figuring it out

i believe in your victory

Adversity toughens manhood, and the characteristic of the good or the great man is not that he has been exempt from the evils of life, but that he has surmounted them.” –Patrick Henry

Vin Diesel smirks from the cover of a recent Men’s Fitness magazine. He is all biceps and muscled shoulders. His white t-shirt is too tight. Under the title, “Diesel Strength: Vin’s Max-Your-Life Secrets”, he reveals what it means to be true in one’s “man-ness.”

Of all the more important things one could think about–including the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent momentous decisions–I find myself pondering what it means to be a man nowadays.

It is a running joke between my wife and I how manly I am compared to the average guy. On one end are men like Vin Diesel or her perennial favorite, Matthew McConaughey, once her gold standard in masculinity. On the other end are gay men in film and entertainment like Anderson Cooper and fashion icons like Tom Ford with more style, class and something else essential in the rubric of manhood, authenticity.

My wife kids me that she wants me “just this side of gay” which is not meant to be a slur. Quite the opposite in fact. To she and some of her friends, gay men embody more style, have better grooming than the average “manly man”, are funnier and are generally more authentic with their feelings. Gay men are not caught up in appearing tough.

To be a real man, I must be as cool McConaughey, as bad ass as Diesel, as stylish as Ford, as funny as Key and Peele, all while maintaining the sensitivity of a golden retriever…

You might see the enormity of my challenge. To be a real man, I must dance along a line: as cool McConaughey, as bad ass as Diesel, as stylish as Ford, as funny as Key and Peele, all while maintaining the sensitivity of a golden retriever.

Between us, my wife and I have four daughters and one son. It is important for my daughters and for my son to see what authenticity looks like in a man just as it does in women. This includes kindness. I am trying to teach our kids the right way to treat people under all conditions. My wife and her friends sometimes chide me for being a softy. My demeanor is deliberate; Kindness and sensitivity are just right. They are as masculine as strength and grit. 

I want my children to grow up with a sense that chivalry and equality can exist in the same household.  In a world of rudeness and self-absorption I want them to see that kindness and style are cool. That women don’t have to always be feminine and masculine at the same time in order to compete with–and attract–the manly men they will work beside in their careers.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire the tough guy heroes actors like Diesel play. In fact, one of my favorite movie roles is Diesel’s Riddick. Don’t even get me started on Fast and Furious. Car movies rock. 

There is, however, something in our DNA as a culture that speaks out of both sides of its metaphorical mouth: We say it is cool for men to freely express their feelings while in the same breath we make fun of it as weakness. It’s okay to have style that stands out but too much attention to dress and we’ll call you gay.  Not in a complimentary way. We want strong heroes but we say men who exhibit too much strength “need to get in touch with their feminine side.”

No wonder it’s so hard.

It is not beyond me to be sensitive. I can cry. Really. This made me cry: Drew Lynch: Comedian with a Stutter Wins over America’s Got Talent Judges  Ondine, a beautiful movie with Colin Farrell as a down-in-his-luck Irish fisherman who catches a mermaid in his net, made me ball. In fact, I have a reputation for being really sensitive.

Like some gay men might be.

Before you dismiss me as a whiny, confused baby boomer, you have to consider I also do guy things:  I mow the lawn. My puny biceps, built from years as a runner and cyclist, bulge as I wield the Craftsman weed whacker like a maestro.

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I go up on my roof to clear leaves. I know which end of the hammer to hold. I build with the focus and skill of an experienced contractor. (okay, I’ll admit this is an exaggeration. I’m more like those DIY’ers begging the guy at Stadium Hardware to help me out of a jam I’ve created in a home renovation project gone awry).  I am pretty competent around power tools, though those who know I had a little accident recently and there is now one less power tool in my quiver (see Everything Seems Like It Used To Be Something Else).

Just like Diesel, only me.

In recent years I have upped my fashion game. Deliberately. I have a rule: Never be the worst dressed guy in the room. Even if I’m only slightly better dressed than other guys, that’s okay. I notice the nuances of how guys dress and where they go wrong.

