The Big Finish

“I never feel that it's finished, but you have to stop somewhere.” — Annie Proulx
“A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” — Paul Valéry

This is the third in a series of posts on creative process. The first was on the trouble with starting, the second on the long, boring middle of a project. The latest one is about finishing, which is maybe the hardest thing of all.

The first two posts came easily, and this third one didn’t. During the past few weeks I’ve retreated in all the stereotypical ways: cleaning, web surfing, fiddling, organizing, rethinking processes, tweaking, sorting, goal setting, clearing out inboxes, fixing broken things, replacing unfixable things, re-watching old movies, finding new music, making lists, doing nice things for people, journal writing, finding lost items, trying out different pens, re-organizing, and learning new skills.

I’m never better at starting things than I am when I need to finish something. There’s so much more uncertainty in finishing than there is in traveling through the middle, which I often do mindlessly “grinding” like the kids do with their video games.

There is also a world of difference between finishing and being done. Sometimes I’m ninety-five percent through something, and in my mind I’m already done. It’s not actually complete, but there are no more big creative decisions to make. All that’s left is the drudgery of doing it. The work that’s left is entirely bereft of the excitement of discovery I’ve felt throughout, none of the exhilaration of starting a new thing.

Sometimes as I’m wrapping something up, my attention is already on that glimmering new thing on the horizon that pledges everything this project promised back when I was close to wrapping up the previous one.

When my friend Kyle Bishop and I are bored with the courses we’re currently teaching, we often begin planning future ones. These plans are so perfect, smooth, and far off, so full of potential and possibility and not at all fraught with the drudge work of the present. Who wouldn’t want to choose new books or films to study tomorrow instead of grading the assignments of today? It is a highly refined and productive form of procrastination. It’s certainly not loafing, but is sure isn’t shipping either.


JMW Turner "A Ship Aground" (1828)

Seeing a project through to its absolute end speaks to a creative person’s character more than their talents, vision, intellect, or flair. The world is bulging with geniuses who have nothing to show for it.

The writer, marketing guru, and man about the internet, Seth Godin regularly reminds creative people that they aren’t “creative” for a living, they “ship” things for a living. Conceptually, this isn’t that hard to wrap your head around. The difficulty is that we’re so often afraid to ship. Godin tells us this is because our lizard brains, which are motivated by fear, deprivation, and death. The lizard brain becomes active the closer we come to shipping. It says, “Hey, man. Once you finish that, you’re going to have to share it, and people are gonna laugh. They’re going to think you’re ridiculous because you spent so much time on such a ludicrous project. You should probably just keep it under your hat. It’s totally safer.” Since so many of us have lived through middle school, we trust the lizard.

The people we consider creative are the ones who’ve decided to finsh. They see stuff through to the end. They’ve figured out how to shut up the lizard brain, so they can do their work. All of us need to know how to mute that inner voice.

This whole problem might be easier if there was just one kind of finishing, but there isn’t. Sometimes you don’t get to decide when you’re done. Someone else is going to do that for you: a teacher, client, boss. You’re done, not because the work is done, but because you have to hand it over. At that point it is what it is. You’ve hit your deadline or not. Most people rely on this kind of finish becuase it doesn’t take any presence of mind other than watching the clock. Your boss pokes his head in the door and says, “I need the Henderson Report by three.” This kicks your adrenal glands into gear, and your lizard brain has nothing to say about it. You hustle blindly until you’re done. Every time you see your boss walking through the office or everytime you look at the clock, you get juiced again.

When there’s no external pressure, a lot of projects just dwindle or peter out. You keep working until everything on your to-do list is crossed off. Little by little the work just dissolves. The thing is done, and it probably got done because you had good work habits. You showed up every day and stayed on task enough to do what needed to be done. This kind of finish is often capped off by a celebration, because without one it’s hard to know that you’re even done, especially if it’s not something that will ship. You’re going to put it on the shelf and move on. A celebration is the sign that some fairly invisible processes have gone on, and we all need that.

Graduation is this kind of finish. I’ve earned three degrees, and each time the ending seemed like a non-ending. I didn’t finish so much as I stopped, or rather I was told it was okay to stop. Graduation is also a lot like the first kind of finishing, if you add to it all kinds of questions that come from the institution that graduates you. Did you finish the program as it has been laid out? Did you pass everything. Do you have enough credits? Has the work been turned in? Is it the end of the semester? Okay, you’re done.

