The Problem of Starting

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
—STEPHEN KING

A few years ago my wife and I became sort of crushed by all the crap we’d stuffed into our semi-detached workshop/shed. For years, when we were sick of having something in the house but were too parsimonious to just throw it out, we’d shove it in this shed. When there was no more space in the shed, we’d move stuff around to there was a little more room, then we’d shove new stuff in there. We maintained the minimalist aesthetic of our midcentury modern home by fouling that little shed with our hoarding, like when Walt and Jesse cooked in the crappy Winnebago.

For the better part of a year, I regularly scheduled a Saturday and swore that I’d clean the thing up. In my own defence, I would sometimes get a few things to the dump, but it was hardly a triumph. It just left holes in the matrix that would allow more amassing of garbage. It all seemed so insurmountable. There was so much stuff in there that we didn’t want to even start for fear that the project would swallow us whole.

So, I would balk. Again, and again, and again.

Eventually it just became ridiculous. We could no longer live with the secret grave of trash and zero access to our tools. We needed an intervention, and my wife was the catalyst. One day we tore into that thing, and we were all the way done in, like, three hours. That’s it. Three hours, and poof: we had a shed back. All that crap was in a pile, waiting to be chauffered to the dump, which happened soon enough. And then it was over.

Since that day, my wife and I call any task that seems much bigger, messier, and scarrier than it will probably actually be a “Shed Job.” As in: “I should just grade these papers. They’re gonna be a shed job anyway.” Or, “Hey, you’re back already. Was that a shed job?”

Answer: “It was a total shed job.” 

Having a name for something scary drains a lot of the fear out of it. When the urologist told me I had testicular cancer, I remembered growing absolutely and immediately placid. “Oh,” I thought, “This is no longer a mystery.” 

The doctor had me pull up my pants, then he started walking me through the next steps, “There’s a clear path for this, and we’re looking at a ninety-six percent cure rate, but we have to get started right away. I want to see you in the OR on Thursday.” It was Tuesday, and for some reason I didn’t freak.

The trick about scary things is the more you wait, the scarier they get. We’re all subject to psychological inertia, the same way we’re subject to non-metaphorical physics with our bodies. When you’re doing stuff, when you have the habit, you tend to keep going. When you stop, you don’t want to start again. I have lived this again and again and again.

pressfield.jpg

This isn’t a new insight. People have had this thought over and over again, too. Steven Pressman has written an entire book called The War of Art on this very matter of resistance. Creative people of all stripes know that you need the habit in order for the work to come forward. Louis L’Amour said it well, “The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” Moreover, the faucet doesn’t turn itself on.

I’m a notorious non-starter, which comes, I think, from perfectionism. I can imagine an outcome that is way beyond my skills or abilities. I worry about wasting materials or time. I worry about making a mess, or making something stupid. I’m not worried so much that other people won’t be into what I’m doing. I’m worried that I’ll hate it. So, I take the only honorable path: I do nothing. 

The thought pattern goes like this: if I leave the fire on the mountain, with the gods, where it belongs, then it won’t go out. I won’t be responsible for whatever happens. Obviously, that kind of thinking is bad mojo, way worse than getting busted and chained to a rock so giant eagles can re-eat your liver every day.

Um, maybe…

But there’s another story about resistance and inertia, and it fits my worldview a little better. Even if you’re not a big bible reader, you’re probably familiar with the parable of the Ten Talents. This is the story where some guys’ boss is leaving town, so he gives them some money (don’t know why he does this, but never mind). One guy gets five bucks, another guy gets two, and the last guy gets one. This was merit pay, apparently, each guy got money based on his ability, his “talents.” Guy with five, goes off and doubles his. Same with the guy who got two. The guy with one, freaks out, buries his in the ground.

Better safe than sorry, I guess.

Long story short, the boss comes home, asks about the money. The first two guys show theirs, and the boss shakes their hands. Third guy is really nervous, and he should be. The boss goes crazy on him, takes his one talent, and gives it to the guy with ten. 

The moral of the story here is the guy with one talent was faced with a shed job, right? His fear got the best of him and he stalled. That hesitation, that fear, cost him everything. 

I am not interested in people who use this parable to justify eliminating capital gains taxes (which happens all the time). This is a much more serious tale about the fear of starting and its consequences. Since it’s a bible story, the consequences here are meant to be taken as eternal one. It is mortifying to start. It takes faith, and it takes experience, too. You have to already know that once you start the work you’re going to settle into a comforting flow. The right stuff is going to happen if you can just get going. But how is a person going to gain this experience? How will you know that it's going to happen?