I have a rule: Never be the worst dressed guy in the room.

I check out men’s fashion on Pinterest and in magazines. When I dress for work I choose specific combinations of pants, shirts and ties, even socks and shoes so that I can convey a certain look. Is my deliberateness in choice of dress gay?

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To me, a sense of style, sensitivity and kindness are the badges of an evolved man. They have nothing to do with sexuality. Displaying kindness even in the face of the judgement is as masculine as muscle.

Kindness is opening the car door for my wife, listening when she speaks, giving her the last Oreo (most of the time).  I participate in folding the laundry and doing dishes, vacuuming and cleaning and thank her in front of them when she does all those chores. I am not saying other men don’t do these things and more. I am not better than anyone. And I know my daughters have other male role models in their lives; my ex’s husband appears to treat my daughters’ mother with kindness and respect.

I show my kids simple things like opening the car door for my wife, listening when she speaks, giving her the last Oreo (most of the time).

Ultimately, it’s about not judging people on their appearance, but on their Behavior with a capital “B”. Can we appreciate an individual’s approach to style as well as their emotions without questioning their sexuality? Can we as a culture disconnect sexuality from a judgement about masculinity?

When I cut off my middle finger in a table saw a couple weeks ago, the pain was off the charts. I didn’t cry a tear. Is that manly enough?

Ultimately, it’s about not judging people on their appearance, but on their Behavior with a capital “B”.

I smile when my kids notice my efforts. My stepson regularly opens my wife’s door, his sisters’ doors and mine. One moment he rushes ahead to hold the door and won’t relent until we pass. The next we discuss his favorite tool brands (“Dewalt is my favorite, then Porter-Cable, then Kobalt,” he tells me.) This lesson has stuck.

To me there is nothing more powerful than a man living his truth. I only know Vin Diesel the actor not the real man inside. So he can punch harder, kill more aliens, and drive faster than I ever will. He is a man’s man. I will never have his biceps nor his six pack. I’m okay with that. As long as I earn the respect of my wife and my kids for the kind of man I am, I can live with not being a super man. A gentle man is just fine.

“This is the test of your manhood: How much is there left in you after you have lost everything outside of yourself?” –Orison Swett Marden

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figuring it out

however long it takes

“Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.” — William James. 

I read once that the average meal at a fast food restaurant takes 11 minutes. That’s 11 minutes from walking in the door to ordering, eating and back out to the parking lot. There is a way of approaching life that can be similar to eating at a fast food restaurant.

Fast food restaurants are not about savoring.  Not the food. Not the experience of eating. Not even a peaceful moment to oneself to pause in the middle of a busy day. The process of gobbling down a double cheeseburger with special sauce, large fries and 24 ounces of soda is like swallowing experiences almost without chewing. With no reflection, the mark an experience might leave–and the opportunity for awareness–is minimal. With no reflection, experiences are like the drive through where one orders to fill immediate hunger but fails to feed the soul.

With no reflection, experiences are like the drive through where one orders to fill immediate hunger but fails to feed the soul.

I listened today to an interview with a Scottish crime novelist who is about to publish her sixth murder mystery set in the Shetland Islands, a subarctic archipelago northeast of Great Britain. Ann Cleeves was a 24-year-old college dropout when she first came to the Shetland Islands. As she explained in the NPR story she worked as a cook in a bird observatory. She knew nothing about either cooking or birds.

Cleeves had already written twenty crime novels, one a year for 20 years, without any notoriety by the time she returned to The Shetlands with her husband and became inspired by a scene of black ravens standing on crystalline white snow. The scene became her first book set in The Shetlands, Raven Black. There is now a BBC Television series based on her books.

