The Big Black Line

by Alton Gansky
Alton Gansky writes books, edits books, and teaches others to write books. He even reads them.
My first steady job was at McDonald’s. I worked the counter, fried burgers, submerged French fries in a vat of hot grease (those were the days), made milk shakes and cleaned everything in sight. The job was stressful but it came with the benefit of low pay and the chance to make some friends. I and my workmates couldn’t do anything about the first part, but we knew how to blow off steam after work. Sometimes we would borrow some of the larger trash cans in the restaurant, fill them with water balloons and head to the nearby bay for a friendly, 1 A.M. balloon fight.
When we tired of pelting each other with bulging sacks of water we switched to bowling (taking care not to confuse a bowling ball with a water balloon). One late night run to the local lanes taught me a lesson that has served me well over the decades.
Among our troop of fast-food professionals, was a high school senior. He was tall, agile, and built like a Buick—he was easily the most athletic of us all. If we had a customer with a temper problem (we worked near the beach and late at night and so had many a strange, two-legged creature stop by) he would step to the service counter, large metal spatula in hand, and say, “Is there a problem here?” Wonder of wonders, whatever concern the drugged-up customer had evaporated. Let’s call my friend, “Tank.”
Tank was a high school athlete with a keen mind. When we went bowling my goal, my only goal, was to beat Tank, then rub his nose in it. Never happened. Still, one game went badly for him. He could not dial in his stride, arm motion, or find the right spin on the ball. By the third frame it was clear he was off his game. I admit it: I was glad. This was my chance to earn a higher score so I could prance around him, pointing and chanting, “I beat you, I beat you.” The beating would be worth it.
I watched his frustration grow and waited for the inevitable crack in his calm demeanor. At the end of his fifth frame, just after he threw his ball (which rolled like a cube down the lane), he straightened and marched to where I was keeping score. I had just said, “Don’t sweat it, Tank, most girls have trouble with that shot.” I wondered what life would be like without my head. What was certainly a grace from God, Tank ignored me, took the grease pencil from my hand and drew a big, black line between the the fifth and sixth frame.
“I’m starting over.” He tossed the pencil on the scoring table.
“You’re in the middle of a game,” I said. “You can’t start over.” (I was born with above average intelligence but below average wisdom.)
“I can’t restart the game, but I can restart my attitude.”
Bingo! Wisdom beyond his years. It hit me. He couldn’t change the previous five frames but he could change the next five. And he did. (Yes, he beat me again.) There is the lesson for writers. In the down season, the “I can’t get anything to work” season, we can draw a big, black line on the scorecard of life and start over in our minds. We don’t have to wait to January 1 to make New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s can come in June or any other month we choose. We’re free to chart a new course anytime. We can reevaluate, make mid-course corrections, explore new paths, or make changes anytime we want or need to. The only person to stop me, is me.
Tank didn’t care if I liked his big, black line or not. If I didn’t, then it was my problem, not his. That line gave him permission to make changes and start over. The same is true for you.

Not bad wisdom from a seventeen year old.