Category: Career

On Becoming A Writer

“A beach comber has no idea what to look for the first day he steps onto the sand.”

“No one believes a comet is limning the heavens before ink is splashed.”

“The ponies have been let free to run.”

“A muscle exercised must first depart from atrophy.”

“If you can avoid writing to do something else, then do that.  If you can’t stop yourself from writing, then be a writer.”

All of these images sift through my mind as I think about what it means to “Become A Writer”.  So many books on the craft, all faithfully read and underlined.  Pages dog-eared, notes scribbled into my Moleskine journal.  So many master authors read, re-read, considered.  Thoughts about how many writers actually wear a cravat, or a beret, or talismanic jewelry, when they are at their folio.  Producing work.

Never have I had the luxury of this bemused pursuit of a craft.  I love my career’s history and the provision we enjoyed as a result.  (Read about my first career here and here) Now, though, I am able to, gently and persistently, remind myself that I am a ‘creative’ and that my day spent in writing and reading is, indeed, ‘mission-worthy’.  This free feeling is what I dreamed of and hoped for.  I recently spent an entire day at a conference of writers – the opening speaker referred to us as “an amazing group of creatives”.  My first anointing as such.

I’ve gotten to open an entire new set of maps to my world.  A fresh update to the topographical charts of a new mountain range.  Like when you say, ‘we should go there sometime’.  About the Grand Canyon, or either of the coastal Disney’s (how do you choose between a LAND and a WORLD?), or even those glaciers that are inaccessible on a casual drive-by but are an indelible set of images and memories once you finally get there.  From what I hear, we should get to those glaciers sooner rather than later.  So, too, these new vistas I glimpse on the skirt of my horizon.

Each day now, starting this November (the 2nd, because the 1st was a day of substitute teaching, bill-paying, and conversation with a warrior friend of mine), I have sat at one of my keyboards (ok, there are only two, but one of them is mobile – which means I can go sit in a field and imagine the journey across the Great Plains) and taken the time to write for several hours each day.  In part encouraged by the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing in a Month – or something like that), it has been a joy to get out this new muscle of mine.  I don’t promise anything better than drivel, but it feels GOOD.  It feels satisfying to clack away and have a new story to show for the day.

Have you ever had to prime a pump or start a gravity fed hose?  Our backyard water feature (too small to call a pond, too large to be a bucket) has a pump that occasionally gets clogged with leaves.  I have never had to suck on the outflow end to re-start the pump, but I have had to clonk the pump against the side or on a stone to get it to start moving water.  Hemingway’s best work produced in a rummy haze? Perhaps that was the liquid needed to prime the pump.

This very writing of mine is much like that pump.  It (I) have finally started moving water (ideas) and it looks like the mucky leaves, dead bugs, and seeds are starting to clear.

What runs now is fresh, clear water.  Excuse me while I go sample it.

Sharpened Pencils, Or, Our REAL teacher would never let us do that

Since I have retired from my career in air traffic control for the FAA, I have started working as a substitute teacher.  Only part time, and only when I feel like it.  It isn’t my calling, but I truly enjoy it; kids are funny and amazing and heartbreaking and encouraging all at the same time.  One of the reasons I have so little worry about the future of our great nation is because I get to see these kids turn into the next generation of success.  Don’t bother me with “new” math or “teaching to the test” or “not enough money”for schools.  Those are all very real problems.  But I just watched a little kid who can’t tie his shoes log into a school’s website to complete homework and take a test.  The password wasn’t “password”, either.  Each kid has a unique ID and a different password for each device they are tasked to log into.  None of these kids had their passwords written on a sticky note, either.  Raise your hand if your passwords are all written down.  Yeah, me too.

Whenever I fill in for a teacher, a REAL teacher, I tell the class I only have two rules.  

  1. No tears
  2. No bloodshed

It’s usually pretty funny and lets them all drop their defenses because they know the “sub” is cool and won’t give them a hard time.  I tend to add a caveat about cell phones in the high school classes (“don’t make them a distraction and we will all pretend that you’ve left them put away the whole period”), which usually works.

I taught in an elementary school the other day.  The movie during the lunch period was “Monsters University”.  I hadn’t seen that before, but the 12 minutes I saw were great.  (Teachers get TWO pieces of pizza if you want, by the way). Pencils only get sharpened at the beginning of the day or at the end of the day.  But, as a substitute, I didn’t hear that rule until they ALL had to sharpen pencils in the MIDDLE of the day.  Big no-no, apparently.

Justice.  That makes sense to these kids.  If HE gets to sharpen his pencil (and how could I say no? His pencil clearly needed sharpening.  How can he learn letters if his pencil point is broken off?), then I should get to sharpen my pencil, too.  And so on, until everyone got a pencil sharpened.  My lyrical and cogent lecture on the critical reasons we must learn cursive may have gotten a bit diluted, shall we say, by the intermittent noise of the sharpener, but hey.  There is a price for excellence.

