While listening to a recent episode of The West Wing Weekly, a story that Josh Malina told about a conference he had early during the filming of the show’s fifth season struck a chord with me.
Showrunner John Wells told Josh “Here’s the plan I have to keep you on the show,” going into detail on his reasoning for having Josh’s character, Will Bailey, change jobs and accept an offer to work in the office of the new Vice President.
Josh said he wasn’t used to this kind of explanation from a writer or producer, and that while he appreciated the additional conversation about the reasoning for some dramatic changes for his role in the show, his overall reaction floored me.
“At the time I didn’t dwell on it much, because I don’t think that enhances one’s acting, to obsess about the storyline. Your job is: Here’s the script – act it. I never really gave it two seconds of thought. I never really cared deeply about Will’s decision. That’s not the kind of actor I am… it’s not going to improve my performance to go through the mental gymnastics of whether or not I like the storyline. This is my storyline. This is what I have to say. Go say it.”
– Josh Malina
I want to frame that quote on my wall.
There are a lot of times in life where the unexpected changes our plans, or we get straight-up served a shit sandwich.
But no amount of thinking about the situation is going to essentially change it.
While we don’t all have the convenience of a script to feed us our lines, there’s still the option to train ourselves to not get caught up in the emotional side of the response and focus on the task at hand.
We can shut down the response to procrastinate, to fume, to come up with any number of alternate scenarios that would be better. Or we can live with what’s presented to us and move forward.
This is what’s happening. It’s your story. Do what you have to do.
I get it. People buy in, hook, line, and sinker to this craze the way marketing used to tell kids shoes would make you run faster and jump higher.
But it’s genuinely pleasant.
Does having a nice keyboard make me a better writer? Not in and of itself.
But does having a nice keyboard make me feel like my time spent writing is more enjoyable, encouraging me to favor this activity over other ways to spend my time? You bet!
The only thing that helps a person work on their craft is time and deliberate practice. You could argue any tool that helps create those conditions has some degree of positive impact.
But there’s also the nostalgia.
It reminds me of that feeling of the first time I learned how to type, working on a Commodore 64 in my parents’ living room. The chunkiness of the keys. The orange glow of the text when I fired up the word processor to do a research paper on Mars. The satisfying click as I made things happen on screen while following along with one of the library books that said they would teach me how to program in BASIC (Ron Howard Voice: “They did not.”)
It’s not that I wish that the computer I was using had the same limited capabilities as that old machine. What I wanted from purchasing a mechanical keyboard was comfort and joy.
There’s a strong sensory connection between the tactile experience of the keyboard and the sensation of enthusiastically discovering something new. An attempt to trigger those beginner’s mind feelings, even after years and years of using a computer.
Because there’s still so much to learn.
But even without any guarantee of that, I can say for certain that sitting down to type feels more joyful. It’s no longer just the pleasure of actually taking time to write something down and work out my ideas. There’s a rhythm to the keys that keeps me motivated just as much as any well-crafted writing playlist.
It’s a healthy reminder that we’re not just content-creation algorithms, trying to spit out data for dopamine rewards. There should be joy in the process. An awareness and appreciation for not just our ideas, but the tools we use to make them tangible.
Little touches can make a world of difference, like the right coffee mug.
My favorite breakfast place in the entire United States is the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, MA. If you’re familiar with the love Leslie Knope has for J.J.’s Diner, you have a general idea of how much I rave about this place.
On my family’s most recent trip out to the east coast, I made sure that I took home a mug from Deluxe Town, because it is the perfect mug.
This isn’t just nostalgia for the countless brunches over sour cream waffles or their perfectly tender and juicy in-house corned beef hash.
There’s a satisfying weight to the mug. It doesn’t make coffee taste better, but it makes the act of lifting the mug up to my lips feel substantial. You pay attention to the feeling in your hand and your arm as you raise it up.
You can’t ignore this mug. It’s not a paper cup. It’s not a cheap ceramic nothing. You are aware that you are drinking a good cup of coffee (so long as you put some good coffee in it).
If I appreciate my tools, the objects I surround myself with, they help me to remain present in time and space with them.
It’s not about the price tag. This isn’t a call for unchecked consumption, or for an endless deep dive into the world of The Best X You Can Buy listicles.
It’s a call to look for those objects and moments you interact with that matter. To consider how best to appreciate the tools of your trade.
What do you touch every day? Do you pay attention to it? Does it matter? Should it matter more?
When you are asked to give more and more of your mental energy and presence to things happening away from where you are, what things help anchor you? What objects can you use to keep yourself from drifting too far away, or getting lost down rabbit holes?
I am drinking this coffee. I am typing these words. I am here.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
The more we learn about an idea, or a process, or an art form, the more it can constrict our thinking. That which has already been proven, or has already been done, suggests boundaries for what can still be learned or done.
It limits the questions you ask, or the solutions you attempt.
While I can’t deny there is value to be had in deep study of anything you want to work with, be it a creative medium, a scientific field, or any job with its set of processes and requirements, adhering to strongly to “the way things are done” can stifle novel solutions.