By starting, of course.

What if you fail? Don’t worry you will. And when you do, just follow Samuel Beckett’s advice and “fail better.” It is apparently a much better option than burying your talents in the backyard.

This is why I love Ray Bradbury’s suggestion to “Jump off the cliff, and build your wings on the way down.” If you hesitate, you’re lost. If you don’t shoot, you can’t score. Don’t tell me something won’t work, tell me it didn’t. These aren't platitudes.

Just do it. Swoosh.

 I made this "inspirational" message a couple of years ago, and I can't find the original photographer's info for a credit. 

I made this "inspirational" message a couple of years ago, and I can't find the original photographer's info for a credit. 

Tyler "Colossus" Stillman

Originally I'd planned to mash up Dr. Stillman with the Punisher, but I realized that was overlooking his physical side. Instead I opted for one of the overlooked X-Men of the 70s and 80s.

The Inherent Creativity of the Down Climb

Today, my wife and I took Max to his daycare, and becuase it was President’s Day, and the Big Ones didn’t have school, we took them on a little adventure to a place west of town called Three Peaks. It has pretty vistas of the mountains to the east of us. It’s close, but not too close. We weren’t trying to hike forever, or anything. We just wanted to get outside and move our bodies a little during this non-wintery February.  

Here's a picture Zoë took with her ratty old 3rd Gen iPod Touch.

The trail was hard to find. The kids got a little bored, broke away from us, and started scrambling up the side of some really crumbly rock. Ike was up the side of that stuff faster than a mountain goat on a sugar high. Zoë, who was moping about the whole trip like some bored teenager in a television commercial, followed him straight away. I was just about to call them back down to the safety of the trail, when I noticed my wife scrambling right up behind them. Zip—off they went.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a dubious history as a YMCA camp counselor, unit director, outdoor school teacher, ropes course facilitator, life guard, and assistant program director. I run everything my kids do through a pretty elaborate risk analysis algorithm, which is not entirely unlike the way Guy Ritchie had Sherlock Holmes plan out his fight moves. 

I’ve had enough experience with this sort of thing that I can predict an accident with uncanny accuracy. Often times, I can shut tragedy down before it happens like a Minority Report agent, but this time, I just shut the algorithm down and just followed them quietly up the boulders. They all did a good job getting up to a great vantage point, and I fought the urge to shout out advice like: 

“Three points of contact at all time!” 
“Bend your knees to keep a low center of gravity!”
“Use the sole of your shoe for friction. You need a lot of surface area!”
“It’s easier to climb up than down!”

In then end, there were a few scrapes and scuffs, but not many. They were red-cheeked and huffing, and thrilled by their accomplishment. The views were great. We were high enough that a raven circling nearby was below us.

After a rest, they decided to go down the other side using a route that seemed easier than the way up. I spotted that route on the way up and was pretty sure it wasn’t a good way, but I just kept my mouth shut. They figured it out pretty fast and headed back and found another way down. During that time, my wife and I stopped to talk about what was going on.

She said, “You know, this is just problem solving and creative thinking.”

I agreed. It was a fantastic insight. Add that to the list of why I married the right woman.
    
“It would be easier if I'd just told them which way would be safest, but they wouldn’t have learned a thing,” I said.

We went on to discuss convergent and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is the type of thinking one uses when creativity isn’t needed. It's usually used to solve a problem that has a single approach and a single, well-established answer. It’s not an entirely useless form of thinking, but when you’re have to be creative it can hamper your progress. Convergent thinking is something you might use later in a creative process, once you know what direction you need to take, once you’ve tested out the possibilities.

Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is most useful when there are many possible solutions or approaches to a problem, and you need to try them out or iterate before you can settle on the best one. Route finding is the perfect example of needing divergent thinking first, and convergent thinking second.

Both are needed to get you where you're going.

There we stood, my wife and I. One an art teacher and teacher of art teachers, the other a creative writing professor and the director of a university creativity center. We were watching our kids go through the process of figuring out how to get down the side of this little mountain safely.  It wasn’t an entirely risk-free enterprise, and we could have made it faster for them by showing them the way, but that would have stolen any success they earned that day. So, instead of a couple of kids who got down onto level ground and said to themselves, “We did it.” The attention would have been turned to the wise parents who kept them from catastrophe.

How often does this happen in the classroom or in the workplace? Correctness has become the goal. We use correctness to measure our success, even though failure is so often the most thorough instructor. When teaching people to be art teachers, my wife often reminds them that if every art project on the wall looks the same, then you’re doing it wrong. 