For me the important part of Cleeves’ story is the 20 years she spent writing unheralded novels. Now that she is on the cultural radar, Cleeves’ success might appear to be overnight, like JK Rowling’s with The Harry Potter Series, or Steven King’s supernatural novels like Carrie or Cujo.th

But to focus on just the most recent celebrity is to miss the bigger story, akin to going only to the drive through for meals. Rather than being instant, success for Cleeves and many others is the culmination of a process that has a beginning and repeated, continual efforts over a long time, interspersed with little failures. In The Rise, Sarah Lewis describes how many creatives believe their works are never finished, despite the labels of “genius”, “innovation”, “masterpiece” others place on their work. She tells a story of how Cezanne only signed about 10 percent of his paintings because he didn’t believe them worthy of being called finished. William Faulkner re-wrote sections of The Sound and the Fury after it was published.

Malcolm Gladwell famously dubbed the time creatives spend developing their abilities the “10,000-hour Rule.” His research shows it took any number of people viewed as successful today at least 10,000 hours of continual effort to master their crafts to create the opportunity to succeed. People like Steve Balmer and Bill Gates. Mozart and a host of artists, dancers, writers, and other creative types.

I have been writing for 34 years, ever since I started in journalism as a junior in college. Writing has not always been my sole focus, something I did everyday or nearly everyday, except for my time as a newspaper reporter. Yet I have always yearned to write, either as part of my work or as something I did on the side. But for a long time I felt if I wasn’t serious about writing–as in earning income from my work–then I should be focusing on more important things. It used to be for me earning a dollar from writing was the only gauge of its value.

Rather than being instant…success is the culmination of a process that has a beginning and repeated, continual efforts over a long time, interspersed with little failures.

When my daughter Paige was born I got more serious about journaling. In the 17 years since, I have kept a continuous journal as a reflection of what is going on in my life and in the lives of my kids and those around me. Though there are gaps in my writing history, periods where my self-reflection was limited or where problems I encountered didn’t need to be worked out in my head and on paper, writing has been an important part of who I am. It’s like an ongoing dialogue with myself to figure my way out of challenges. Other times, it has been simply to brain dump and feel better.

Inevitably, my writing has been a way to learn about life. I like to think in many ways it has made me a better person. To reflect upon my thinking, my choices, and the dilemmas I have faced offers me perspective on how I can do better.

This morning’s NPR interview reminded me that reward for any worthwhile endeavor is always out somewhere on the horizon. It is the doing that is most important much more so than reaching the end. Ann Cleeves couldn’t have known that her trip with her husband to the Shetlands would yield six books, a TV series and success as a writer. She toiled for 20 years writing middling crime novels only few bought and certainly no BBC TV executives. But it is precisely this patient practice through all those years that set Cleeves up for success. Just as all the hours upon hours of programming Balmer and Gates did as teens and early twenty somethings helped them create a software giant.

Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use. ~Earl Nightingale

My “toil”, if it is even fair to call it, is more private and less public. I have no novels, not even a published short story. The blue couch essays have been a shortcut to get the sense of being published and having someone read my words. It is not the” thing.” The “thing” would be the published book. It is the purpose upon which my life has been built.

All the other “work” I’ve done has been distraction, superfluous. Powerful though the distractions have been, they really amounted needless ambition to keep up with former colleagues in a meaningless chase for some sort of ego boost. I was bent on being liked and accepted into the club, like some tightly knit cross-country team from high school.

Through the years I got inklings my ladder was on the wrong wall but I was either too ignorant or too intoxicated by what I was doing to see.

Through the years I got inklings my ladder was on the wrong wall but I was either too ignorant or too intoxicated by what I was doing to see. Pulling into a Best Western or Holiday Inn and with my American Express Card with Nike Corporate on it made me feel important.

Writing is the more difficult path. It is the one with fewer obvious rewards. It is also the one harder for others to understand. Yet it has always felt more authentic. What scared me away was the practical equation that gets almost everyone:

work = money = security

The truth is that work never means security, just the illusion of security. Once one is fired a couple times the idea becomes clearer. Each time I have been fired, instead of pausing to decipher the real meaning, I jumped back onto the Habitrail of job seeking and interviewing until at last, I gave my security to a new employer.