Interestingly enough, I get the same feeling twice a year when I submit grades. I push the button, and there’s a little green banner that says I did it. I usually try to find someone and go get a Coke, or something, because it seems like at least a little confetti should drop from the ceiling. I didn’t make anything, really; I just came to the conclusion of the work. Tomorrow there will be no work, or different work, but not this work, not anymore. It is that kind of finished.

God himself knew that you have to pause after you accomplish something and take note, or maybe no one else will remember to. When He wrapped up each stage of the creation, He took stock of His labors and said, "It is good." It seems like this kind of reflection is a best practice. I wish I did it more often. Sure, I want a "day" of rest. Who doesn't want to put up their dogs and grab a nap? When I wrap up a project I rarely notice if it's any good. Mostly I'm just glad it's over.

Hitchcock, not really asleep, but looking kind of "done."

Sometimes I’m done before I’m finished. There’s an old Hollywood story about Alfred Hitchcock sleeping on set. They say he’d done all the hard work with the script and the storyboards, so shooting held very little interest for him. That’s what it’s like when I’m done before I’m finished. If there’s no actual discovery and excitement, if I’m just slogging it out to round things up, then there’s no intrinsic motivation for me to finish. It’s all external, and it’s easy to tell when the character of the project changes from pleasure to work.

For me this is how professionals are made. Pros can push through this part. Amateurs often wander off to something more exciting, leaving a mostly done but entirely unfinished project behind.

This is like the difference between the climax of a story and its denouement. After Frodo drops the ring into the magma on Mount Doom, there’s almost a hundred more pages of get home, say goodbye, and mope around in pubs realizing that you really miss the adventure.

I often feel relief at the end of a project but not much joy. I'm also usually more than a little sick of it. Familiarity breeds contempt, yadda, yadda, yadda. Part of the feeling is that I want to move on to all the other little sprouts that have come up during the time I've been indisposed.

After I defended my dissertation, I remember taking a whole week. I parked myself on the couch, ate bagel sandwiches, and watched old samurai movies. Eventually, it was clear to me that I couldn't just lie there forever in sweatpants, but I did feel like (a) I couldn't just jump into another project without a recharge, and (b) it was clear I needed to find something fitting to work on. I did wonder, for fleeting moments, if I would ever write again. And more secretly, I wondered if I ever wanted to write again. At that point I was thinking if I was going to exert any creative energies again, I would do something useful, like build a boat. That impulse faded, sort of. Brian Evenson who got me through the lion's share of that project told me that it's normal to go through a period of not wanting to write. He said to keep reading, and eventually the ideas will return. He was right. It has happened every single time. It’s happening right now with this blog post.

After every big project I feel like there is a refractory period when you just can't jump in for another round. Of course there are outliers like that jerkface Anthony Trollope who would just chain smoke novels and make the rest of us look like dopes.

Finishing can be scary because you’ve been living in a project for a while, and once you’re done working, you’re going to have to share it. Sharing is scary for a lot of people, because when you finish you’ll move out of striated space and into smooth space. Instead of examining the work day by day, you now have to start thinking about it as a coherent whole, and what if it isn’t coherent? What if isn’t complete? What if it doesn’t work? What if people don’t like it? What if people offer feedback and criticism that will involve more work? What if you yourself decide that you must go back and start over or rework major sections?

Don’t worry. This is actually common. Work often has to be redone. Sometimes, in order to finish you have to be willing to start again. Iteration is part of the work.

The people in my family are project-doers. Their ability to imagine an outcome far outstrips their skills. This gap creates a lot of frustration for everyone, each, of course, in their own way. Kid projects used to regularly result in melt-downs when the work and the vision didn't jive. The thing that saved us was the idea of prototypes and iteration. When anxiety would run high with the kids (and also with the grownups) we'd casually ask to see their prototype.

As they would share their work, we'd start asking them what kind of changes they were planning to make. How were they planning to remedy this fault or that one. Then we'd say, "I'm really excited to see what model 2.0 is going to look like." All of this we'd say just like it was the most normal thing in the world. Before too long the kids started to absorb that language and reflect it back to us. After teaching in higher education for a long time, I can think of no better equipment for professional life than being able to see creation as a series of cycles and not just as a linear path to completion.

The Problem of Starting

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

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.


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. 

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.

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.


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.

Auld Lang Syne

We’re coming to the end of another year. It seems like a ritual, but it never really feels like the end of anything, really. It feels like an observance that helps us mark something that we can’t really see, like a border. But it’s not really nothing either. When I think about the end of the year, it seems more like the articulated vestibule between train cars. We pass from one year into the next with a strange kind of effortlessness. You know you’re in between places, but that inbetween is a place of its own.