A few vignettes:  (I will change all the student names because they don’t need to be in the news just yet.)  Jacob poked approximately 60 holes in Daniel’s paper.  Daniel didn’t like that.  “Jacob, why did you poke holes in Daniel’s paper?”  “I don’t know.”  “Do you think you can apologize for that?”  “Sorry.”  “Can you say a whole sentence to apologize?”  “I am sorry.” (technically, a complete sentence.  But, then again, so is “Sorry.”)  “Can you say, ‘I am sorry for poking holes in your paper?'”  “I am sorry for poking holes in your paper.”  “Daniel, can you say thank you for apologizing?” “Thanks.”  I say, “Can we move forward now?”  They both nod in the affirmative.

Taten dropped the desktop on Kaitlyn’s fingers (did not know this yet).  Kaitlyn was crying (one of my 2 very simple rules!) “Kaitlyn, why are you crying?”  “Taten smashed my fingers in the desk,” she said with a hitch in her voice.  “Taten, did you do that?”  “Yes.”  “Why did you do that, Taten?”  “I don’t know.”  “Can you apologize for that?”  “Sorry.”  “Can you say a whole sentence for that?”  “I am sorry.”  Can you say, ‘I am sorry for slamming your fingers in the desk?'”  “I am sorry for slamming your fingers in the desk.”  “Kaitlyn, can you say thank you or ok to that?”  “It’s ok,” said Kaitlyn, tears gently beading down her cheeks.

Discipline is handled with clothespins.  Everyone starts at green (I think) and clips UP for being a good helper or example and clips DOWN for doing something against the rules.  Simple.  Except (and this is why so many of these kids will be good at debate or the legal profession) when one of them sees another doing something bad.  “Johnny took a drink out of someone else’s water bottle, can I move his clip down?”  “No, I don’t think you should move it because I didn’t see him do it.”  “Well, he did it.”  “Johnny, did you drink out of someone else’s water bottle?”  “No.”  “Missy says she saw you do that.  Are you telling me the truth?  Because lying about it is worse than actually drinking out of someone else’s bottle.”  I can see him gauging his response.  “Yes, I did drink out of the bottle.”  “Why did you drink out of that bottle?”  “I was thirsty.”  “Why didn’t you just ask to go get a drink?”  “I don’t know.”  “Do you think your teacher would have you clip down if you did that?”  “Probably.”  “OK, then you better clip down one.”

And, all of a sudden, I am judge and jury over a very kind-hearted, loving, energetic elementary student.  What if this is the start of a long string of crime and misbehavior?  What if he ends up in “Juvie” because I made him clip down for that behavior?  What if he moves out of his house and lives under a bridge when he’s older because of me? What if the teacher returns the next day and sees he has clipped down, asks him about it, and then he is in trouble forever because he didn’t behave for the sub???  It’s a lot of pressure – especially for a peacemaker/golden retriever like me.

All of this happened before 11 am.  I’d been there less than 3 hours.  I had 5 to go.  I was exhausted.

These students know these rules inside and out.  Occasionally, I will take time to have students explain to me what, exactly, the rules are.  We always raise our hand to speak, by the way.  A rule which I LOVE, and one that I can enforce with little worry of future criminal record.  Also, we take questions in the order that the hands went up.  Ocassionally I resort to ‘whoever is the quietest person sitting at their desk’.  (Except that has danger, too, because so MANY immediately get quiet so they can get called on and then are crestfallen when I don’t call on them and am I being fair and have I called on an equal number of boys and girls and have I ignored anyone and is the teacher’s pet getting away with something always having me call on her?)  Unless it is a bathroom emergency.  Then that student gets relief from the court.  (I know you see what I said there.)  

Clip ups lead to stamps on a card at the end of the day.  Purple means two stamps and blue means just one stamp.  The card is like a “frequent coffee” card.  You know, 10 stamps and then you get to pick a prize (at least I think that is the reward) from the teacher’s stash.  “No, you can’t pick a prize today because I don’t know where she keeps the prizes and she didn’t leave me a note about that.”  Crestfallen.  A grim acceptance of a darkened world because their normal teacher isn’t here.

A word about popsicle sticks.  Each student has one.  This is true for almost every elementary class I’ve taught.  Usually the sticks have a number corresponding to the student.  You’ve got to look at the name tag taped to their desk to find out which number stands for which student.  Sometimes you use the popsicle sticks to pick what lunch you want that day (lunch menu located on the school website; have a student help you find that web page).  Sometimes we use the sticks for the order in which we line up to go to lunch.  Or gym (actually, “PE”, not “gym”) (I’m not sure why we don’t call it “gym” anymore).  Or recess.

