For most of us–I’ll talk for myself–for me, life is a series of false starts with a smaller percentage of completions, most habitual, some enforced, and a very few the result of self discipline.
People often say that 90% of getting the job done is just showing up; implying that once you’ve shown up for the task, personal ethics, peer pressure, or some other common human force will require you to complete your most important work. That’s bullshit. Starting is easy. It’s the extra 10%–and really the last 2 or 1%–that matters, and that is a hell of a gap. Two analogies (aside from “gap”): it’s like driving (or running) down a flat stretch or slope most of your way, then suddenly hitting a 60% incline (or greater). It’s like the ~1.6 % difference in DNA between homo sapiens and bonobos.
Writing is mostly false starts. Ideas are easy to come by. Writers, especially caffeinated writers, are easily excited and full of ideas. I have notebooks and, more recently, many blog entry drafts full of false starts.
Today, right now in fact, my wife Deborah is in surgery having her left thyroid and attached benign mass removed. It’s low risk, common surgery, as surgeries go. (What is it that we do to ourselves, how are we miscoded, that makes thyroid removal or irregularities “common?”). Her ENT doctor (also her surgeon, a youngish man in his late 30’s and not an ancient tree herder) is low key, articulate, experienced, confident, and cautious. And patient–with her, with us as a couple. We know the risk factors he quoted are gross percentages that doctors and medical writers use to generalize the outcome of an extremely complex method for calculating situational risks of surgical success in a few simple comforting words laypeople (and some medical people) can understand. The number of factors that influence a positive or negative outcome make a real a priori assessment of risk almost impossible to describe and acceptance almost an act of faith. So we accepted the generalization and sandbagged it with our feelings about the doctor, his approach, and diagnostic and surgical history, especially with thyroid condition treatment (yes, we checked). That’s good–he’s cutting Deborah’s throat open and wielding a scalpel around nerve bundles, blood vessels, and vocal chords tucked against her thyroid glands.
I admire Deborah more than I can say. She didn’t have a false start. She had the lump identified on discovery and, when it was diagnosed as benign, put a long term plan in place to have it removed, scheduling months ahead around her dragon boat competition, Noah’s start of summer vacation, our family vacations, holidays, and our finances (we’ll be making payments on the deductible for a few years), and folded in her personal health goals dependent on the surgery, including weight loss that’s been hindered by an uncooperative thyroid. Her plan runs on for years. She plans like the ancient Mandarins.
Me, I would have dealt with it immediately or put it off indefinitely until, perhaps, people began to confuse me with Zaphod Beeblebrox (either you get that or you don’t), adding it to my long list of false starts and likely sliding me under the far slope of the risk bell curve where X is time and Y is successful treatment following early action.
That’s what I would have done. In the last few weeks, we’ve practiced a little of that “living in unspoken urgency” that precedes an impending interruption and possible (no matter how unlikely) end: completing key maintenance tasks round the house (from a mundane list most homeowners know), replacing some old kid and cat-worn furniture, taking more day trips with the kids, celebrating our wedding anniversary with a series of dates. We stopped each other in passing more often. Impatient with our cold spring rain, she colored her hair to match the summer sun. Waiting on her in surgery, I’ve had this opportunity to write myself this reminder about false starts. And, if you’ve read this far, inflict it on you.
Could I do this without her–run the house, care for the family, fill her role and mine in taking on the day to day critical tasks that keep our family stable? If anything goes wrong, there’s less room for false starts. If it all goes right, and it almost certainly will, then is there any damn good reason other than habit not to resume life with–not a sense of urgency–but the enhanced need to complete (together and individually), so that living in a way that matters becomes normal?
If you want to exist, show up. If you want to live, and write, then complete the last 1%. And make it matter, however you measure that last word. I know I’m saying this because I’m worried and scared, regardless of the risk assessment. It’s classic for humans to fill the balloon with gas and then let the tank run out, the gas contract, and the balloon to deflate. I’ll need to leave a few reminders for when I backslide. I hope that Deborah’s presence is one. Scraps like this are another.
Postscript: Deborah’s just out of surgery and in recovery, one thyroid lighter. Dr. Kim said it had grown larger since the biopsy and was “sticky”–making the procedure last a bit longer than the scheduled two hours. During surgery, a pathologist ran a routine lab on the larger sample for cancer, with negative results to back up the earlier diagnosis. In a few weeks, Deborah will able to swallow without pain. For the next few days, she has a stack of novels and a couple of detective games for her DS next to the bed, a freezer full of popsicles, a husband with a week of vacation, and two young children who will be happy to see their mom and ready to run their dad happily ragged.