Photo by  Chris Huggins

Photo by Chris Huggins

Passing easily from one year to the next is not a satisfactory feeling. I sort of wish it was they way it used to be on trains before the vestibules: the noisy air full of soot and cinders, the gap between the cars requiring a bit of a leap to clear, the knuckle coupling pulsing and knocking malevolently as the train lurches along. As dangerous as it is to get from one car to the other, you know that you’ve done something once you’re across. You can take some satisfaction in that.

I’m beginning to think that perhaps too much of the world is easy these days. So much of what we accomplish comes at the push of a button, at the end of an upload, or as the result of a tap or swipe. I realize how old and crotchety this will make me sound, and I suppose that’s about right. I am a middle-aged curmudgeon of sorts. So, instead of a Jeremiad about technology and the like, and instead of an annual family letter, I thought I’d present a snapshot of the Petersen 5 as they are right now as we’re passing from one car to the next. Hopefully, this can give me a baseline for next year’s passage.

Maxwell is no longer in the nursery program at our church. Next Sunday, he’ll join the big kids in the primary program as a Sunbeam. With this kid we’re looking for any marker of age and maturity, because, despite his humor and intellectual prowess (not joking here), he is a runaway CPU process, a crotch puncher, and entirely deaf to the voices of his parents. He drains my batteries faster than any other thing that has ever been in my life to this point, and I’m including comprehensive exams, grading essays, and radiation treatments. We’re completely aware that we should not wish away any part of the kid’s temperment or wish him older. Curiosity is so hard to manage in a three-year-old and so lacking in adults. He’s got it, and we want him to keep hold of it. Maxwell also throws himself into everything so deeply that we could all take note. This is how you get things done. We’ll see what year four is like for this tiny tornado.

Isaac is in the eye of the storm. At nine, he’s come through the harrowing times that his little brother is in, and he’s yet to move into the tempestuous tweens where his sister has been. Ike has his own battles as a middle child and struggles daily to remind us not to forget him. He is not inclined towards any of the sportsball programs, which is going to make him the odd boy out around these parts. He’s 100% nerd, with glasses and a skinny frame. He scrunches up his face when he thinks, and it’s apparent that he’s always thinking about something, usually Minecraft. He is so much like me at his age that I worry I don’t honor his uniqueness. We’re watching him closely, and we’re impressed with his humor and intellect and memory and his ability to feel deeply. I want to encourage him to charge up his batteries during this calm.

Zoë is no longer in the primary program at our church. She’s moved on to the young women’s program, which means as a family, we’re poised for her to leave Tween Town for good. This year she’ll turn thirteen, she’ll advance from the seventh grade to the eighth, and a whole host of other transformations will take place. She’s made it through half of middle school without much drama (knock on wood). She is got it together, really, and I worry a little about what the future will hold for her. We hope that she’ll keep us in the loop, but that’s hardly likely, and it would hardly be her fault. Endocrinology is such a wild card, and as her body changes, her mind will, too. When I look at her, in her jammies, drawing lovely pictures of Totoro, I think of the maelstrom waiting to emerge. I want to be prepared for this. I hope that all those years working for the YMCA will supply some kind of Kung Fu for parenting a teenager.

Alisa is very possibly in the most flux of all. She has had a cascade of changes in the last few months and will continue in that vein for a while. She left classroom teaching this summer to take a job as the coordinator for an elementary arts education program. She now mentors many of the art teachers in southern Utah. Her supervisor is retiring, so she’s planning to apply for her job. If she gets it; big change. If she doesn’t; big change. So, there’s no getting around that. She’s also finshing her master’s degree with a thesis addressing the effects talking about art has on how children create art. Like our own kids, Alisa’s in a transition at our church. For a long time she’s had a ministerial calling with the young women. This Sunday the torch was passed to others, and she’s relieved of that calling. It is almost certain that this coming year will be unrecognizable from this last one.

