Enough for Today

The dishwasher broke on Thanksgiving. Even five people can generate a lot of dirty plates on Thanksgiving. Learning the basics of dishwasher diagnostics could wait for morning, but the dishes themselves couldn’t.

My mom took charge of cleanup (saying my wife and I had done all the cooking and needed a break). While scraping and scrubbing, she mentioned she’d learned something about my grandfather on her last trip down to West Virginia to visit her parents.

Everyone in the family knew he never earned his high school diploma. Even without it, he’d served in the Army, had a long career back home, raised four kids, and did a savvy job managing both his investments and the timber on his property.

But he’d kept part of that story a secret, even from his kids: He dropped out of school at ten years old.

His mother died. He needed to work odd jobs. It was just what he had to do.

And my mom told me about how he pushed all his kids to finish high school. It reminded me how he’d encouraged me to keep my grades up by paying me a quarter for every A on my report card. How he’d always remind me that your mind is the only thing that nobody can ever take away from you.

And I thought about the pride I heard when I called to tell him that I’d found a job teaching at a university. He left school at fourth grade, and now his grandson was a college professor.

There are bad days. Days when you feel like the brass ring you’re grasping for will always stay out of reach.

On those days, look to the people who care about you. See how you might be fulfilling their dreams.

See if that can be enough until tomorrow, when you have a chance to try again.

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Boiling River

Early in the morning of our last day in Yellowstone, my wife, Dena, and father-in-law wanted to take me to Boiling River.

Boiling River is where the Gardiner River meets up with a hot spring. You can climb into the water and have a soak, with the swirling current and shallow, rocky river bed forming an all-natural, certified organic hot tub.

Unfortunately, when we parked nearby, I couldn’t find my river shoes. On a cross-country road trip with six people, not enough space, and all their stuff, this kind of thing happens.

It would be a 25 minute drive back to the hotel, and we didn’t have time for a second round trip.

Dena could see the scowl forming on my face. “Don’t stew on it,” she said. We needed to get moving if we were going at all. My $5 Old Navy flip flops would have to be good enough.

As we walked along the gravel path to the swimmer’s entrance, Dena and her dad pointed out different parts of the river, and told me about how when they’d come down the other night, it had been packed with people. We were lucky to be out so early, since it looked like it would be easy to find a spot to sit down and relax.

My father-in-law also mentioned not to stick my head in the water, especially my ears, since the water might be swarming with brain-eating amoebas.

Seriously.

We hung our towels up on a fence and walked down a slope to the river’s edge. As soon as I dipped my feet in, I knew my flip flops weren’t a smart choice. The water pushed down as I lifted my foot up, creating drag with each step.

I took lower, gliding steps and did my best to curl my feet, trying to grip the flimsy plastic with my toes, while keeping my balance on the smooth, wobbly rocks.

After catching up with Dena and her dad, I sat down. The tension of the last few minutes melted away as I found a spot where the currents mixed to the perfect temperature.

I wasn’t thinking about brain-eating amoebas, or the days we’d spent crammed into cars driving out here, or or the logistics of bringing an almost-three-year-old on such a big trip.

I sat quietly, feeling the river flow around me. We watched a bird of prey glide in circles overhead.

But we needed to leave and meet back up with the rest of the family. I stood up and started following Dena back to the entrance.

I plodded upstream, taking my time, trying to get solid footing. I fell behind.

And then the current yanked a flip flop off my foot.

It shot downstream toward a shaggy, surfer-type. He tried to catch it, but it zipped past his grasp.

“Alright,” I thought. “Don’t stew on this.”

I don’t go outside barefoot. Even as a kid, I never liked direct contact between my feet and nature.

I took a moment to get my bearings. I looked up at Dena, then upstream past her to the swimmer’s entrance.

I planted my bare foot on a rock to see how it felt. A little slick, but solid.

Goal set, I reminded myself that sitting back down and staying in the river forever was not an option. While not ideal to walk back on one flip flop, it could be done, one step at a time.

And the next step I took sent my other flip flop flying down toward the surfer. He missed that one, too.

I’d love to say I made a dignified march in my bare feet back to shore, deftly navigating the current and shifting stones. But that would be lying.

The next few minutes involved a lot of struggling for traction on slippery, river-smoothed rocks, punctuated by sharp moments of pain stepping on smaller, jagged stones.

I wobbled, frantically waving my arms to keep from falling on my face (because let’s not forget about the brain-eating amoebas).

I misjudged the current as I moved toward a larger stone and smashed my big toe against a rock as I lost my footing. I swore. Then I looked up and saw two parents and their four-year-old son a few feet away.