And while I’ve tried to become less encumbered by material things as my awareness of their lethal nature to my freedom has grown, I have not run away from them altogether either. I have a mortgage and a car and child support and health insurance. Some things I can’t get rid of, like kids with desires and needs. I still buy clothes, although more deliberately and when anything comes in, something else goes away.

But I haven’t yet solved the work = (enough) money = security equation. I’m not very efficient at converting work into money if it doesn’t involve a salary.

Spending so much time pondering this equation drains energy that would otherwise be devoted to creative endeavors, like writing.

I don’t care about many things more. My wife and my kids above all. Then my close friends. I come last. In each day I have to take care of each of them first before I get to me. So I have gone to work deliberately for 20 plus years knowing that it was this obligation underlying   getting up and going on the road. I was attracted to the work at times, even intoxicated by it.

But I’ve learned also that when one takes a long view, one that spans over time, you begin to see patterns and values. The effort of doing the simple thing daily as part of an as yet unrealized and unbroken chain toward a vision of the future becomes less drudgery and more meaningful. It’s as if sitting down everyday at the typewriter, er, keyboard, and writing a few hundred words that might become something nearly worthy of publishing is more important than the destination itself.  Like skipping the drive through and preparing lunch yourself.

In achieving anything meaningful, it is repeating the mantra, “however long it takes,” quietly over and over again.

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figuring it out

the sky above, the field below

We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.

-Marcel Proust

I didn’t intend to meditate. Yet here I was, sitting cross-legged on a rectangular stone, just above the beach. The sun, up for more than an hour, had reached the point where the breeze caught its heat and I could feel its warmth on my cheek.

It was quiet. Just the gentle, constant push of the waves upon the beach, the call of a few seagulls. IMG_0005And me, sitting on this rock with my eyes closed. I concentrated on the sound of the ocean and on the breeze and on my breathing. I couldn’t stop thinking that I would never be in this place ever again. Life offers us so many experiences. It’s hard to know which to capture and  which to discard. But it is absolutely a mistake to treat them like commodities you could just pop up to the Speedway and buy cheap off a rack like M&M’s.

I was on vacation with my family in Florida. We were staying in this beautiful little boutique hotel called the Lotus Inn in Ormond Beach. The hotel sits right on a wide, flat beach. To the south is the Spring Break craziness of Daytona.

I like to get up early on vacation, before anyone else is awake. I went to the lobby to grab a coffee, greeted the German shift manager and headed out to the pool to read and watch the sunrise.

I was already a little late. The sun was well on its path up and there were  a few people passing by down on the sand. No one was yet at the pool. It was an ideal setting to sip my coffee and read. I felt a deep, mystical joy like I was experiencing something for the very first time. It was the kind of bliss you might notice after making love to your wife or husband or watching your kid master something difficult.

Then it occurred to me. Why is it we so often rush through our experiences with out taking an accounting? I realized I will most likely never be in this spot ever again.

I had no expectation of any revelations. I just wanted a tranquil place to enjoy a few pages of a Haruki Murakami novel and my coffee. But the moment grabbed me and pulled me in. After a bit I put down my book and stared at the ocean. Something so simple and complex as the water collapsing against the shore over and over again in an indecipherable rhythm. There is no more peaceful sight and sound, I thought.

I closed my eyes, and using what little meditation training I’ve had, slipped from listening to the ocean to focusing on my breathing. I sat only for about 10 minutes but it was 10 exquisite minutes of nothingness. My head was clear. There was no past and no future. Only this moment.

Then it occurred to me. Why is it we so often rush through our experiences without taking an accounting? I realized I will most likely never be in this spot ever again. There will be no do-over at the Lotus Boutique Inn and Suites. No first trips to the Harry Potter adventure at Universal Studios with my kids. No first times feeling my stomach churn on The Hulk roller coaster.

Even more important, my children will grow up and move on. My wife and I will have other things to attend to. Experiences are only fresh once. After that, the same experiences become mistakes.  Before you know it massive amounts of time have passed and for what?

