Bad Advice Wednesday: Tommy Takes Over!

categories: Cocktail Hour


I first knew Tommy Conlon as an Ultimate Frisbee player (see the guy holding the suitcase in the pic in my Ultimate Glory essay), and you may know him as Bill and Dave’s most frequent commenter (not to say stalker.) Today he doles out some bad advice…. 

         I’m not a writer, but I write.  Mostly emails and postcards, a lost art.*  An occasional poem.  My work, what I do for a modest living, involves problem-solving.   Sometimes I get tired of solving other people’s problems and think I should just go home and solve some of my own.  For free. 


       I work in the home repair industry, and if you knew how unindustriously I work, you’d find that statement either ironic, or laugh out loud funny, depending on your level of intimacy.  All my work comes by word of mouth, which means I don’t look for problems, they come to me.  Sometimes prospective clients will ask if I’m licensed, the same as someone might ask you if you’re published, and I’m fond of saying, “I’m not a real electrician, but I play one on T.V.”  Some people find this oddly comforting and I know we’ll get along fine.  On the phone, this line never works.

         One day this week, I had a particularly unproductive, I mean un-industrious day.    Around 5:30, a client I was waiting to meet at a home repair warehouse, cancelled.  Because I have an intimate relationship with this client, I allowed my frustration to show.  It wasn’t directed at her, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,  I was still making bad [work] choices, it was 5:30 and I still hadn’t shown up anywhere for work, aside from a one hour icemaker line repair – but the relationship suffered. 

           “Another useless day’s energy spent.”** 

       It was comforting  – in a misery-loves-company  kind of way –  later, when a friend in another state emailed describing an especially frustrating day of writing:   “Yuck,” she started, “wrote all in the wrong direction today! I’m scrapping and will try again tomorrow!”  In my own dour mood, I felt her pain.

      My first reaction: we must have the same birthday***  and there are strange celestial forces at work causing us  both to feel like we’re walking through mud flats at low tide in flip flops.  How else could you explain it.

        So foul my mood, dark was the cloud turning on me, how could I cheer a friend in another time zone, without alcohol or grade school humor – techniques that continue to serve me well, all the way into my fifties.

          It got me thinking.  What were the good things that happened to me, in an otherwise lost day?  I was surprised; there were a few:

–          Had a humorous exchange with a neighbor over a shirt, in which he referred to me as a fairy. [Sadly, this was THE highlight]

–          Sold a pair of doors to a person who’s started a new business selling beef, buffalo, and elk jerky  –  to gun dealers. 

–          Washed some downspouts to put on my house.  [This may not seem like much, but it has taken me months to get to it!]****

          The day still sucked, but when I looked at it differently, my perspective changed.  I found there were several positive takeaways. 

          Even writing in the wrong direction, can be moving forward.

           Turning back towards my friend, I offered, how do you know your writing went all in the wrong direction?  Maybe your writing is all in the right direction, and you just don’t see it.  Here’s what I do when I’m in a similar situation.  Walk away.

           Today’s Bad Advice Wednesday is: Walk Away!  Or in some cases – run!

         Sometimes at work, I’ll get stumped.  I can’t see my way around an obstacle.  Often, it’s an obstacle I’ve seen all along, but kept heading towards, hoping it will have worked itself out by the time I get there.  In these instances, when it hasn’t, I learn, often for the first time – ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.  I am still sometimes surprised by this.

        First thought:  Is anyone looking?  Do I look like an idiot?  Have I made a promise I can’t keep?

        Second thought:  Can I talk my way out of it?   

        Third thought:  It must be five o’clock somewhere.

       I don’t want to look like an idiot, surely I saw it coming, how are you going to fit an electronic 3 way dimmer switch into a shallow junction box with 4 leads already stuffed into it?  What was I thinking??!

        Well, I wasn’t.  Because without a real solution, I would have thought myself into paralysis, a stalemate, unable to move forward.   And sometimes the problem, the obstacle I’ve been ignoring  but advancing towards, is so bad I  fear I’ll have to undo all the work I’ve done working towards it.  This, undoing/back tracking is a solution of the last resort, and we never want to throw out good work, just because we didn’t see the right ending coming.  Never.

      It’s time to pack your tools and walk away. How far you walk is up to you and depends on the magnitude of the problem.  Get a cup of coffee, make a sandwich, sweep the kitchen, do the dishes, go to the mailbox, grocery store, dry cleaners.   Walk the dog, walk the neighbor’s dog, walk the neighbor, clean the fish tank, clean the gutters, take a bath, update your facebook profile, vacuum, trek for a month in the Himalayas.   Clean up a little before you walk away, don’t tell anyone when you’ll be back.  

      Don’t check email, watch the news, get a tattoo, read a magazine, call your mother, lover, brother, 3rd grade teacher.   Let the problem percolate a little, not enough to keep you awake at night, just enough that you can see it out of the corner of your eye when you’re picturing, with an image in your brain, what you were working on.  Enough so you can remember where you were, and still drive and talk on the cell phone without hitting construction workers, while wondering what the hell your character’s doing in the laundromat having a memory of his mother folding sheets when he’s supposed to be reflecting on his lover’s lost innocence, or where the hell is that extra 14-3 wire coming from, can it be moved to another part of the kitchen and why aren’t there any headers over any of the windows I need to replace.

        Often, the nugget I need will come while I’m not directly thinking of it.  The inspiration, the creation, comes in the form of a new approach, from a perspective I wasn’t looking at.  Kitchen, what kitchen?  I can get at that wire from the laundry room.  Laundromat, so what if he misses his Mama, let him reflect a little, tie it in later with his lover’s favorite fruity drink at a restaurant near her work, or let him realize he doesn’t have enough change for the large size dryers, life’s a bitch.