I quickly convinced myself I had heard them speaking German so I could at the very least keep from feeling embarrassed about my language.

But even after all that, I made it back to the shore. I took my towel off the fence and sat down on a bench. I caught my breath.

I made it.

And then I looked over at the gravel path I still had to walk on to get back to the parking lot.

At this point, I didn’t even bother starting to stew on the problem.

When my feet pressed down on the gravel, I felt even more pain than I’d anticipated. It was the combination of tiny, pointy rocks and a week’s worth of already sore feet from sightseeing.

But the path was the only way back to the parking lot. I took it slow. Big steps, pausing whenever I caught a particularly bad jab.

And then something funny happened. A group of people walking past us the opposite way whispered “Is he barefoot?” with a mix of shock and awe.

I turned to Dena, about to crack up. “They think I’m a badass!”

So, I played the part. I took my hesitant, big steps up until the point where I saw someone coming. Then I switched to strutting, just to see if people would react.

It was a stupid game. I understand this. But it also kept me moving and made the situation a little funnier.

A few minutes in I noticed that every so often there was a span of chalky white logs, bolted to the ground on the sides of the path. I hadn’t noticed them on the walk to the river, but now I was using them as balance beams, reveling in how smooth they felt against my feet.

If every situation were so simple, we wouldn’t need reminders not to dwell on the problem itself and start looking for a solution. Compared to a lot of problems, “I’m in a river and need to get back out right now,” has a refreshing clarity.

Stewing, complaining, or otherwise dwelling on the problem acts as a form of denial. Denying that you’re ready to solve the problem. Denying that you can even believe that you have this problem. Denying that it’s your problem to solve. Denying that a solution exists.

You need to accept the problem before you can move past it, and once you’re in motion, the problem becomes less important than staying in motion.

In Praise of Bash

A closer look at a supporting player in GLOW

The Netflix cast and production team of the series GLOW have created some layered, dimensional characters with efficiency and humor. The show’s deep bench gives every cast member at least one moment in the spotlight over the first season’s ten episodes.

For the moment, I want to single out Bash, played by Chris Lowell.

Why Bash?

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Is it missing the point when talking about a show focused on women’s wrestling with so many standout female performances to turn my attention to one of the male leads?

Maybe. But this isn’t just about him.

In fact, that’s the point I want to make about Bash’s character: This story isn’t about him.

He says that Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling is his idea, and he maintains that he wants to make sure the execution matches his initial premise.

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With the plot elements involved, this could easily have been Bash’s story: The highs and lows of a trust-fund goofball who finds purpose by putting aside his selfish antics and maturing as he builds a tv show.

But that’s not this show’s story.

Bash is a supporting member of the cast, not only by the entertainment awards definition, but in how supportive he is of the other characters.

Like Max in Fury Road or Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman, Bash is an example of how to depict a man being supportive of a woman or group of women. He’s another reminder that gender dynamics in storytelling aren’t a zero sum game.

The Heel-Face Turn

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When we first meet Sebastian “Bash” Howard, he’s doing all the things that would lead us to believe he’s going to be an antagonist or obstacle in the vein of a classic 80s villain.

  • He showed up in a helicopter, suggesting he’s totally out of touch with the other characters who are desperate for work.
  • He’s telling a personal anecdote about Ronald Reagan, further aligning himself with conservative, monied interests in a series focusing on a diverse group of underdogs.
  • He interrupts his introduction to ask that he be called by a nickname that he probably gave to himself.
  • He cancels rehearsal to invite everyone to a party at his mansion, which features an actual Lichtenstein and a working robot with a secret drug compartment.

It’s a clever ploy to play off of the audience’s expectations based on both Bash’s behavior and our genre savvy. This makes his sudden turn that much more satisfying.

What Bash Does for the Athletes

At the rehearsal, Bash listened to the women read through a script written by the director, Sam Sylvia, that featured a post-apocalyptic setting and roving gangs of women fighting for the right to breed with the last surviving man on Earth. The read-through goes unenthusiastically as the performers grapple with a thin sci-fi narrative held together by Sam’s sexual fantasies.

Bash confronts Sam about this, saying that when he asked for a different kind of wrestling show, this isn’t what he had in mind:

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Bash invites the women up to his costume room and tells them to explore it and try things on.

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Bash is inviting these women to take an active role in the construction of the narrative they’re going to play out. He talks about Sam’s script being too complicated, and he wants to see something still heightened and fantastic, but grounded in some aspect of the women themselves.

Let me be clear: Bash is not doing this just because he has a desire to empower these athletes. His suggestions involve leveraging regressive stereotypes that he justifies by saying that they need to play to the viewpoint of the audience.