The best cinematic expression I’ve seen of this comes from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. While training on Dagobah, Luke whines to Yoda about how he couldn’t possibly lift an X-Wing using the Force. He says that even though he can lift rocks with it, an X-Wing is much heavier.
Luke knows the weight of objects, and he knows his capacity to physically lift objects. He applies these rules to how he thinks the Force works.
And Yoda attempts to convince him that his strict adherence to just these facts isn’t helping him.
In this example, Yoda lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp using the Force to make a point: This is something new to you that you don’t yet understand. It isn’t a muscle. It doesn’t use your body. You can’t hold onto the same rules you learned from interacting with heavy objects using your body.
There’s a method to test and explore ideas. To not feel like everything is already decided for you, or that what you already know is an impenetrable wall, halting your progress.
Anchor your ideas in what you know, but test those boundaries of possibility. Ask questions, the way Sprout did.
Think about what happens if something you see as a hard rule could bend, just a little.
Then chase that notion.
It’s mental jujitsu. Use the weight of the knowledge you already have against itself, and try to swing it to the side to see if it will make way for something unexpected.
To be clear: I do not have all the answers to this, or a simple, listicle-friendly process for people to follow. It’s something I wrestle with regularly, too.
What I do know is that some ideas are less solid and impenetrable than they seem, and it’s important to be able to test your ideas to understand them as they truly are.
It does you no favors to look at a suggestion and see it as a rule, or vice-versa, like the difference between a stop sign and a yield.
One caveat: This doesn’t mean that all ideas formed in this Beginner’s Mind state are great ideas.
I can’t tell you how many times since having this conversation with Sprout that I’ve had to stop her from straddling Luna in preparation to actually try to ride the cat.
Some days, things are out of your hands. You don’t know what to expect, but you’re wrapped up in anticipation.
So make chili. Give yourself something else to anticipate.
If you want to, look up a recipe. Or you can think about the things you like to put in chili and play around. Chili is usually pretty forgiving when it comes to proportions.
Get a slow cooker or an Instant Pot. Get comfortable waking up early to put all your ingredients into the pot. Or make room in the fridge and dump the meat and fresh vegetables in the night before. Anything canned can go in quickly, without much effort after you wake up.
If you have to leave the house, you know you’ll come home to the wonderful, spicy aroma filling every corner of your home.
If you’re spending the day at home, the smells will remind you to focus on the chili. Get nervous? Open the lid and give it a stir. Work out the tension with a big wooden spoon.
When you’re full of anxious anticipation, make chili. No matter what happens, you’ll be full of chili by the end of the night.
I went to West Virginia to see my grandfather, because he told my mom that he wanted to see all of his children at the same time. I read between the lines, and drove down with her.
He’s been in and out of the hospital for transfusions in the past few months. He’s started canceling future appointments. And for the first time in his 88 years, he’s shuffling.
He freely tells people that he does not fear death. He sees it as something natural, and that he’s proud of the life he’s lived and what he’s accomplished.
Even so, it’s like seeing a great tree uprooted by a storm. Before you could marvel at how high it reached, or see the vast shadow it cast. Now you see gnarled roots sticking out above ground, unable to cling to the soil.
On the bad days, the days when he needs the medication he gets from the local pain clinic, he takes a 10 milligram tablet of Endocet. It’s a combination of acetaminophen and oxycodone. An opioid.
It makes him more talkative than usual. Cuts out the inhibitions.
There’s a thin barrier between the calm exterior and the years of frustrations and disappointments. It’s a wall so thin that a single tablet pokes a hole big enough to let all of those things burst out in a stream.
I heard about some of the more dramatic grievances he filed on behalf of his union when he was working, in minute detail. I heard about family members and friends who he thought had made bad choices, gone down the wrong path, and met an early end. And I heard a boisterous running critique of the current federal government, catalyzed by his daily MSNBC binge.
Side Note: if I was going to guess my grandfather’s D&D alignment, it would definitely be Lawful Good).
It’s not really possible to divert these monologues right after he’s taken his prescription, because of both the potency of the drug and his hearing loss.
So I sat. I witnessed this moment. I knew that I would rather have any additional time with him than have passed up on this trip, even if this was part of the bargain.
But listening to that open faucet of grievances got me thinking.
I know it’s not entirely possible to control for something like this, but I don’t want that to be how I make my way toward the end; full of regrets and disappointments bubbling up under the surface.
The things that we do in the here and now resonate for the rest of our lives. One best case scenario is that we live a long, healthy life, but even that comes to an end eventually. Even the best case scenario for a person’s life ends in decline and death.
And a long life comes with a long catalogue of memories. A history of choices and reactions.
I’m not foolish enough to make this into a call to throw off responsibilities or live selfishly; to isolate yourself and do exactly what you want to do all the time. Even people who live simply and only for themselves can still have regrets.
And one thing that resonated so clearly from listening to my grandfather was that so many of the things fueling his anger had to do with the people in his life who mattered the most to him. People free to make their own choices. Perceived mistakes that weren’t his own.
Now would be a good time to start making things right with yourself and the people around you.