Encore recess is in the afternoon.  It is a privilege and not a right.  If you have school work left to do, you need to stay in during “Encore” and finish that work.  If you’ve clipped down, you have to walk a lap for each level you clipped down.  At which point, you must tell the teacher how you will do better in the future. “I promise I won’t poke holes in anyone’s paper because I know it’s wrong”.   My role is to look somber and encouraging and thank them for saying that, “Now go have a good time for the rest of recess”.  They scamper off.

One last funny thing – we take “restroom”breaks.  On the way to and from recess, music, or gym (sorry, PE) we stop at the toilets/sinks/water fountains.  A fantastic plan; everyone deserves physical comfort.  What’s FUNNY about it is the kids who go straight to the “after you are done, line up here” spot.  “You don’t need to go to the bathroom?”  Snickers ensue.  “What?”  “Use the RESTROOM, not the BATHROOM!”  “Oh, OK.  None of you needs to use the restroom?”  “No.”  And, those of you who have seen this know what’s coming when we all get back to the classroom…

“Teacher, can I go to the restroom/ get a drink?”  “Of course, will you come right back?”  “Yes.”  And off they go.  I smile.  They’ve got the system down.

Please hear me well now.  The reason I love spending time as a substitute teacher is because I see EVERY DAY the resilience of the human spirit.  I see these kids EVERY DAY work through difficult scholastic problems.  I see them negotiate with their friends and with their small group partners and with their teachers how to solve each and every problem they face.

They are SO persistent in their pursuit of understanding, knowledge, teamwork.  I cannot praise the REAL teachers enough about how successful they are in LOVING these students.  These students have bought in to their education because these fantastic teachers CARE and LOVE and EXPECT and AFFIRM.  Social contracts, written between teachers and classmates in order to lay ground rules, are all over the place.  And they WORK.  Bravo to the minds and hearts who instituted this.

Daniel and Jacob had a disagreement.  Now they don’t.  It is over and they move forward together.  Kaitlyn and Taten had a disagreement.  Now they don’t.  It is over.  Missy and Johnny had a disagreement.  It is over.

No grudges.  Just teammates.

We are going to be just fine.

The Point of Decision

I watched a several professionals in action the other day.  It brought to mind a truth that is common and critical to ALL professionals, no matter what their field is.  Every professional makes a choice about which direction the business (or task) needs to take.  That point of decision determines success or failure.

At a cattle auction the other day, I watched the owner of the sale barn decide what price to start the bidding at.  They sold over 1300 cattle that day.  Some were single animals, some were a cow/calf pair, and some were in groups of as much as 30.  In every single case, though, he had to DECIDE the starting price.  The age, weight, teeth condition, pregnancy progression, breed, and temperament ALL factored in to what he thought those animals would eventually sell for.  Start too low and the buyers would lose interest before the animals reached their true value.  Start too high and some of the buyers wouldn’t even bid in an effort to be conservative.  Horns on a cow make that animal a little less desirable to a rancher, for instance.  It doesn’t mean they won’t eventually sell for as much, but it is a consideration in the auction ring.

The owner would say, “Sell ’em right there…. $1750”.  He would say that every time he had to fix a price point for a group of cattle.  After the phrase, off the auctioneer would go selling each of this set of cows for $1750 per cow as the starting bid.  It is that initial price decision that it takes YEARS  of fully-committed ranching and selling to come to understand.  Most of the cows ended up selling for $1900-2350 per cow, at least during the time I watched the sale.

I also watched one of the ranchers while he bid on some cows.  (By the way, cows are females that have had calves; heifers are females that, even if they are pregnant, haven’t had a calf yet.)  He could tell what quality of animals he was looking at each time a different group of cows came into the auction ring.  They all looked the same, or very nearly the same to ME, but each of these ranchers could tell the differences.  The particular rancher I was watching (out of the corner of my eye) probably had set several pricing limits, but I bet they were subconscious.  Once the auctioneer saw his first bid, the rancher would only need to barely nod his head to accept the next higher price.  (Lower your chin half an inch.  Then return it to its original position.  You just bid on cattle.)  He bought some groups of cattle and he let some groups go to a higher bidder.  $25,000 per group (11 animals at roughly $2300 per head); that takes some guts to stay steely-eyed through the bidding.  It is those subconscious price limits that it takes YEARS of experience to come to understand.

I am reminded of my air traffic controller co-workers when I think of this “point of decision” theory.  One particular controller would hum about 3 notes of a melody while she was formulating her control strategy.  After the 3-note melody, she would issue a stream of instructions that sent all the airplanes on their way with an efficient ease.  I watched another air traffic controller, working the Denver arrival flow, assign speeds to aircraft still 60 miles away from the airport.  He assigned speeds that were different by only 10 or 20 knots (about 12 -23 mph) in order to build a gap between planes to fit an extra plane into the flow.  25 miles and about 3 minutes later, sure enough, there was a 7 mile hole in the “train” to fit in an extra airplane.  It is those initial control strategy instructions that it takes YEARS of air traffic experience to come to understand.