As I sat and explored this idea, I realized that we can’t capture every moment. This one would have been perfect to pack in my suitcase and take home. But how much pleasure and wisdom have I missed, I wondered, because I was in a hurry or uncomfortable and just wanted these moments over with?

How much pleasure and wisdom have I missed because I was in a hurry or uncomfortable and just wanted those moments over with?

The moments we assemble ARE life. My sixth grade teacher admonished me to “groove on the step I was now taking”. I realized this is what he probably meant. What he was telling me in 1970 to pay attention to I was just realizing in this moment–BE PRESENT.

I have this theory that we can improve our feelings about the past by being more present today. The past is today one day older. If one is aware and engaged in building the best life, then the work is assembling one great moment after another in the present.

When I see people in a hurry, rushing who knows where, I always wonder why the haste? What is so important?

The past is today one day older.

Even the simplest of journeys can become more pleasurable if we simply focus on this moment. There is a great scene in the movie Say Anything where John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobbler talks about the future with his girlfriend’s father. Much to the father’s chagrin,  Lloyd is ultimately only focused on the present. “I just want to spend as much time hanging with your daughter,” he says.

Say you are on a bus on the way to work. You smile at the driver as you get on and pay your fare. You catch someone’s eye and nod as you take your seat. Your smiles and your nods are returned in a singular truth of Karma. Everything feels more relaxed. Slowed down. In control. You breathe easier. You notice spring is slowly taking over from winter. There is fresh green mixed with the dead brown. People are out walking.

If we slow down and focus on just this time, each moment has the potential to be greater.

This is just one example from this simple thought: If we slow down and focus on just this time, each moment has the potential to be greater. It is not that we won’t still have challenges. But even unpleasant experiences can be fuller, more robust and can give us lessons we can apply later.

But don’t worry about later. Go find a beach and find your sunrise and a warm breeze and listen to your breathing.

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figuring it out

a world that can’t stop talking

“We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal–the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight…We like to think we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual–the kind who’s comfortable ‘putting himself out there.’ –Susan Cain in her wonderful book, Quiet

In 1975 I fell in love with a movie called Three Days of the Condor. Robert Redford played a bookish CIA agent in a secret office in Washington, DC who analyzed the plots of spy novels. He spent his workdays reading to see if any fiction writers stumbled on operations the CIA conducted. One day, while he slipped out a basement door of the nondescript townhouse for lunch, all his co-workers were murdered by a rogue CIA operation.

Redford, whose code name was Condor, was an unlikely hero spy. He spent the movie trying to figure out why everyone in his office was killed and why they also wanted him dead.

th-4I identified with Redford’s character because, I realize now, he was a consummate introvert. His co-workers ignored him. He worked alone in the CIA office, contentedly reading and writing reports he never knew if anyone ever read.

When I was a kid I spent long hours by myself in my room drawing and building model cars. On the card my parents gave me on my 13th birthday, my father wrote, “There are more things in life than pizza and models.”

When I was older, I played tennis and played into college. In 10th grade I ran cross-country. I enjoyed that both were mostly solitary endeavors. In tennis my focus was not the player on the other side. I didn’t play someone else as much as respond to the direction, speed and rotation of the tennis ball. My college coach always told us to “play the ball, not the guy on the other side of the net.”

On the card my parents gave me on my 13th birthday, my father wrote, “There are more things in life than pizza and models.”

During cross season, my five teammates and I did training runs through the tall cornfields not far from school, running loops around the perimeter, then back on country roads to school. Even if we ran as a team, I spent most of the time somewhere else, getting lost in the rhythm of my footsteps and the thoughts floating around inside my head.

What drew me to running all those years ago was the chance for solitude. The thousands of miles over the past 30 years have been my time to contemplate, to just be by myself, even if I ran with others.

My wife just finished Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, which we discussed often as she read. Ms. Cain has validated many of my notions about the past. What I once saw as social and career failure, she has helped me re-frame: I was an introvert trying to be an extrovert. According to Cain, this is like being a woman in a man’s world, “discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are.”