Todd I’m probably the most stable, though this has hardly been norm. The passing year was a wild and tempestuous one; the upcoming one seems more likely to be calm. Last year, I left life as a classroom teacher and took on a new role as a program director, which puts Alisa and I in parallel tracks. Because of the big changes in Alisa’s professional life, I’ve been doing a lot more to keep things going at home. I’m in a phase where I have been living and working in the same place for longer than at any other stretch of time in my life thus far. I have some truly great friends here, new and old. The town we live in is in a legitimately lovely corner of the world. I have to admit that stability gives me a little bit of anxiety because it hints at the calamity lurking out there. The longer it’s been since an emergency the closer you are to the next one. I’ve got to watch what I eat, try to lose weight, and exercise. Normal stuff for a man my age. I’m doing that and I haven’t felt this good in years. I’m on the second chapter of a new book that I should be writing faster than I am, but I feel like this year is the year for that to take off. I’m not going to fret over the upcoming year, but I’m going to keep the old Arabic proverb in mind: “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.”

So, that’s what the transition time between 2014 and 2015 feels like for me. I tried to take its fingerprints. In a couple of days we’ll jump across the gap. We’ll see you there.

A Kind of Christmas Story

After college and before graduate school, I spent about three years in the "real world." Even though I've found the academic environment to be a good fit for me, I think it messes people up if they have never been in an non-school environment. For this reason, I will try to scare students away from graduate school if they're showing interest while they are still an undergraduate. I try to chase them out into a real job of some kind so they can find out if they still crave school.

When I graduated from college, I did not want to stay in school. I wanted out. After a year or so, I decided to be a writer. What a marvelous and naive dream! I had some favorites back then, Richard Hugo, William Stafford, Raymond Carver, Wallace Stegner. All of them were college professors, they taught creative writing, but in order to be a writing teacher, you kind of have to be a writer first, and I wasn't quite sure how to do that. Raymond Carver advised young writers in one of his essays (I've lost track of which one) to get a job as a night janitor or security guard, which he says will give you time, silence, and solitude. Since that was the only advice I found at that time, I followed it, applied for a job cleaning banks. 

When the manager asked why someone with a college degree wanted to clean banks, I said, "I'm trying to become a writer."

She looked at me for a while, and then smiled. "I don't know what that means, but you look like a hard worker."

It was easy, meditative work. I'd go to my first bank around 6:30 after getting a cheese burger at Dick's (the start of a dire habit). Usually the bank would be empty and dark. I had a key, which made me feel strangely powerful.

I'd start with the bathrooms, which I hated most, and which were filthier than you'd think they'd be in a financial institution. This is also where I learned that the ladies aren't the immaculate angels they claim to be. After the bathrooms, I'd clean the break room, the manager's office, then head out into the main lobby of the branch. Vacuuming was last.

The big epiphany of those first few shifts was the discovery that my key opened everything but the vault and the safety deposit box room. What a massive amount of trust these people had put in me, without a background check. When you think of janitors, you think about that ring of keys on their belt. I didn't have a whole ring, just one key, but it ruled them them all. Moving freely through a bank at night made me feel like a guy in a heist movie. It was kind of a thrill. 

After cleaning everything, which took about ninety minutes, I would situate myself at the drive-thru window and use the type writer. I made it clear that I was using scrap paper, in case someone was reviewing security footage. There were one or two smokey plastic domes in there, but I had no idea if there were real cameras inside. 

From that drive-thru office, I would write. I mostly stuck to poems because I had another bank to do, but I'd also work out story ideas, or just free write. From my stool, I could see the neon of the neighboring retail shops, cars whizzing by, and in the background was the looped music, lite jazz, lots of nylon string guitars and soprano saxophone.

Come Christmas, the music shifted over to Christmas carols the day after Thanksgiving, the carols were mostly secular, and also mostly lite jazz. By the second week of December, the "Carol of the Bells" sounded like Casiotone version of an Edgar Allen Poe poem. It was a cold winter in Seattle, so occasionally a little bit of snow would swirl through the night sky, only to melt on the ground. 

The week before Christmas, I walked into the break room after cleaning the johns, and there were two men on the far side of the room, talking quietly. I recognized one guy, the branch manager, but not the other. The only reason I knew the branch manager was the fact that he kept a photo of himself and a deer he'd shot on his desk by his cup of ball point pens.

The branch manager did not look up when I came in. The other guy's eyes went to the floor, then back to the branch manager. Never over to me.

I thought of leaving, but no one said anything, I crossed the room and pulled the trash bag, tied it off, and reached down into the can for a replacement liner. The longer I stayed it became clearer to me that this wasn't friendly banter. Still, no one said anything to me, so I moved about the room, with my wheelie cart, cleaning as quietly as I could. Eventually, I got close enough to hear the conversation. 