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Bash wants to make sure you know what eyes are.

Ethnicities are shifted or amalgamated. Tammé, whose son goes to Stanford, gets re-christened as Welfare Queen. Everything is done to better label these women according to a generalized white, male gaze instead of Sam’s hyper-sexualized, exploitation film mindset.

And this is where it gets more complicated.

Early in this sequence of scenes, Bash starts speaking with Carmen, who will eventually take on the character Machu Picchu. Sam has cast her as the villainous Ogress, but Bash takes one look at her and sees her smile. He knows she’s not right to play a heel, and helps her find an identity more suited to who she really is.

And while so many of these wrestling aliases are created based on stereotypes, that initial spark kindles something in the women. A “So this is how you see me?” anger helps them find their enthusiasm for the entire project. It unlocks and directs a layer of rage and creativity.

Going off of this setup, one of the most memorable scenes of the entire season comes when Cherry and Tammé convince their tag team opponents to dress in Ku Klux Klan costumes. Cherry and Tammé are very aware of how their roles as Welfare Queen and Junk Chain have attached stereotypes that will play negatively to the audience. So they find a way to turn themselves into the heroes of the match.

They have a degree of control over the narrative, and they’re trying to leverage what they think the audience sees.

Aside from setting some key points about the world of wrestling and its expectations, Bash also has several direct interactions that support the wrestlers.

In working with Carmen throughout the season’s arc, he helps her to build her confidence and live up to the reputation her family’s wrestling dynasty.

Bash sits with Carmen in the parking lot while an EMT confirms that she’s had a panic attack after she runs from the ring at an early match. He recognizes how important this is to her, and wants to be supportive.

When she starts to feel the fear again at a match being taped live for the pilot of their tv show, one of the things that helps her find her strength is Bash, acting as the ringside announcer, turning her anxiety into part of her character.

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And when she pulls through and wins her match, Bash is one of the primary focuses of the camera. His enthusiasm for her victory reminds us that he didn’t just invest money in this wrestling show, but that he truly wants to see these athletes succeed.

Speaking of money, at a key moment when Bash’s mother cuts him off, everything is in danger of falling apart. The team needs to find the money to secure a venue for their live taping of a pilot episode.

Bash finds a solution, but he can’t do it alone.

Bash brings the women to crash his mother’s fundraising event for Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign. He pretends that they’re from an organization called Wrestlers Against Drugs, and interrupts his introductory toast of his mother to step aside and let the women tell improvised stories to the wealthy donors.

The key here is that Bash isn’t the one making the big speech to get the money and save the day. He’s offering these women the opportunity to succeed on their own merits. He creates space for them to succeed where he failed, and he trusts that they’re capable.

And the women do not disappoint, coming up with stories of drug addiction and salvation through wrestling so compelling that the donations pile up, and even Bash’s mom sees that her son has partnered with some amazing women.

What This Means to Bash

But Bash isn’t just some Yuppie Yoda, helping women find their inner power through the drama and athleticism of professional wrestling. He gets something out of all this, too.

There’s this one scene near the end, and it’s why I focused so much on Bash after this first viewing of the show.

As everything comes together at the last minute, Ruth tells Bash that he needs to act as their announcer for the live taping of their matches. Bash says he was born for this:

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While everyone’s getting ready for their on-camera debut in the ring, Bash gets a quiet moment while he prepares.

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Bash has spent a lot of time before this point helping other characters find strength and express themselves. We’re shown this one moment that shows him stepping in to character.

It’s a suggestion that Bash, too, feels that the spectacle allows him to re-craft his identity; to tap into something inside himself that normally stayed buried.

How To Show Support

GLOW is a show mainly populated by women, but unlike Sam’s script, there’s not a lack of men involved. Along with the recurring characters of Sam and Bash, several other men play a role in the story.

When characters are dimensional, treated with respect and dignity, and given solid, selfish motivations, there’s room for everyone.

Bash is an example of a well written ally. He’s imperfect, and his faults and mistakes provide conflict for the story. But his desire to help others comes from an expressed and understood need to fulfill his own goal.

That’s a key to strong supporting characters: They don’t know they’re a sidekick. Somehow their actions supporting the protagonist(s) should fulfill whatever desire drives them in the version of the story where they’re the lead.

The opening scene of the series features Ruth on an audition for the role of a secretary who interrupts her boss in the middle of a dramatic monologue to say his wife is on the phone. It’s making a point about the dearth of good roles available to women, and does so by highlighting an audition for a minor supporting character.

