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by Todd Walton, April 3, 2014
“The human is indissolubly linked with imitation: a human being only becomes human at all by imitating other human beings.” — Theodor Adorno
In his famous essay on parenting, Punishment Versus Discipline, Bruno Bettelheim wrote that children do what their parents do, not what their parents say to do. My father, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, was a big fan of Bettelheim, but he did not heed Bruno’s advice in rearing my siblings and me. On the contrary, my father rigorously did the opposite of what he said we should do, and the results were as Bettelheim predicted: we ignored most of what my father said and imitated many of his repeated actions. My mother also modeled behavior that contradicted her spoken directives, and we generally imitated her behavior rather than the dictates of her speeches. Thus we were initially formed.
My father loved to talk about things he was going to do, and once in a great while he would start something, but only rarely finish what he started. I made several determined efforts in my teens not to follow in my father’s footsteps, especially when it came to the completion of tasks, and thought I had succeeded in not imitating my father in this regard, but later discovered I had followed his example in many ways.
Because school was easy for me, one of the ways I imitated my father that escaped my attention and the attention of my teachers was my reluctance to complete tests and homework. I would answer eight of ten questions on a quiz, and three-fourths of the questions on big tests, but never all the questions. I rarely completed my math homework or essays for English, but I still managed to get B and C grades, my teachers would tell my mother I needed to make more of an effort, and life went on.
By the time I took (and didn’t finish) the SAT exam my senior year of high school pursuant to going to college, I was aware of my quirk of not finishing school things and told myself it was because tests and essays and homework were stupid and irrelevant and I was so smart I didn’t need to finish things. But the truth was I could not finish things, and I didn’t know why.
A few years after dropping out of college — speaking of not finishing things — I thought I’d try to get a job with the United State Postal Service. Two-thirds of the way through their employee exam, I suddenly couldn’t breathe, and my only recourse was to rush out of the building without finishing the test. I remember getting home and explaining to my girlfriend that I hadn’t finished the test because “I just wasn’t into it,” though many years later in therapy I saw my failure to complete the postal exam as part of a larger pattern of not being able to finish things I started.
“If your kid needs a role model and you ain’t it, you’re both fucked.” — George Carlin
When I was in my early twenties, I went to work for a man who had no trouble finishing what he started. I will never forget the day, early in our friendship, when this man and his four children and I took our sandwiches and drinks outside for an impromptu picnic and one of the kids said, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a picnic table like that big one in the park with the benches and top all connected?”
And moments after finishing our lunch, we were building that table. Three hours later we were sitting at that beautiful six-person table drinking lemonade. The tools had been cleaned and put away, the sawdust swept up and added to the compost pile, and one of my boss’s children was sitting at the brand new table doing her homework. Making that picnic table was nothing out of the ordinary in the life of my boss and his family, but for me it was a cataclysmic event and the beginning of my transformation into someone who finishes what he starts.
For you see, my father spoke of building that very same table from the time I was a little boy until I left home at eighteen. He doodled countless sketches of that table over the years, and when I was twelve he and I went to buy the wood for such a table only to have him declare the people running the lumberyard crooks, so the project went no further. And now, with joy and ease, this confident man and his children and I had made this handsome sturdy table that would serve them wonderfully well for the rest of their lives. That which had been an impossible dream for my entire childhood and teenage years turned out to be no big deal.
“Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.” — E.B.White
I am in the midst of creating a multi-volume work of fiction under the primary title Ida’s Place, and I am currently birthing Book Two. A couple days ago on Big River Beach, I found a comfortable perch on a driftwood log, watched a line of seventeen pelicans glide northward over the sparkling water, and then I commenced to write. After I covered a few pages with hopeful scrawl, I read what I’d written and realized my epic had jumped ahead to Book Three or possibly Book Four.
I gazed toward Japan and said, “I’m onto your tricks. Back off. First we finish Book Two, and then you may bring me Book Three. Not before. Agreed?”
Two ravens materialized in the proscenium of my vision and performed a breathtaking aerial pas de deux before winging away to the south, a performance I took as Universe and Subconscious acquiescing to my request.
When I was in my late twenties, over and over again, just as I was about to finish writing a book or play, my psyche would be invaded by a fantastically compelling idea for a new novel or play, and I would put aside the nearly completed work because this new thing was just too thrilling not to pursue. And there came a moment when every surface of my hovel was stacked with the pages of four nearly completed novels and two nearly completed plays…and when a fifth novel began to speak itself I finally realized what was going on: I was a prisoner of the imperative Never Finish Anything.
“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.” — Marshall McLuhan
When I was in my mid-thirties I visited my parents at the house where I lived from six to eighteen, and my mother begged me to finish something my father had started building several years before — a small deck adjacent to their redwood hot tub. Soaking in that tub was one of my mother’s few unmitigated pleasures, and the unfinished deck was a minefield of accidents waiting to happen to anyone getting in and out of the tub, especially at night. So I informed my father that I was going to compete the job, and he huffed and puffed and said he would go to the hardware store later that day and get the things we needed.
My father’s tone of voice implied he had no intention of going to the hardware store, so I said I would be happy to get whatever was needed and do the job without him. Having built several decks by then, I calculated the work, including a trip to the hardware store, would take about two hours. My father then suddenly remembered he already had everything we needed to complete the job, and we got to work.
After an hour of my father telling me I didn’t know what I was doing, he said, “That’s enough. Let’s have a drink. I’ll finish this after you leave. You didn’t come home to work, did you?”
And I looked at him and said, “But all we have left to do is screw down these last few boards and put up a railing along the side there. I’m enjoying this and I want to finish in time for Mom’s evening soak.”
“Oh, I see what you’re doing,” he said, sneering at me. “You want be the hero, don’t you? Save the day.”
“Right, Dad,” I said, mystified as always by his contempt for me. “I want to be the hero and save the day.”
(Todd Walton’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.)