You can’t prevent anyone from doing something hurtful to themselves or to you, but you can take the time to remind your people, the ones who are Your Phone Call, Your Late Night Text, Your Long-Winded Email of Despair and Desperation, that they matter to you. What they do matters to you.
Now’s the time to make lists.
Not about the things you wish you could do, but the things you can do today to start making those larger things happen. The things you can do right here, right now, so when it’s over you can tell yourself “I gave it my best,” or “I made use of my time.”
Now is a good time to care deeply and purposefully, because what you choose to care about now may very well be what comes out of your mouth twenty, forty, or sixty years from now.
What you fill yourself with now is what will come bursting out at the moment you can no longer control it.
Now’s the time to make sure that the things you store inside yourself are things you’re not going to mind saying later.
Austin Kleon gave a talk where he tells a story about Virginia Woolf’s husband, Leonard.
In the months before World War II, Virginia called to Leonard while he was in the garden to tell him that the radio was broadcasting another of Hitler’s speeches. Leonard, fed up with listening to Hitler called back:
“I shan’t come. I’m planting iris, and they will be flowering long after he is dead.”
There are many reasons I love that story, and have been re-telling it as often as possible when the situation calls for it. In this moment, it means something else to me.
I want to plant my iris. I want to do the good, lasting works that I will be able to look out on if I’m fortunate enough to reach 80 or 90 years. I want to cultivate a life that I can speak proudly of, even if I feel my tongue loosening under the pull of a prescribed opioid.
But if I want that, I know it means a change in attitude. A change in action. A commitment to efforts made to last instead of snap reactions. Playing the long game.
Or put another way:
Keep your thoughts positive, because your thoughts become your words.
Keep your words positive, because your words become your behavior.
Keep your behavior positive, because your behavior becomes your habits.
Keep your habits positive, because your habits become your values.
Keep your values positive, because your values become your destiny.
– Mahatma Gandhi
And this is hard. It’s hard to do when there’s a pull in the everyday toward outrage, schadenfreude, and simple distraction. Every day is a test of your convictions not only in how you do The Work that is truly important to you, but to how you relate to the people most important to you.
But it makes sense that carving a path toward the future based on acting kindly toward your future self, and the future selves of the people in your life, could be worth the effort.
NOTE: I finally finished Stranger Things 2, and there are some light spoilers in this post. This warning is here in case you’re late to the party like me.
But like the saying goes: If you’re going to be late to the party, make sure you bring some good guacamole.
Spoilers beyond this point.
At the end of Stranger Things 2, the main characters get to take a brief victory lap at the school’s Snow Ball dance. There’s one dance floor pairing that stands out: Nancy and Dustin.
There’s plenty that could be said about the relationship between Nancy and Steve, and how Dustin is now trying to emulate Steve, but I’m not interested in that aspect. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
Instead, let’s look at two moments, one from season 1, and one from moments before this dance, and what connects them.
So much of Stranger Things 2 is about the past bleeding into the present, worming its way back and refusing to be forgotten.
Nancy starts out Stranger Things 2 dealing with the guilt of Barb’s death. It creeps up on her at odd times. She can’t escape Barb’s memory.
Nancy sent Barb away so she could be alone with Steve, leaving Barb vulnerable to an attack from the Demogorgon.
Nancy could have no idea she was sending Barb to her death, but she carries the weight of being one of the few people in Hawkins who know the full story. Her knowledge and guilt separate her from most of the rest of the town, leaving her conflicted and angry.
But let’s go back further, to before Nancy knew definitively what happened to Barb. Back in season one, Nancy caught a glimpse of the last moment anyone saw Barb before she was pulled into the Upside Down.
Through Jonathan’s pictures, Nancy sees Barb’s sadness and isolation. This was Nancy’s fault. Nancy brought Barb to a place she didn’t want to go, then ditched her to canoodle with Jean-Ralphio’s dad. (This is canon.)
The memory of this image matches up with what Nancy sees when she looks at Dustin after he’s been rejected by the girls at the dance.
Yes, when she brings Dustin on to the dance floor, she’s trying to make him feel better. She knows what they’ve all been through (twice now). But this is just as much about her trying to deal with her guilt over Barb.
Seeing another friend having that same moment of isolation, she chooses to reach out instead pushing them away.
And the show, using the positioning of the actors and framing within the camera, as well as Nancy’s gaze, tells us these moments are all connected.
There’s no Justice for Barb. Not really. And Nancy can’t directly make reparations for the harm she’s caused others through her indifference to her friend.
The show deals with trauma as an absence. A lack. Like a missing puzzle piece that keeps you from seeing the whole image.
But there’s no bringing Barb back. No finding the missing piece. The best that Nancy can hope for is a substitution.
What Nancy wanted, at the start of the season, was a way to make amends for letting Barb go of alone and get killed by the Demogorgon. What she needed was to learn to have more honest connections with the people around her. To bring people in instead of pushing everyone away.
And it doesn’t just go for Nancy. The whole cast of characters, from Eleven, to Joyce, to Hopper, are all cobbling together a new whole, pooling together the pieces they each have left.