of their child is not the world of their childhood. I spent 20 years and parts of several more living in the shadow of Jeanette Fabian’s catastrophic youth. Sometime later the sunlight conveyed indirectly by my father broke through the threatening clouds called “your future.” Dad’s “shield,” quite real in my imagination, might be used to push through the everyday battles of life. I needed only to decode his obscure message: the advice to stand up and keep plugging; the advice I don’t think he realized he conveyed, but awaited my discovery nonetheless.
LESSON: You are going to grow up with stories; the things said and those unsaid, like pieces of a puzzle; the anecdotes of your parents and perhaps your grandparents, and some composite version of all the tales you hear as they collide with each other and form a “family” story. You will also fashion a tale from the lived experience of your own existence. NONE OF THESE STORIES IS TRUE! They represent, instead, one of many possible ways to make sense of life in general and the specifics of our time on the planet, in particular. DON’T BELIEVE ANY OF THEM. DON’T IDENTIFY TOO CLOSELY WITH ANY OF THEM. Your relatives’ stories are not yours. You can’t relive them, even if that were a good idea.
As far as your narrative is concerned, you are in the middle of it now. Your story is malleable, like bronze in the hands of a metal sculptor. The creation is a work of imagination and slant, giving you lots of room to experiment — to change its shape. The architecture isn’t frozen until you live it. Indeed, not even then, as you reinterpret the events. You can be the guy who didn’t pass his wood shop course cleanly or the one who persuaded the teacher to do the right thing.
Change your story and you will change your life, your life satisfaction, and the lives of those around you. Think you will crash and burn, and you cut the chances of prosperity. Believe you are as good as your press releases, a self-made person who never benefited from any luck or help from others, and you will be full of hot air and look down on those around you. Every one of us must change our story as we walk through time — refining, redefining, recreating; and making the best of what we have learned from others, all we’ve experienced, heaps of our successes, and a dash of suffering.
What’s your story? You never know whose tiny ears are listening.
The top image is the April-May, 1939 issue of Marvel Science Stories. The artist was Norman Saunders, restoration by Adam Cuerdan. The cover is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.