It highlights not only why Ruth and the other women of GLOW would latch on to the opportunity to take charge of their stories and shape this wrestling program to give themselves an opportunity to shine, and it also highlights what happens when writers create characters who act as punctuation.

Somebody has to come read for the role of the Nameless Interrupting Secretary. Somebody has to hope that they’ll get that three line part, because they’ve got rent to pay. Somebody spent years training themselves and honing their craft to prepare themselves to be on camera.

Does it honor that person’s effort to give them so little to do?

Does it show respect to the people who actually inhabit these positions in real life to depict them as functions of someone else’s story?

The story as a whole is richer from making sure every role feels lived in. Every person feels true, and not just a plot device.

New Words, New Perspective

When something appears more than once in a story, be it an object, a dramatic situation, or a line of dialogue, you take notice. Repetition cues the audience to pay attention.

In Disney’s Moana, the title character has a repeated line of dialogue used in different contexts:

”I am Moana of Motunui. You will board my boat, sail across the sea, and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”

The Words Themselves

Let’s break it apart and look at the construction.

The first sentence makes a declarative statement of identity, saying her individual name and where she comes from. Because of how closely her people identify with Motunui, saying she is “of Motunui” stands both for the location and the people who live there.

The second sentence gives a directive to the listener, outlining the journey ahead and clearly stating the actions that will lead to Moana’s goal.

Notice how the sentence structure creates not only a sense that there are numerous steps, but lays out three stages that fit into a rough outline of the three-act structure of the movie.

  1. “board my boat” – Crossing a threshold into a new world. For Moana, it’s the new world of the open ocean. In the case of Maui, crossing a threshold into the new role of becoming a mentor and ally to Moana (it’s her boat).
  2. “sail across the sea” – The majority of the film’s second act takes place at sea, moving from place to place. Note the use of the word sail. The second act also focuses on instilling in Moana the tools she needs to navigate on the open ocean.
  3. “restore the heart of Te Fiti” – The ultimate goal of the story. Returning Te Fiti’s heart will restore health to the natural world.

Put these together and you have a line of dialogue that fuses a clear statement of identity with a preview of the journey ahead.

Introducing the Words

Moana’s Gramma Tala gives her these words as her mission when she sends Moana off the island to find Maui. Tala specifically says to repeat those words after grabbing Maui by the ear to make him listen to her.

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C’mon, Moana. You’re a Disney protagonist. Did you really think you’d finish this story with your mom and dad AND grandmother all surviving?
By receiving these words from Tala, it roots the message in a connection to her family. While she must travel without them, carrying the words with her brings her family along in spirit.

Setting up this mission statement as a task to deliver to Maui suggests to Moana that she can’t make this journey alone. She’ll need help and guidance. Tala knows sending Moana straight to Te Fiti on her own would be a reckless suggestion for an untrained sailor.

Phrasing the entire scope of the quest as a single task, making it seem like only the next action she should take, breaks down a big adventure into smaller, attainable goals.

Also, having seen Gramma Tala tell the story of Maui stealing the heart of Te Fiti, we know she’s aware that directing these words at Maui offer him a chance at redemption. Presented with the opportunity to correct a misdeed, he may see the value in joining the quest.

The First (Several) Repetitions

After Moana crosses beyond the reef surrounding her island and enters the open ocean, she repeats the words to herself.

During the quick cuts of this sequence, Moana faces her first few modest trials: Keeping her bearings, keeping awake, and keeping control of her boat.

The repetitions reinforce that her desire to accomplish her goal is stronger than her limitations as a sailor or the obstacles she initially encounters.

She’s also using this time to rehearse the words for when she meets Maui. Showing the act of rehearsing helps the audience remember the exact phrase, and prepares us for when things don’t go as planned.

Delivering the Words to Maui

When she reaches Maui’s island, after her boat crashes on shore, her initial introduction to Maui is intimidating and confusing.

He reveals himself by lifting her boat over his head and startling her. She’s getting off on a bad foot, and Maui keeps the power dynamic in his favor, blocking and stalling her prepared statement.

Moana: Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, I am Moana —

Maui: Hero of men.

Moana: What?

Maui: It’s actually Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, hero of men. I interrupted. From the top! Hero of men. Go.

Moana: I am Moana —

Maui: Sorry sorry sorry. And women. Men and women. Both. All! Not a guy/girl thing. Maui is a hero to all. You’re doing great.

Instead of listening to her and responding to her directive, he interrupts repeatedly, trying to reinforce his talking points about himself.

When Moana finally takes control of the conversation, grabs him by the ear, and delivers the words with their full force, he’s taken aback.

Maui thought he was everybody’s hero, and she’s telling him that he needs to atone for stealing the heart of Te Fiti.