Clarity about one’s true nature, understanding what ignites one’s soul and what crushes it, is one of the most direct routes toward personal contentment we can hope for.

Clarity about one’s true nature, understanding what ignites one’s soul and what crushes it, is one of the most direct routes toward personal contentment we can hope for.

For most of my life, I thought I was supposed to be outgoing, gregarious, joking, overtly friendly–an extrovert. I remember a conversation with my dad once at the grocery store. We were talking about work politics and I asked my dad about his approach.

“I haven’t been very good at the politics,” he said. “You are much more outgoing.”

th-12It is common in our society for introverts to try to be extroverts, much to their detriment. Cain says our society favors the extroverts. The loud, glad-handing, attention-grabbing individualists to whom everyone gravitates. When I look at my past, at the tennis and cross-country which I embraced, the friendships I built, the field sales jobs I took, and the intimate relationships I sought, I see introvert written all over them.

To prove something to myself, I took one of the personality tests you can find online. I invited my wife to take it too. You can find it here .

The test confirmed it: I am INFP. Introvert. Intuitive. Feeling. Perceiving. (Incidentally, my wife is exactly the same).

When I apply this new-found perspective to my work life, for example, I can see why things happened as they did. There were times that work felt like a frenetic popularity contest. My opinion had to be noticed and appreciated. I got a kind of high on being recognized for my humor and constant contributions to the conversation. When I wasn’t the center of attention, when my jokes failed or I wasn’t included in conversations, my self-esteem plummeted. I became an approval junkie.

There was some deep need for external approval from my co-workers. But the game of trying to stay the center of attention wasn’t something I was good at. It tired me out. I wasted so much time trying to be an extrovert instead of playing to my strengths, which are observation, intuition, quiet contemplation. I am an introvert.

I wasted so much time trying to be an extrovert instead of playing to my strengths, which are observation, intuition, quiet contemplation. I am an introvert.

For all my efforts at trying to be a popular, outgoing, sociable and significant part of the chemistry of workgroups, I often found myself retreating back into my head. At one point, work friends started calling me Houdini, because after all-day meetings and the social dinners and then drinks til late in the night, I would simply disappear. I just needed to be by myself.

As a child I spent gobs of time alone. This set the tone for me as an adult. Though I thought the game was played by being extroverted, my very nature has always been introversion.

“Many people believe that introversion is about being antisocial, and that’s really a misperception. Because actually it’s just that introverts are differently social. So they would prefer to have a glass of wine with a close friend as opposed to going to a loud party full of strangers,” Cain writes.

There is little more powerful than understanding what makes one tick. Had I listened to the little, quiet voices in my head and my heart, I could have been truer to my real temperament. Who knows what life would have opened up for me then? 

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If the notion of introversion interests you, I strongly recommend a read of Susan Cain’s book, Quiet. Far from either introversion or extroversion being absolute personalities, many of us are some of both. Here is her website. Of course you can find her book on Amazon. I always recommend either buying directly from the author if possible or supporting your local bookstore. They are great places and run by people who live in your town.

As always, thank you for reading. Please let me know what you think about introversion/extroversion. I’d love to start a conversation.

-christian

emotions, figuring it out, inspiration, relationships, writing

memorial

“The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.”  ~Kahlil Gibran

 

My sixth-grade teacher was a man named Smith Clifton. He was tall and thin and had a thick brown beard he stroked when he sat at his desk grading papers while the rest of the class and I took tests. He had a tall beat-up thermos he kept to one side. It was the kind with the plastic top that doubled as a cup he would screw off and fill with black coffee all day long.

Mr. Clifton was one of the most influential characters in my life. He was the first person to get me to write. Every week, Mr. Clifton had us record our thoughts in a journal. He gave us no direction on topics so we wrote what we wanted. Once a week or so he would collect the journals from the class, read each entry and then write comments to each of us. I was always excited to see what insights Mr. Clifton would offer and I was never disappointed.