It’s almost always the wrong choice to take away someone’s ability to choose their own path through an assignment, a project, or a life event. One can imagine a few criminal examples where others might have to intervene, but otherwise it's no help to meddle. People who have experience really do mean well. They want to save people the trouble, grief, and anguish they've had in their own experiments. Sometimes they want to save themselves the trouble of having to come around and help that person who messed up. They don’t want to be bothered. But the goal as a teacher, parent, or leader is to help people grow and to help people feel proud of their own accomplishments, not to make things easier.

That happened today on the rocks. And we all came back in one piece, a little cold, a little scratched up, and a little winded, but better people all around. When you're a parent and a teacher, there's a constant meta-level to everything you do because, in the end every parent is, in fact, a teacher, the most important one those kids will ever get.

Stuff from Small Various Notebooks Found Lying Around the House in 2009

Qualities of a person in one feature 

Primness = a woman in a denim shirt buttoned to the top.

Social Imagination

Q: Who is Jesus saving us from?
A: Ourselves

A Mormon can't be Batman because justice is the Lord's

The larger a person's wedding ring, the less I trust them.

The easier the better, that's not right.

Love + Mechanical Heart

The path of least resistance makes rivers and men crooked

I don't know—it was Buick colored

Free Marketry — Flea Marketry

The Devil can quote scripture

The Wired Caste

A hotel chambermaid discovers a man in his room weeping. He has wronged his family somehow.

"new age suicide" 11 pages of articles on recent surge of suicide cults from newprophecy.net

The Logic of Practice by Pierre Bourdieu Objectivism Habitus

20" 7lbs 14 oz
3:16 4/23
Ike

Trailers = studio apartment

An old man who is trying to outlive his 99 year sentence. Structure the story backwards.

50 year-old 275 lbs wearing a homemade t-shirt, saying "this one's been battle tested."

Is he still interested in the world? I still am but not as much as when I was a baby.

Talks out of the corners of his mouth, adds extra syllables.

New kid heist; old guys rounded up and pumped for information.

Around the Corner

I'm the kind of dad who will let her be with the cat.

Reconciling your checkbook with your eyes closed

Give me Hell(p)

I think I've got attitude sickness.

These are the dimensions of the box they don't want you to think outside of.

Should teachers edit?
What are the implications of teachers editing or not editing?

Cliche
Pulp
Camp

The Uncle Ben Effect: awaiting the power that comes with responsibility.

Sincerity, Truth, and Design -- a motto for something

Adam West to the Rescue

Years ago, when I was just starting my PhD coursework at Oklahoma State, a bunch of us got together at the conclusion of a devilishly difficult research methods course. The party was simple (snacks, booze, mix tapes) but more than enough to help us celebrate our survival. That class was so rough, a party was definitely in order, even though I’d quit “partying” in my early twenties when I found my way into the Mormon faith.

During that time I learned that there are a lot of reasons people don’t drink at parties once you get older, one reason is being Mormon, another is being a recovering alcoholic, another is being pregnant, etc. So, there were a couple of us not drinking, but most of the people were letting their hair down. As the party rolled on, we eventually got to the drunk storytelling part of the night. Drunk storytelling is not a big part of my big fat Mormon life anymore, and though I don’t miss drinking at all, I miss drunk story telling something terrible. 

The subject of the night was losing your virginity. The stories were rich and varied, a crossfade of sad to hilarious. There’s no good word for this kind of story: a mix of wistfulness, caution, triumph, exuberance, passion, nostalgia, beauty, and regret. Maybe the Portuguese have it with saudade. Maybe the French have covered it with tristesse-joie.

In the end, I think it’s one of those things that doesn’t reduce.

Each of these stories was its own world and a cutting from the same tree. As we went around the circle it became abundantly clear that I was the only one who hadn’t yet passed through this threshold. Still a baby, I guess.

I like to think that I didn’t care or that I was strong enough in my convictions to boldly state my case. Truth be told, I was afraid of the ridicule. Thought I’d be a joke from a Judd Apatow movie. Deep down in my heart of hearts I didn’t feel like Daniel refusing Pharaoh’s food or Joseph fleeing the advances of Potiphar’s wife. I was just trying to gather up a few scraps of sexual encounters I’d had as a teenager just to see if I could fake it. A lot of people fake sex things, right?

But the thing is, you don’t fake it in drunk storytelling. It’s like the first rule of Fight Club. Exaggeration is okay, perhaps expected. Bullshitting is also part of it. But outright fabrication (e.g., Brian Williams’s helicopter "mix up") is not okay. You don’t do it. You can flee, but you can’t lie. 

