Learn to Make Chili

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.

10 milligrams of Endocet

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.

Feel Today Today

Lately, Sprout demands to wear a dress every morning. The twirlier the better, because “You can’t twirl without a dress!”

The only problem is, she has a finite number of dresses, and they’re not always the best outfit for, say, playing in the sandbox at school.

Sometimes we convince her that there’s a logical reason to wear something other than a dress if the situation requires it. Other times we make lots of first-thing-in-the-morning compromises.

And then there was this morning, where she got upset about the dress we said she could wear tomorrow.

“But I don’t want to wear the carousel dress! It’s not twirly!”

Okay, so on a scale of one to Vera-Ellen, I concede that this dress isn’t her most twirly.

White Christmas - When We're Dancing.gif
This is pretty near the upper limits for twirliness.

But that’s not the point.

I asked Sprout to come over and talk, and I told her:

I know you’re upset. I hear you. But we’re only going to feel today today.

It was one of those moments where I take a step back and realize that I’m saying this as much for myself as I am for her.

There are times when we let ourselves fill up with anticipatory pain. The bad feelings of things yet-to-come.

But each day has more than enough feelings to feel on its own. You’ve got plenty of things to feel today. Maybe even some good feelings you haven’t anticipated.

Make room for them.

Stranger Things. Visual Echoes. Missing Pieces.

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.

 

Nancy and Dustin Dancing

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 Hears Barb's Voice. Caption: Nancy, this isn't you.

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.

Nancy Says Everyone Forgot Barb

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.

MCU Nancy Sees Photos of Barb

CU Jonathan's Photos of Barb

POV MS Nancy Poolside Through Jonathan's Camera

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.

MCU Nancy Looks at Dustin.png

MCU Dustin Cries at Snow Ball Match Shot.png

MCU Barb Poolside Match Shot.png

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.

 

Simply Set It Down

On our way to a wedding in Massachusetts, my family stopped to visit some friends at their home in Vermont.

An iPhone sitting on the arm of a lawn chair.While sitting outside in the yard, Charlie got up to grab some weed killer to spray a few problem spots on his lawn. I noticed he left his phone on the arm of his chair.

I can get caught up in fussy things. Trying to find the “best” way to do something. Creating an additional layer of routine or ritual. Sometimes it’s necessary to break a bad habit or build a new one. Sometimes it helps if I’m trying to explain an idea to other people.

But a simple act can be enough.

It might be as simple as saying, “This comes next,” and setting down anything else for later.

Cutting with The Muppets

We ran into a problem while rehearsing for the table read of Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Ida Walker: The read-through ran longer than the block of studio time we had reserved for the recording.

The traditional rule estimates that one screenplay page equals one minute of screen time. Whether or not you believe that measurement, you can chuck the ratio out the window when someone needs to read the action and description lines out loud.

I needed to make cuts, and there was one more restriction. These had to be straight cuts: No additions or substitutions.

(I was trying to be mindful of school resources since I’d already printed copies of the scripts for the actors once.)

As I sat down with a pencil and a copy of the script, I lost some of my nerve. The revision I did before handing the script over to actors already cut a number of pages. How was I supposed to know what else to trim?

That’s when my daughter’s obsession with The Muppets helped me get over my uncertainty.

Nearly every time we get into the car, she asks “Can we listen to the Muppet music?” I grew up on the Muppets, and all things Jim Henson, so I’m totally fine indulging her obsession.

The film’s soundtrack includes an extended cut of the villainous Tex Richman’s rap “Let’s Talk About Me,” where he explains how rich, powerful, and awesome he is to the Muppets.

It’s great. Academy Award Winner Chris Cooper chews the scenery so hard, you want to offer him a Tums. You should listen to it.

The difference with the film version? The soundtrack cut features an operatic bridge:

I recall a heartbreaking story
About my own tenth birthday party
Should’ve been a glorious day for me
I’d have been happy as can be
But the Muppets were there
To put on a show
They started to dance
They were telling their jokes
I didn’t laugh
I didn’t know how
Then my friends
They all turned around
And they laughed at me
They laughed at me
I hate you, Muppets so

It provides an explanation for why the character needs to say “Maniacal laugh” to his henchmen instead of laughing himself. It gives a motivation for why he buys the Muppet Studio. It informs why he’s so cruel to the Muppets. And it sets up the joke at the end of the movie where Gonzo hits him with a bowling ball and he learns how to laugh.

Seems necessary, right?

But without that verse, we can still understand why he buys the studio (he wants to drill for oil), and why he’s cruel to the Muppets (he’s an evil oil barron that wants to drill for oil).

The inability to laugh is funny even without an explanation, and the repeated action itself sets up the joke for when a comical concussion knocks some laughter into him.

Everything doesn’t need to be explained in full.

Humans are narrative-making creatures. We try to fill in the gaps and find sense in events. Allowing for small omissions understands this feature of human thinking and respects the audience.

Everybody writes Tex Bridges.

You don’t trust that people will understand a strange choice you made. You worry that something will cause your reader or audience to bump, so you try to solve a problem that hasn’t happened yet. You love the backstory you’ve come up with for a character and think everybody else will love it, too.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a Tex Bridge, but there’s also nothing wrong with cutting it and trusting your narrative momentum.

So I thought about Tex Richman, and looked for the places in my script that felt like that bridge: Places that might be entertaining, but over-explained something that the audience could infer from everything else.

The Farmer(‘s Wife)

A local nursery had a sale this weekend with a petting zoo, and Sprout wanted to wear her overalls. I didn’t think this would become a bigger conversation, but then —

“I’m going to be a farmer’s wife!” she said.

“Don’t you want to be a farmer?” I asked.

“Farmer’s wife.”

“Girls can be farmers, too.”

“I’m a farmer’s wife.”

I thought for a second. “Is Mom a librarian’s wife?”

“No.”

“Right, she’s a librarian. And is Grandma a teacher’s wife?”

“Noooooo.”

“Right. She’s a teacher. So could you be a farmer?”

“Okay. I can be a farmer and a lady. And an eye doctor. Actually, I just want to be an eye doctor.” She picked up a toy from her doctor bag. “This is my otoscope!”


This isn’t an outlier in the conversations I have with my daughter. And sometimes she’s the one who gets things started:

This wasn’t a one-off conversation, either. There was a day she refused to watch Sesame Street, and when I asked her why, she told me it was “Because they’re all boys!” A show with a tradition of quality isn’t above criticism, and my daughter was loud and clear on the problem: She wanted to see characters that were like her on the screen.

Are we using words like “representation” and “gender parity?” Not usually.

But that doesn’t mean we’re not talking about these things. When she sees something that doesn’t look like it includes her, or it’s not for her, she grapples with it.

Even a three-and-a-half year old can catch on to the idea that something’s wrong when the world on the screen doesn’t reflect the population of the world she lives in.