My diorama is in disarray. The Battle of Cowpens did not start out life in stellar condition. The ride over on the school bus to my junior high school has not improved it. Dawn Ivey is driving, as I recall. She has been known to take a few wild turns. Dawn is the hottest school bus driver I’ll ever have, but maybe the most reckless as well. Should we complain about her driving to the authorities? We ponder. No. Not with legs like that, we won’t.
I’ve been careful to pile up dirt and tiny army men arranged in a way I thought might mimic the Revolutionary War battlefield, but by the time we pull up into the parking lot, there’s been an earthquake-in-a-box. Maybe this is what all battles look like in the end. The chaos. The churned-up earth. It’s a representational piece not meant to be taken literally, I might explain to the teacher. But we operate on a literal basis here. This is Erwin Junior High, not Picasso’s diorama on display at the Met. This is my dirty, strange diorama-in-a-shoebox in tiny Cleveland, North Carolina – a town that boasts a water tower and not much else.
The problem was in the planning. And the presentation. Other than that, perfect. The biggest single P word that actually doomed this project was procrastination. I didn’t want to do a diorama. Then finally, I had to. I chose a random battle. Battle of Cowpens. Slapped it all together the night before it was due. If it was horrible, I could live with it because that was the best I could be expected to produce in one night. Forget that I knew about the project for two months before it was due. This is a pattern I will have to break.
Perfection is the enemy of beginning any project. Sometimes you have to let go of the ideal and “lick the toad.” I can’t remember which teacher told me about licking the toad. I bet it was my high school social studies teacher who had us all give each other massages with the lights down low and went on about Warm Fuzzies and Cold Pricklies, concepts I learned later are central to Transactional Analysis.
The concept of licking the toad is just the hard doing of a thing, the mean cold slog through it. Forcing yourself to begin and do the very work you don’t want to do. Making it happen. No one wants to lick a toad. You just do it and move on.
The hardest papers I’ve ever written were not in college. They were in my fifth and sixth grade classes for Ms. Johnson. She had us using precise MLA style book notation methods. That meant typing IBID down the bottom of the page because footnotes were mandatory. I remember ripping up sheet after sheet because I kept miscalculating where the last IBID would end. Often it fell off the bottom of the page, forcing me to rip it up and start again. I wound in fresh paper. Began tapping at the electric typewriter again. Licking the toad furiously.
I got better in college about licking the toad. I even made the Dean’s List at least one semester, taking a creative writing class and a science fiction class from Fred Chappell, the crustiest, funniest, most brilliant professor I ever had at UNC-Greensboro. Fred is just like my uncle Toby, only with more published books. Fred was the Poet Laureate of North Carolina at one time. Nobody but Fred and maybe a handful of well-educated folk across the state knew it. But it was so.
Incidentally, Fred was fully capable of making a face that looked as if he’d just licked a toad. An expression that an Orc with a bowel obstruction might make. One time someone turned in a short story to him that was stapled, and he made that face as he labored to remove the staples in front of class and reapplied a tiny green paper clip. “Staples are the bane of Western Civilization,” he declared. “Always use paper clips.” I made a note of it.
Each year at the Asheville Citizen-Times, we put together a Summer Fun Guide. Even though I know it is a mammoth project that is worth doing, I put it off because I hate doing it. I don’t want to call every summer camp in Western North Carolina. Maybe 57 of them. I dread it. But in the end, you have to Lick the Toad. When I pick up the phone for the first phone call to Camp Merri-Mac (a summer camp my wife attended as a girl that required campers to learn twenty-minute long camp songs), the phone weighs approximately five tons.
Each day in our home in New York City, my son Avery has homework in geometry. We can each think of a thousand things that need to be done before geometry because he is going to need help and I am going to get frustrated and feel as stupid as I was in high school when I couldn’t understand geometry then either.
We really need to walk the dog. Get something to drink. Have a snack. Mail a bill. Phone a dear friend. Write a blog. Make some adjustments to a fantasy football team. Take out the trash. Trim our toenails. Get a haircut. Read the newspaper. Empty the dishwasher. It goes on like that forever….
No. We really need to Lick the Toad.
I encourage you to Lick the Toad. Contrary to urban legend, you won’t Get High. You’ll just Get Stuff Done.