So, when we got to my turn, I gathered my courage and said, “I had some near misses, but I’ve still got mine.” The room erupted into wows of disbelief. I tried to brace myself, but it felt like being on your back, on the ground, in a snowball fight, with the other guys standing over you, their arms loaded. 

In the middle of all that, a flamboyantly gay man and occasional cross-dresser named Adam West rushed to my defense. “You stop it,” he said with the inflection of Joan Rivers. “I’m proud of him. I gave it away to the wrong person at the wrong time,” he said. “Sex needs to mean more than it does these days.” 

Adam encouraged me to hold out for the right person (Don’t worry, Adam. I did.) His brave monologue shifted the tenor of the room. Somehow, an out-of-the-closet and out-on-the-dancefloor gay man had turned my mid-twenties Mormon-flavored straight life and virginity into a badge of honor. I felt less like a nebbish than a mensch.

To borrow a line from the Mormon hymnal, “I stood all amazed at the love Adam offered me.”

After that, drunk storytelling moved on to drunk kvetching, which is pretty much the best thing when you’re drunk and the worst thing when you’re sober, so I grabbed what was left of my artisan root beers, said my good byes, walked home, crawled into bed, and realized that I was going to be in Adam’s debt for a long time, and the only way to repay him was to pay it forward.
 
Which is why I bring this story up now. In recent years, my adopted tribe seem to be forever at the epicenter of some controversy regarding homosexuality, the most recent of which was the Church’s well intentioned but ultimately botched attempt to speak about legal protections for LGBT people and religious practice.

I am thrilled that the Church is trying to go off the standard script for religious people regarding homosexuality. I am also crestfallen that it is still so difficult for folks to find any common ground in the debate. In the end, it's still just a bunch of my way or the highway thinking.

Adam West came to my defense, which showed real bravery, bravery that had to have come from being gay in Oklahoma. I feel that straight Mormons like myself need to be brave as well, not just in standing up for ourselves but in standing up for all the other freaks and geeks in the room who get bossed around by the jocks and the soches. 

Adam didn’t need me to be gay to qualify for his support and assistance. Gay people don’t need to be straight to qualify for mine.

I think that's where I fall out on this.

The deeper I dive into this memory and into the subject, the more scattered my thinking becomes. None of it is clear enough to me to be helpful to anyone else at this point, but I’m sure of a few things:

  1. I’m orthodox enough to believe that God has rules that outline our sexual conduct, and I don’t get to reshape those rules to my desires. 
  2. I’m Christian enough to know that it’s not my place to judge anyone for their path through this life. I also know the forgiveness we’ll need to move forward in the next life will be based on the forgiveness we extend to one another in this life. 
  3. I’m libertarian enough to argue that the state should stay out of people’s marriages except to record them and to help people sort out their custodial responsibilities and personal property if those marriages should dissolve. 
  4. I’m conservative enough to know that government isn’t going to solve this problem.
  5. I’m liberal enough to want laws in place that will set a high standard for fairness and for the protection of every single citizen of this country, even if I don’t like them and their politics.

Adam, brother, wherever you are, I want you to know that I have thought about your gesture regularly for the last eighteen years. Whenever the Mormon people around me have something to say about homosexual people, I have a little mantra I say to myself: 

Always be yourself
unless you can be Adam West
then always be Adam West,

but not that Adam West...
I mean the better one.

Captain Wyatt

I'm adding this portrait of SUU President Scott Wyatt to my ongoing sketch project, which I'm now calling the "Super Friends Initiative." Anyone who has spoken with President Wyatt for more than a few minutes knows why he got Cap—the guy loves America.

The Vulture

Methinks Dr. Kevin Stein protesteth too much about not wanting me to draw him as a superhero, so I have honored that request. The Vulture is a super villain, one of the Sinister Six, to boot, giving him massive Silver Age street cred.

Dr. Kevin Stein as The Vulture in his classic configuration.

Y-M-C-A

Most summers from the time I was fifteen until I went back to graduate school in my early 20s I worked for YMCA summer camps. The first and last camp I worked at was YMCA Camp Silvercreek, which is located in Silver Falls State Park but is based out of the Salem, Oregon YMCA. From 1990 to 1994, I worked at YMCA Camp Orkila, which was on Orcas Island in the Puget Sound. Orkila is based out of the Seattle YMCA.

My first summer at Orklia I worked as a cabin counselor, as I’d done at Silvercreek. I was working with the oldest kids, called Explorers. My very first cabin group were these guys, and I was not prepared for them. This group of kids became legendary, a baptism by fire.