The employee had been caught embezzling money. He'd been given responsibility for the vault and ended up skimming money off the final count. The branch manager outlined what was going to happen. "You're going to resign. This is your letter. You'll sign it and submit it to me. I will submit it to the regional office." The employee took the paper and looked at it. "You will repay the money you stole," the branch manager continued, "on this schedule." He handed the employee another sheet of paper. 

At this point the employee was openly crying. The branch manager ignored the tears. "We are not going to involve law enforcement at the point, provided you keep to your payment schedule. If you miss a single payment, or if you are late just once, we'll call the police. This is your warning." The employee nodded and said thank you. The branch manager handed the employee and envelope. "This is your final pay check. After this, we're done. Do you understand?"

"I do," the employee said. "Thank you. I'm so sorry."

"That's enough," the manager said.

"Okay, I know...You've been kind. You didn't have to—"

"I said, that's enough. I'm going to get my things. You need to leave, so I can lock up." The branch manager left the room, leaving the employee and I alone in the break room.

The man gathered up the papers he'd been given and then saw me. "Hello," he said.

"Hello," I responded.

"Merry Christmas," he said.

"Thanks, same to you."

"Are you going anywhere for the holidays, or are you staying put?" He asked.

"My mom and sister are coming up from Portland."

"That's good," he said, "Family is important, really important. Have a good Christmas."

"You, too," I said, "I mean, do your best."

I hated myself for saying that, and I was waiting for the man to cry again, or snap. The only thing that happened was the guy slowly crossing the room. When he got close, he clasped my hand and shook it vigorously for a few seconds. I can safely say his was the clammiest hand I had ever touched. I looked into his eyes, which were red-rimmed and tearful. He was dark-whiskered, and the day's growth make him look sick.

He said nothing, but his look was a question: "how much of that did you hear?"

In my head, I replied, "Enough. I heard enough." Then my thoughts broke away for a moment as a realized I was living through a Carver short story. This was the experience you needed in order to write stories like that, and to value them. You can't learn it by reading it; you can only recognize it because you've lived it.

He shook my hand again, and said, "We're going to her parents this year."

"That's good," I said. "Godspeed."

I actually said "Godspeed" to this guy, like I was some bit actor in a Shakespeare play. He dropped my hand and left. In the end, I think he didn't hear me. Would I have have been listening to the janitor after I'd been fired for stealing? The guy had a small box of personal effects, like everyone who's ever been fired in a television show. After he left, I got my spray bottle and wiped down the tables, then I moved on to the rest of the bank.

After I finished the job, I went to the drive-thru with my stack of scratch paper. Just as I was about to take my seat to try and capture what had happened about an hour ago, I looked over my shoulder at the smokey plastic dome. I remember saying aloud, "Not tonight," and then I remember thinking, I can't steal this story from this guy, when his next move is to tell his wife he lost his job. Then I wondered if he was going to lie to her, tell her he had some vacation he had to use up or they'd take it.

I left the bank and stopped at Dairy Queen for some fries and a sundae. I tried to write it there, in the booth, but it was already too late. I was out of the moment, and filled with sadness. After my little snack, I cleaned the other bank after checking all the rooms to see that I was alone.

Since that day, I have thought about this moment hundreds of times, I've tried to write it, too, but I never could. The thought for me was never about how crazy it was to see a guy get busted for embezzling. The thought was always: Why didn't they stop talking and wait for me to clear out or ask me for some privacy? Why did all of that go on with me in the room?

It took a while for me to figure it out, but the answer was that they didn't see me. I was beneath them, so I didn't register. I had to see this kind of thing go down in other contexts before I understood it.

How often does this kind of filtering happen? How often do we, because of our privilege, overlook all the people who take care of our messes? Even worse, how often do we look away, because we know that we're all brothers and sisters or indistinguishable from each other on the genome. And yet some of us are the mess makers and some of us are the mess cleaners? How often do we realize that it's unfair and unkind to divide ourselves this way, but we like how things have worked out for us, and we're unwilling to trade places.

Because of the time of year this story took place, Christmas often triggers my memory the most acutely. It makes me think about December 26th, Boxing Day, and its tradition of giving gifts to the help. It seems like a both a kind gesture and crappy one. Through the gift, or the tip, we reinforce the basic inequality of our culture.

I'm a tenured college professor now, which is a tremendous privilege, but I've been a janitor, and I've dug holes for a living, and I've driven a day care van, made pizzas, bagged groceries, and sorted recycling. Now I grade papers and go to meetings, and janitors clean my office. 

I try to "see" them when they are there. I try to talk to them, but it seems to embarrass them, so I've stopped. Sometimes there is more dignity in going unnoticed.