The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

Over the years, as fate has provided me with many and varied situations in which I had to make a choice between which to do, which to say, which to eat, which to write, I’ve accumulated some information.

The information I’ve collected generally involves what someone else has said to me, as which ever action I’ve chosen, when confronted with the need to choose, has backfired on me.

This information isn’t limited to things I’ve physically done, as those of you know who remember my story about being sandwiched into an airplane seat between two people who, shall we say, were bigger than me. For the most part here, I’ll stick to stuff I’ve done, as opposed to stuff I’ve said.

Setting myself on fire as a result of a  bad action has turned out to be less painful overall than lighting the flames with my words.

First, let’s say you’re the husband who welcomes his wonderful wife just back from a shopping trip. She is wearing some new clothing which she has obviously just purchased. She strikes a pose, to display her new self in her new clothes, and asks him: “How do I look?”

Most men who have survived the initial decade of marriage understand that she isn’t after the words which he replies to her: “Well, honey, you don’t look too bad.”

You see, the problem here isn’t necessarily one involving the English language so much as it is involving the State of Minnesota and how we speak here, where the climate has knocked off all our optimistic edges, leaving those who survive wary about everything.

Including using too much enthusiasm, no matter whether it involves baling hay, or complimenting someone. “You don’t look too bad” is truly a pretty extreme thing for a Minnesotan to say. In fact, it’s the equivalence of a speedometer that says you’re going a hundred miles an hour.

Unfortunately, when a Minnesota man speaks to a woman, it’s, well, a hundred miles an hour to him but stuck in a muddy rut for her. He’s in trouble.

There are other replies available to him. Mostly they’re even worse. For example, she could have asked him how she looked, and he could have said: “Well, I’ve seen you looking worse.”

In the world of double speak, I think that’s a positive negative. Regarding a criticism of what he just said, one could comment on it by saying to the husband: “I don’t think you could have done any better.” Or he could have said to his wife: “I don’t think you could have bought anything any prettier, honey.”

Oooof da.Talk about positive negatives, there you have an example of a positive double negative. “You” couldn’t do any better, or “There wasn’t any clothing any better.” 

Moving on here, I remember my old high school football coach saying to me, after I had begged and begged him to let me run a kickoff back, and had ended up under the biggest pile of opposing players ever seen that night: “That could have gone better.” This is an example of a criticism disguised as a compliment. There is no hint here of a positive negative, it is a straightforward honest entry-level least-offensive most-neutral “coachey” thing he could have said. He could have left it there, where I had to agree with it, but no. Then he said: “Good idea; poor execution.”

Again, hiding criticism behind the truth by buttering it up first is an old Minnesota trick.

One of the first jobs I had after electronics school placed me at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, involved in the rerouting of incoming messages via Western Union telegraph wires. Three of us had rewired the incoming messages to what I remember as about a hundred teletypewriters, all of which were busy clicking and clacking and printing out all sorts of stuff that huge hospitals need. It was time to apply voltage to the new section we had installed. That in turn involved shutting down what was working so that 240 volts could be connected.

Shutting everything down was not good. “Aw, heck,” I told the foreman, “I can hot wire that, easy.” I crawled into a pretty crowded tunnel of wires, and carefully stripped some wires, peeled back some insulation on the 240-volt hot wires, and was almost done when the ground wire flopped over into a hot one. There was a blinding flash of light, and all the clicking and clacking of the typewriters ceased. Boy, it was really quiet.

I finished the wiring, crawled out, we found the breakers, got everything back on. The foreman looked at me and said: “I didn’t think what happened would be this.” This is an example of what I call “open-ended” Minnesota nice. It leaves you to fill in the blanks yourself.

Good parents are masters of this kind of nice. Dad was good at this style. His version involved him looking at you after he had driven a tractor in winter weather a mile to pull your stupid self out of a snowbank: “At least,” he would say, “you know whose fault this is,”

The snowbank’s? The township snow plow’s?