This is (a very fit and beardless) me at YMCA Camp Orkila with the "Hell Cabin," circa 1990.

One of these kids spoke no English. One of them had summer camp prescribed by his physician. One of these boys came from a really rough home environment and wept when it was time to go home. One of these kids was effeminate (possibly gay) and was teased mercilessly by the other boys. One of them was a political refugee from the Sudan, who almost drowned in a lake while I was on my day off.

It’s possible that I learned more from these boys about human nature than I have at any other time in my life. As terrible as those ten days were, they were a forge.

Working in summer camps has, without a doubt, prepared me more for my current role as a parent, college professor, and university program administrator than anything else I have done in my life, including earning a master’s degree and PhD.  I got into the racket because it was fun, and it got me out of the way of my parent’s messy divorce. It also allowed me to earn a little money, not much, but enough. During that time, I tried a straight job for one summer, and I felt like a fern that had been yanked out of its pot. In fact, every time I tried to leave camp (and I tried at least three times) I felt drawn back to it like Richard Dryfuss was drawn to the Devil's Tower.

So, even though I got into it for very personal and ultimately very self-centered reasons, I ended up staying at camp because it made me feel like I was actually contributing something to the world. Camp was changing me into a decent person. Camp wanted me to step up my game and think outside of myself. Most teenagers are naturally self-absorbed, so much so that it’s a cliché. You can’t be that way when you’re responsible for the safety and well-being of somebody else’s children.

At camp, I trained to be a lifeguard and was eventually certified. You learn in real terms that a lapse in your attention could mean somebody drowns. Because of that training, I’m always on guard, always watching. Even when I’m at the pool now, with my own kids, I’m not relaxed. My eyes are always scanning the water. I always know where the rescue equipment is (Reach, Throw, Row, Go).

Not so long ago, I had a friend’s child at the local pool for a birthday party, and my attention was split. Some kids in the party were screwing around over in one direction, while behind me another kid plopped into the water. My eyes were off this child for five seconds! The lifeguards at the pool pulled her out of the water. Everything was fine. We did an incident report, just like I was trained to do, and I remembered that young people can actually handle so much more responsibility than they are normally given. I also thought to myself: that's how long it takes.

Camp asked a lot of me. It asked a lot of everyone who worked there. Camp asked me to pay attention to tiny details that might suggest that someone was being picked on, or left out.  My friend Cara Wilson had a simple rule for this: everyone gets to play. As a parent, I go ballistic if I feel like any kid is being excluded. More than that, camp taught me to look past people’s immediate behavior and to try and sleuth out the thing that’s motivating what I'm seeing.

Time and time again, I would respond to a kid’s bad behavior, only to be dead wrong about the cause.

One time I got this right. I was a unit director with a group of cabin counselors under my supervision. One of the counselors came to me concerned about a girl who’d been stealing from her cabin mates. She’d been discovered because the only one who hadn’t reported a theft was the theif. She wasn’t sure what to do. Race and socio-economic status was getting all mixed up in this as well and this counselor wanted some guidance. We had ways of working with these kinds of events, but something about this particular situation was gnawing at me.

I said to this counselor, “Let’s try something weird.” She was game. I told her to spend a portion of the afternoon with this kid, just a special afternoon. “Don’t mention the stolen stuff, just do whatever she wants. Be with her. Maybe get her an ice cream bar at the camp store. Give her a couple of hours of your undivided attention.”

Later that night, when the staff was meeting socially in the dining hall, that counselor found me and said, “The stuff is back. Right on their bunks.”

“All of it?” I asked.

“All of it.” She said. “Do I do anything?”

“No,” I said. “She knows what she needs to know. I'm gonna guess this is over.”

I have thought about this encounter hundreds of times in the last twenty years, especially when I am furious with my own children or with colleagues. I make terrible leadership decisions when I forget that bad behavior almost always comes when people feel like they are being overlooked.

People who know me know that I have a million camp stories in me. I am planning to tell them. For years, now, I've been planning to write a book about how I was shaped by summer camp. I've been toying with the title: A Real Job: A Decade at Summer Camp. I’m certain that many of my friends are similarly indebted to the experience in their own lives as parents and professionals. As I prep myself to dive into this book, I’d love to hear from them about this and learn from their stories.

Cook Kent

For a while now, I've been doing little sketches of friends and students as super heroes. I'm preparing a little web gallery of those drawings, so stay tuned. Recently I have fallen in love with Phil Noto's illustration work, and so I tried to cop his style a little with this sketch of the SUU Provost Bradley J. Cook. I'm certain this will be mortifying for him, which is a major motivator for me.

Illustration by TRP