Mr. Clifton was among the most affable people I have ever known. He was peaceful as a forest. He reminded me of a hippie, he was so laid back, but more grown up. He dressed in jeans and denim shirts and beat up boots so he looked more blue collar

Mr. Clifton was among the most affable people I have ever known. He was peaceful as a forest.

than he was. He displayed a kind of refined deliberateness that one might expect from a gentlemen farmer. In fact he owned a small farm in Mt. Airy, about an hour’s drive northwest from our school, but he also seemed a renaissance philosopher or poet.

I loved this man.

My 11th grade English teacher was a man named Hans Gaussman. Mr. Gaussman was German. He was short, perhaps 5 foot eight. He kept his hair close-cropped and he had a mustache and goatee, which he kept sharp as a razor. In fact, Mr. Gaussman’s personality was as sharp as his goatee. Mr. Gaussman was almost military in demeanor. He intimidated a lot of my classmates and pissed off others.

He was by far the hardest teacher I ever encountered, even in college. Mr. Clifton was the first to get me to connect thoughts to paper, but Mr. Gaussman was the one who taught me how to write.

He was by far the hardest teacher I ever encountered…Mr Gaussman was the one who taught me how to write.

Mr. Gaussman’s favorite implement was his red pen. He wielded the pen like a dagger on our papers, ripping our grammar and our thinking. Mr. Gaussman would not simply pass us on to 12th grade English. His brutality in grading was also his gift. He made us think better.

I came to love this man too.

Shortly after the start of the school year, Mr. Gaussman held conferences with us. This was a private conversation, out of the hearing of our peers, where we had the chance individually to learn the failings of our work. We all dreaded these sessions as much as we did the school lunches. With a Cheshire smile, Mr. Gaussman systematically dismantled any notion we might possess of being smart or good writers.

“So, Mr. Gaussman,” I ventured once, “what do you think of my writing?”

He only paused for a second before he stabbed me in the chest: “I wouldn’t make it a career.” That was all he had to say.

I didn’t cry. I didn’t wander the halls in a daze after such an overt criticism. It was one of the few times in life that I didn’t pack up my toys and move to a different playground.

He said, “I wouldn’t make it a career.”…I was going to show him just how wrong he was. I was going to show him that, in fact, I was a writer.

I took Mr. Gaussman’s words as a challenge. I was going to show him just how wrong he was. I was going to show him that, in fact, I was a writer. This is the part in the movie where the main character–me–drops the f-bomb in his face. When Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian Johnson tells Mr. Vernon in his essay that he can’t diminish his classmates with his bullying. Or when, in the last scene, Jud Nelson’s John Bender defiantly holds up his fist, flipping off every self-absorbed and bullying adult in addition Mr. Vernon.

I put everything I had at age 16 into changing Mr. Gaussman’s mind. And I did. In a couple months, I was getting A’s and I noticed Mr. Gaussman treated me differently. He engaged me with a respect he reserved for very few of his students. I felt elevated, more important. But not like a teacher’s pet. It was one of the first times in my life I felt respected for my brain and especially for my work ethic.

Mr. Gaussman instilled in me a sense that good writing and thinking requires hard work. He helped create in me an identity as a writer. It doesn’t matter that I have never since written a novel or even a got a short story published.

If we are lucky we have one or two significant teachers in our lives. People who care about us.

It was his gift, his hard-assed, judgmental criticism of my work set me on a path I could not change. A few years later I would remember both teachers when I sat at my typewriter, trying to finish a story for deadline for  the newspaper on which I wrote. While my red-haired and red-faced editor yelled for my copy, I paused and silently thanked them for their efforts on my behalf.

If we are lucky we have one or two significant teachers in our lives. People who care about us. Who take time to challenge us to push toward our potential and who expand our abilities. People who are like bridges to better, more enlightened versions of ourselves. People like Smith Clifton whose peaceful demeanor taught me about kindness and how to get stuff out of my head and onto paper. People like Hans Gaussman whose disciplined approach forced me out of the comfort of slushy, unrefined thoughts to greater competence upon which I could build a career, even if that career is still blossoming.