Command of data.  Precision.  Intuition.  Instinct.

Now think about YOUR field of expertise.  What is YOUR point of decision?

Air Traffic – Signing Off

Being an air traffic controller is about being bossy. Being assertive (way more professional than bossy) BEFORE the pilots realize they could use help avoiding each other. Out of every 8 hour workday (around 6,325 of them) I spent behind a microphone, I figure there were 30 minutes that I truly needed to be there to help airplanes fly past each other without incident.  Most of the time is typical and routine.  “Cleared for takeoff”, “Cleared to land”, “Cleared Visual Approach, contact tower 118.2”, “Cleared direct Kansas City, contact Kansas City 120.2”.  That one time, though?  A misheard directive, an UNheard direction, two captains answering the same instruction – THEN is when a controller must listen, straighten, save the day, smooth over, confirm instructions, wish them well and send them on their way.


I should have reviewed the tape to find out whether the Lear jet pilot read back his hold short instructions that day when United departed runway 32, rotated early to avoid what the pilot thought was a ‘taxiing-too-quickly’ Learjet, and called Fort Worth HQ about the incident.  The controllers on duty saved the day – they saw it happening and firmly instructed the Lear jet to stop his taxi immediately.  Kept it from being worse than just an eye-opener.  I  remember the P-51 that didn’t have his gear down in Santa Maria, CA.  I told the Local Controller to tell him about his gear.  The pilot leveled off at about 50 feet, put the gear down, and landed about 400 feet farther down the runway.  That saved a WWII war bird from the junk pile.


People often talk about the many thousands of lives we have kept safe over a career of air traffic.  It rarely occurs to me while working how many people are on those airplanes that I am directing.  It is certainly more serious than a video game, but way less serious than what I imagine a doctor would feel in the ER.  There isn’t blood spurting everywhere that I have to personally stop with a clamp on the correct artery, for instance.  I do, however, remember the pit in my stomach from situations gone wrong.  The beginnings of the pit when the Cessna departed runway 19L to turn west and the T-38 off runway 19R was catching him. To the Cessna – “don’t climb anymore and level off on your current heading; A T-38 will pass above you from your right”. To the T-38 – “there is a Cessna off your left that will stay low so you can pass above him”.  It turned out fine, but they deserved a better plan from me.  Watching the Malibu at Oshkosh turn base to final and fall out of the sky sideways on his wing.  The fireball from the wing that broke off.  Not seeing any passengers get out of the airplane.  Later learning that they all got out, but that their faces were “full of profound fear and grief”.  Answering the phone the morning after Valentine’s Day a long time ago when the grown daughter of the C152 pilot called to find out if it was her dad on the plane. That plane had crashed the night before.  When America West said “that was close; I could see his smile”. And I had no idea what he was talking about.  Turns out a flight of two Citation tests had gotten separated, the second one saw the glint of an aircraft and turned towards it.  It wasn’t his wing man, it was a B737 on its way to Wichita.

[Author’s note added 2/17/16. to read more of my time at Oshkosh Airventure as a controller, click here: My Oshkosh Blog]

I believe that I was more often part of the solution than part of the problem.  More part of what WORKS in the federal government, rather than the type of government we all complain about.  I believe we all work towards that reality.  I believe the great majority of air traffic controllers take a fierce pride in providing “top shelf” control instructions in the safest airspace in the world.


I now have this single day of work left.  I already feel the true blessing that comes from completing a job.  I embrace the magnitude – the sheer atomic weight – of meeting, learning from, mentoring, working with, counting so many people as family in my 25 years and 7 months.   The roots of this mighty oak that is air traffic have taken hold in my bones.  And, though I will indeed make my last transmission tomorrow, I will never truly quit analyzing each airplane I see in order to discern its reason for flight.  My tribe will be in charge, and I will look skyward knowing that.


I leave you, you controllers still working, with these words:  Purpose your energy to the good of our customers.  Push yourself to a vigilant and conscientious awareness.  Stand and take notice – there will come a flight that doesn’t look right.  THAT is your opportunity to save a life.  It may only happen once.  It may be glaringly obvious – as in when an airplane actually declares an emergency because the flight crew KNOWS something is wrong.  It may sneak up on you; a student pilot wanders off its line and into the flight path of some other student pilot – and before you know it, they are at your attention’s mercy.  Be equal to the task – you must be.


I step aside in humility.  My heart is filled with grace and pride at the task, now faithfully completed.  Controllers: thank you in advance for continuing the work – I trust you.  Passengers: you may climb aboard your flight with peace – my people will guide you home.