        The point is, if this writing really did go all in the horribly wrong direction, don’t scrap it and start over.  Go back and look at it a little differently.    Go back in to the beginning, or the near-middle, and see if you can massage it a little – get it to go a little more in the direction you want it to go, and at the same time, see if you can get yourself to go a little more in the direction it wants to go, and see if you don’t actually have something you didn’t see, something worth saving, something worth building on.  Like a marriage.  Partner up with what you wrote, don’t try to be the master of it. You may be more brilliant than you think.  Sometimes, all it takes is a nudge. 

                                *                             *                             *                             *                             *

*  Just as “video killed the radio star” (The Buggles, 1979) –  email killed the postcard. 

**  “Knights in White Satin” – The Moody Blues,  1967

***  We don’t.  Very few people you know do.

****  Still haven’t put them up.


  1. Vasilios writes:

    Awesome awesome awesome! Lots of praise, and for good reason! At your best you’re an incredibly entertaining and affecting writer. Can we call him up to AA ball?

    But seriously, I think your piece goes hand-in-hand with Dave’s article that mentions walking and writing. There are definitely certain activities that you can go to when your brain is mush that somehow simultaneously relax and stimulate. Good call by you.

    And as for salvaging lots of effort that seemingly has gone to waste? Sure, no effort is really wasted, but sometimes scrapping something you’ve worked so hard on can bother you so much and for so long you don’t want to give a crap about the silver lining. After almost completing a screenplay right out of college, I abandoned it for months and months for one reason or another, and found when I came back to it that not only was it no good, it wasn’t me anymore. I came very close to scrapping the whole thing but decided not to. So how do you completely remake a beast of a full-length screenplay without scrapping it? You massage and massage and massage. Another good call by you. Keep them coming!

  2. Rosemary writes:

    Tommy, it looks like writing could be a good thing for you to run to when you need
    a break from problem solving. I enjoyed your piece. Thanks for sharing. Rosemary

    • Tommy writes:

      Since I already make so little money in home repair, it’ll be an easy tranforation for me, Rosemary, but I’d have to work a lot harder!

  3. Nicole writes:

    Very sage advice, Tommy. I did the exact same thing at work the other day. I realized that I was not going to get anything done right, and in fact was doing everything wrong. I slipped on my bright yellow crocs (yes, quite a sight with a business suit), and walked away. Too bad all the same crap was there the next day.

    Enjoyed your piece.


    • Tommy writes:

      What??? You ignored the problem and it didn’t go away!!!? (I hate when that happens!) At least you had a nice walk in the rain…… 🙂

  4. Kurt writes:

    Great piece Tommy! I enjoyed it even more the second time around. Way to embrace the humor and joy that resides in our messes and our sense of panic, if we can just take a moment to step back, breathe….and run like hell….never reaching the end. Thanks!

    • Tommy writes:

      Thanks, Kurt, who taught me half of what I know, but it’s because I used your suggestions. The last time I used that line, “run like hell”, I was talking to the CHP who pulled me over on I-580 not far from your home 4.5 years ago. Then it was his turn to try like hell to keep a straight face (successfully), and he went back to his car and gave me a warning. Try it next time you get pulled over late at night after laying tile in Moraga!

  5. John Weeks writes:

    Hey Tommy! I have the same exact parachute bag for screws etc. as you do!
    I love that thing.
    Seriously, I have always subscribed to the “walk around it” school of problem solving.
    Often, you only need to fix half of it after a certain point.

    Love your work….

    • Tommy writes:

      John, that’s how I get so much done, by only doing half as much as I was supposed to. But as Debora points out, and as you’ve seen, those unfinished projects and brainstorms are clogging up my carport….. and brain stem! I don’t see the same pile of detritus at your house – how do you do it!!??

  6. Susan writes:

    I asked you once what you did. your answer, I recycle things. Sounds like you do a lot more than that. I loved your reference to walking through the mud flats at low tide in flipflops. Having lived in coastal Maine, and being a clam digger and mussel gatherer, I know all about mudflats. I have fallen several times in the mud. I just thought it great fun and went into laughing hysterics. Keep writing.

    • Tommy writes:

      Susan, I’m still not quite sure what I do. Across the top of my last business card it read,”Sometimes you’re the problem” and, “Sometimes you’re the solution”, in either corner. Then underneath my name and phone number I wrote, “Problem Solving.” Thanks for your warm recollection of a dance at land’s end, and thanks for fixing my shirts!!

  7. Debora writes:

    Tommy, what a good thought to let the writing go where it wants to go for a bit! The subconscious is mysterious terrain…

    I also like the notion of walking away. Sometimes the mess simply gets too big, and the notion of trying to figure it all out, well, not fun at all!

    Lots of funny moments in this piece. Love how all these at home projects get started with such enthusiasm and then get put aside until finally, finally the mood strikes.

    • Tommy writes:

      Debora, tell me again about your Grandmother’s butter!!

      Love that wild blue, and quiet time in the dead of night with Io. Sweet images!! See, it’s not ALL about the Ga-Ga! 🙂

  8. Bill writes:

    Tommy, you know I used to do a lot of construction work, mostly kitchens and bathrooms, many of them in NYC. But then I went to grad school, where word of my past lent a certain cachet. Goodbye to all that! One day a famous visiting writer put a note in my cubby in the writers lounge: come see me in my office. Wow! What did he want? Had he loved my story? Had my break arrived? Was he taking me to the big conference in Rome he’d been talking about? “Bill,” he said when my audience with him began, “I need my bathroom remodeled, and I hear you’re the man for the job.”

    • Tommy writes:

      I hate when that happens, but you ARE the right man for the job, Bill. When it happens to me, when I’m beckoned by the object of my desire, it’s usually more like, “park my car, will ya, sport!” Gee, thanks.