Category Archives: Life

Be a Doer, Not a Talker-Abouter

I was looking through some old files and found this essay from 2006 that I wrote for “Business First.” It’s a good reminder for me.  Maybe it is for you too…

6064828421_02499ee2f6I recently attended the funeral of a cousin who had been a big part of my youth but had slipped to the fringes of my adult life.  She was fifty-two and left a husband and three children between the ages of nine and twenty-five.  Her death was sudden and terrible and brought the extended family together to mourn and remember.

At the service, I sat in the back, and as the preacher worked his way through the message, I watched the family and friends gathered there and wondered what they thought.  I also wondered about my cousin, her regrets and what they might have been.  After a while, I turned the question on myself and gave it serious thought.

About a year ago, I made a leap of faith and acted on a desire that I’d been putting off for years.  When I was in my twenties, it was easy to avoid things – there was always tomorrow – but the back end of my thirties had left me with some looming regrets that were getting harder to ignore.

The biggest of these was an unfulfilled desire to write, to tell stories about things that were important to me.  I grew up telling stories and dreaming about having them published, but feared the vulnerability that comes with putting thoughts to paper.  I had made a few lame attempts, but retreated to my books and journal at the first twinge of exposure.

The pangs of regret were slight, at first, and easy to ignore, but they persisted and grew to the point of distraction, until my fear of regret overcame my fear of being judged and goaded me into action.

There were many false-starts.  After a lot of shuffling around the house, I realized I couldn’t work there.  The distractions were too much.  Evenings were the same.  The intrusions on my schedule forced me to consider other options, and I ended up at a local coffee shop, hanging out for a couple hours each morning before work.  I hated to give up sleep, but it was the best option.

Those first weeks were spent reading and thinking about writing.  I didn’t put a single word to paper.  I didn’t know where to begin, so I read how-to books by Stephen King, Anne Lamott, and John Dufresne, as well as countless pieces gathered from the internet.  I pored over each text with a red pen and yellow highlighter, looking for clues and gaining some much needed discipline.

One morning, a few months later, I showed up, as usual, but when I grabbed the book I’d been reading, I felt weird.  I opened it and struggled to get through a single page.  I couldn’t focus.  I tried again, but my mind kept drifting off to a story idea.  I couldn’t shake it, so I put the book away and took out a legal pad and started writing.  Within moments I was drawn into an alternate reality and became so focused that I was late for work.  I went back to the story at lunch, that day, and couldn’t wait to pick it up the following morning.  I was on my way.

A mentor encouraged me to keep busy and produce as much work as I could, believing that a high volume of output would help to speed up the learning curve.  He also believed in the pressure of deadlines and suggested setting fake ones until real deadlines came along.  I followed his advice and soon found myself juggling four deadlines with the stuff I was doing for myself.

There’s a quote by Woody Allen that goes, “80% of success is just showing up.”  I love that line and repeat it often.  I have great faith in the idea behind it because, after showing up at a coffee shop every morning for more than a year, reading and thinking and staring out windows, I finally had a breakthrough.  I put a word on a piece of paper, and then another, and then another until I had many legal pads filled with words.  It’s difficult work and I still worry about what people will think, but I’m having too much fun to stop now.  My only regret is that I didn’t start sooner.

Happy Birthday, Dad

No Good the Dancing Donkey

Today’s the 67th birthday of Richard Slucher, my dad, the guy who gave me a hairbrush for my 5th birthday.  I remember him telling me I was old enough to have one of my own.  Not wanting to seem ungrateful, I pretended to be thrilled by it.  What I really wanted was a bike.  After my party was over and my friends and family had left, the real gift – the bike – was revealed…but I had to trade the brush for it.

Dad’s also the guy who had a HUGE box waiting for me in the living room on the morning of my 8th or 9th birthday with “FRAGILE,” “USE NO HOOKS,” “THIS END UP,” and stuff like that printed all over it.  It was a weekday morning, and I had an after school party, so he told me I’d have to wait for the party to open this mysterious gift.  Needless to say I learned nothing at school that day.  My mind was consumed with fantasies of what could possibly be in so large a box.  After an interminably long day of torture, I raced home to my birthday party – and that obscenely large crate.  I pretended to enjoy the preliminaries, and finally, when it was time to open the main event, I was so trembling with anticipation that I could barely operate my hands.  It was surely going to be a watershed moment in my life.

I ripped off the white butcher paper and clumsily pulled apart the tape that held the flaps of the box together.  Inside…was a slightly smaller box.  Confused, I pulled it out of the bigger box and struggled through the industrial tape that held it shut only to find a still slightly smaller box.  This process repeated itself many, many times.  What started as an electric moment, with my friends as antsy as me, turned into a surreal mash-up of Candid Camera meets the ultimate bummer.  My hopes for birthday nirvana diminished in proportion to the size of the boxes until at last I came to the final one, which was no more than a shoebox.  This one opened easily, and inside was a Golden Book titled “No Good the Dancing Donkey.”  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  There was a gap of total silence before anyone said anything.  Finally, the joke was revealed and the true gift presented.  I can’t remember what it even was.

I could go on to describe the Halloween night when I was too sick to go trick-or-treating and gave out candy while he lay on the roof and dropped one of my sister’s dolls on unsuspecting princesses, hobos, and super heroes (he tied a cord around the neck, so he could pull it back up) – but  you get the picture.

He’s got it coming, but I’ll wait another year to get even.

Happy birthday, Dad.  I love you.

The Sacred Ritual of Pumpkin Carving

When I was a kid, carving pumpkins was one of the yearly rituals that marked the family calendar.

About a week before Halloween, Dad would come home with a pumpkin at least as big as a basketball, and on the night when we did the carving, Mom made us all snacks and made sure the kitchen table was covered with newspaper.

As with the Thanksgiving turkey, Dad did the carving.  First, he’d cut a hole in the top big enough for my sister and I to reach in and pull out the slimy seeds and stringy pumpkin guts.  We took our time at this task, playing with the innards and shaking them in each others’ face until Dad would tell us to knock it off so he could finish his job and relax.

With the pumpkin more or less hollowed out, Dad would take over and cut as gruesome a face as he could muster.  He had a talent for this sort of thing that would resurface years later in the form of beautiful wood carvings.

There were never any happy or friendly jack-o’-lanterns at our house.  Slucher jack-o’-lanterns were like the gargoyles on a medieval cathedral, meant to scare away evil spirits, but as hideous as they were, they failed to make an impression on the marauding teenagers who roamed the neighborhood late at night, looking for pumpkins to smash.

Every year, the morning of November first meant waking to find the streets covered with the viscera and busted chunks of every single pumpkin in the neighborhood that had been left out.  It was pumpkin genocide.

And now, I’m the Dad.

Last weekend, I rounded up the kids for the ritual carving of the jack-o’-lanterns.  My wife was working, so I also handled the newspaper and the snacks.  Each of my three daughters had their own pumpkin, which ranged from small to large according to age.

We held to my parents’ script, except that I let the girls draw the faces they wanted me to carve.  Ferocity is absent from my front porch, and in its place are three happy-go-lucky jack-o’-lanterns that are more Santa’s helpers than Satan’s henchmen.

Just as seasonal rituals like pumpkin carving at Halloween were important to me and my sister when we were kids, so too are they important to my own children.  My girls have embraced and taken ownership of the rituals in our house, which provide a sense of rhythm and continuity to a household that can often seem chaotic and improvised.

As my family celebrates the special dates on our calendar – birthdays, holidays, and other special times – my hope is that the repeated observance of these milestones will accumulate and build a backlog of happy memories, shared in the form of stories frequently told.