Behind the Lines with DR: Criticism and the Dangerous Game

Sparky DeterminationWelcome to the true story of a dirt road, a dog, and the two homes that marked both the beginning and end of the half-mile stretch.

My home was at the end of that dirt road. It was a ten acre ranch property with a kennel for boarding and raising dogs. But to get to my house, you had to first make a hard turn off a country blacktop called Cavitt-Stallman Road. Right there at the corner, was Mr. and Mrs. Eisner’s humble abode perched at the top of a sloping grade of mowed crabgrass. The Eisners had a front porch formed from a poured slab of concrete. And parked as permanent sentry on that porch, was a little mongrel dog named Sparky.

But Sparky was more than just a guard mutt. He was also a practiced daredevil. You see, as each car would turn down our long dirt track, Sparky would carefully gauge the speed of the vehicle, launch himself down the grassy hill, taking dead aim for the vehicle’s left front tire. Barking his way through the entire stunt, he would act as if he planned to take a bite out of a steel-belted radial, only to safely peel away a mere two or three feet from the front bumper. Sparky would then stand at the edge of the property, continuing with his noise until the car disappeared in a cloud of dust. Satisfied that he’d protected his half-acre realm, he’d return to his original guard post.

Now, if you lived at our home or were a regular visitor, you could trust that Sparky knew his business and was in no actual danger of transitioning from Eisner family pet into roadkill. But the same didn’t go for our house guests or kennel customers. Upon seeing the dog charging down the slope, only to disappear behind their left front fender, many would instinctively crank the car hard and to the right. Some would be treated to a momentary fright or fear that they’d just murdered the mutt. And some unlucky others could find themselves ditched in the drainage canal that flanked the west side of the dirt drive. Thusly, my father, our hired hand, or yours truly, had to fire up our antique tractor in order to tug the car free.

Tired of this routine, my old man came up with a scheme to curb Sparky from his dangerous game. The initial part of the plan involved my father braking his car and leaping out the door. He’d pull his meanest face and shout, putting the fear of Almighty God into the little beast. It didn’t take long for ol’ Sparky to put my dad and his white Chevy Blazer together. And soon after, whenever my pops drove down our dirt driveway, Sparky would refrain from the chase and stay put on that slab porch.

But Sparky continued his faux attacks on all other cars. Customers and family friends continued to find themselves anchored in the ditch. Thus, came my old man’s genius idea.

On one October weekend, my father dedicated himself to borrowing every manner and make of vehicle he could get his mitts on. He would then drive each car down our road, wait for Sparky to attack, then jump out and repeat his own snarling act.

My dad must’ve played this game ten or more times, eventually convincing Sparky that every damned car that turned down our dirt road was driven by my terrifying father.

And with that, Sparky’s will was broken.

For the next two years, every time we drove down our road, I couldn’t help but catch a look at Sparky. There he’d be, poised in that same spot on the porch slab, his only movement being an obvious and nervous tic. It was as if a constant electric current was running though his bones. Every muscle fiber desperate to spring into action and chase after the car. But he never did.

Mission accomplished.

Then came one hot September day. In a moment of weakness, Sparky found he could no longer fight off the temptation. As a pick-up truck pulled down our road, ol’ Sparky gave it one last go. Only he was out of practice. His timing was off. And the poor little beast ended up under a big fat mud tire.

That was the end of Sparky.

Amusing tale? Or sad story? And what the hell does this have to do with writing movies or TV or books?

Well, one is the obvious lesson in staying sharp. Mental muscles are like any fibrous form. If you don’t use ‘em rigorously or often, atrophy sets in. And those tools you once relied on may not be there when you most need them.

But more importantly, I think the bigger lesson comes from my father. Or better yet, Sparky’s reaction to him. How often are you cowed by criticism or some over-amped opinions? Somebody shouts down your hard work, sending you crawling into a dark corner where you stay too long while licking the wounds to your ego. Like Sparky, you end up poised and appearing ready for battle, yet never get off the sideline and back into the fight until it’s too late.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big proponent of criticism, be it constructive or merely loud and obnoxious. But I only include the latter in the way a sword maker uses the hammer to harden the steel.

Stay on your game, and don’t let the bastards scare you into being Sparky, stuck on the sidelines and losing the feel for your next attack.

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