So he reacts to this new perspective in the way that seems most natural and appropriate to him: Distracting Moana with a song about himself and stealing her boat.

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I don’t know what we did to deserve a collaboration between Alexander Hamilton and The Rock, but it exists and we are better for it.
Moana has arrived at her destination and delivered the message, but she hasn’t yet proven to Maui why he should listen to that message. She’s a stranger, and he hasn’t learned why it’s important that she’s Moana of Motunui.

Once More With Feeling

After escaping from the cave that Maui locked her in and getting back to the boat (with an assist from the Ocean), Moana tries to repeat the words again.

Maui interrupts her by throwing her back off the boat. When that doesn’t work, he tries to swim away (only to have the Ocean carry him back.

Realizing that the Ocean wants to keep these two together and won’t take no for an answer, Maui makes the decision to listen to the words Moana’s brought for him. Her actions and determination shift the balance of power in their conversation.

Maui re-starts the phrase for her and allows her to finish. As he joins in the repetition of the mission statement, Maui reluctantly agrees to the journey.

The Words Lose Their Power

The mission statement doesn’t make another appearance until the point where it appears that all is lost.

After an attempt to reach Te Fiti ends with Te Ka damaging both Maui’s fish hook and Moana’s boat, Maui loses faith in their ability to complete their journey.

Maui prepares to leave, preferring to protect his damaged fish hook and its magical powers than help Moana make another attempt to get past Te Ka and return the heart. Moana repeats her initial imperative to Maui. She tries to remind him of the mission so that he won’t abandon her.

But her delivery is weakened by fear and desperation. It lacks the fire it had before when it was a driving force.

The words that her mentor figure gave to her feel spent. They’ve carried her as far as they can.

To convince Moana to change her perspective, she must feel the failure of her old perspective. To prepare the audience for the coming transformation of these words, they must see that the old words are ready to be discarded.

Changing the Words

In comes the spirit of Gramma Tala, appearing to Moana and coaxing her into the realization that even without Maui, all hope isn’t lost. And here’s where Moana flips the script (emphasis mine):

“I am Moana of Motunui. Aboard my boat, I will sail across the sea and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”

Changing a few words changes the entire meaning of the line. This is no longer an imperative directed toward Maui. It’s a declarative statement of identity and purpose.

And it’s not just words, but actions that reinforce the shift in perspective. As she says the new variation on these words, the audience sees her repair her boat and prepare to make another run at Te Ka alone, relying on her newly acquired skills and her belief in herself.

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I came here to wreck lava monsters and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of gum.
We see the change as we hear the changed words.

Arc Words

Arc words are repeated phrases spaced out at key points in a story that show how a theme relates to the external actions and internal, psychological and emotional, changes within a character.

The words stay mostly the same so that the audience can see how different contexts, deliveries, or slight alterations of the text reveal changes in the characters speaking these words.

But these can’t be small changes. A character change worthy of this much repetition and focus needs to be deeply wedded to an essential philosophical payload in the story.

The Words Carry the Theme

The transformation Moana makes with these arc words plays into the larger theme of the film: Know Who You Are.

  • Moana’s father, Chief Tui, makes a point about how the island of Motunui is Moana’s identity, and that the repetition of daily life defines who the people on this island are.
  • Gramma Tala repeats to Moana that the people on Motunui have forgotten who they are: They were not meant to settle on one island. They are descended from voyagers.
  • Maui defines himself by the tattoos showing off his previous bold actions, but also repeatedly says that he’s nothing without his magical fish hook. This drives his actions throughout.
  • Te Fiti forgets who she was after the theft of her heart. This turned her into the antagonist Te Ka, and it was only when Moana recognized Te Ka’s true self that she was able to end the conflict.
  • Even the antagonist Tamatoa sings a song about identity. “Shiny” is all about creating an external image, and how it doesn’t matter what’s on the inside (the counterpoint to Moana’s journey and the message of Gramma Tala)

Moana was once a child, being pushed toward action by the opposing forces of her father and Gramma Tala. When she left Motunui, it was initially to give in to that external push from Gramma Tala, and her agreement with Tala’s opinion of the best way to save the people of Motunui from their island’s blight.

Moana’s repetition of the words Gramma Tala spoke to her show how that motivation still carries her forward as she learns new skills and conquers her fears on the quest to restore balance to the world.

However, it’s not until she puts these skills to the test and decides to rely on herself that she’s able to succeed and complete her journey.

She needs to make a clear statement about who she believes she is, and not just reflect back one of her mentor’s viewpoints.

And the audience recognizes this when the familiar words change.