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.

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.

What we write about when we write think pieces about doing what we love

I’ve been in a running dialogue with a friend and fellow writer about articles on the topic of doing what you love. Articles talking about how to stoke your passion, about questioning whether you’re actually doing what you love, and so on. There are a lot of people writing a lot of words about doing what you love and knowing what that is.

And it gets me thinking back to a line from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated.

“I am doing something I hate for you. This is what it means to be in love.”

Love is not synonymous with joy.

Doing what you love does not mean living in a state of bliss. Neither does it mean constant suffering for your craft. Fetishizing some ideal or imagined state of being gets in the way of The Work and getting The Work done.

You make compromises for love. You prioritize for love. You sacrifice for love. Love is messy and imperfect.

So if you ever doubt if what you’re doing is something you love, look at what you’ve set aside for it. Look at the list of things that you said no to in order to say yes to this.

Love is the repetition of yes.

What I Watched In 2014

I started this last year feeling like I was losing touch with my love of movies, so I started an experiment. If I spent time to watch a movie, whether or not I had seen it before, I wrote it down.

For your consideration, here’s the occasionally annotated list. This isn’t a critical analysis. This isn’t breaking down my viewing patterns for data. But it’s my way of measuring how I chose to love movies this past year.

Note: Titles in italics are movies I have watched before.

1 – Star Wars

The plan was to watch this on New Year’s Eve and sync the destruction of the Death Star with midnight. We even got Star Wars party plates. However, the night wound up involving a lot of other activities and Star Wars was bumped to the morning.

No complaints. A good way to start the new year.

2 – The Empire Strikes Back

Of course we put in Empire after Star Wars finished. It was New Year’s Day (the day of zero expectations or obligations).

3 – Europa Report

4 – L’Argent

This was a movie I’d meant to watch for years. Back in school we watched a short clip of the movie that emotionally devastated me. If you watch this, wait for the scene with the woman carrying coffee, and you’ll understand.

5 – Mean Streets

6 – Grosse Pointe Blank

This movie will always have a special place in my heart, both as a Michigan ex-pat and a lover of 80s music. In high school I could quote this movie chapter and verse, and found that I could still remember a surprising amount of it.

7 – Frances Ha

This was the first real discovery of the year. When the movie finished, I was full of a sense of total, ecstatic joy.

8 – Her

Just when I thought I’d seen every idea they could explore based on the premise, they found a new wrinkle to exploit. It had been a long time since I had felt such a genuine sense of surprise while watching something.

9 – Planes, Trains & Automobiles

Yes, I had never seen this entire movie. It was always shown as clips in classes and somehow I never got around to it. Well, I fixed that. And I am so glad I did.

10 – The Aristocats

11 – Waitress

I have no excuses for why it took me so long to see this. It’s a well-crafted story that prominently features pie. That should have made it an immediate must-see.

12 – Tangled

13 – The Avengers

14 – Up!

If the first act of this film doesn’t make you cry, you’re a replicant.

15 – Mitt

I wanted more. A big part of the desire to watch this film was to think about a person not just in terms of their politics. And I felt like it came up short, both in running time and in my sense of feeling like I could see past the election.

16 – Frozen

There’s a lot of praise for this movie, and a lot of bile spilled about what it’s metastasized into.

But when something becomes popular, it’s always for a genuine reason. If you could force a majority of people to like a film or a song, the game would be over. The formula would be there and we’d buy whatever was being sold to us. But that’s not the case.

Anything popular got there because it resonated with the audience. Something that resonates as strongly as this film deserves appreciation and study.

17 – The Great Mouse Detective

18 – The Mark of Zorro (1920)

19 – Moonrise Kingdom

20 – Newsies

Once again, how had I waited this long to see this? Worth the wait since it allowed me to imagine it as an alternate Batman Begins.

21 – Ghostbusters

I love this movie. This isn’t the nostalgia of a kid who owned the firehouse playset for his giant tub full of Ghostbusters action figures. This movie holds up under the most intense, post-film school scrutiny.

22 – Pacific Rim

If you weren’t already aware of some of the reasons I love this movie, check out this previous post on it.

23 – Man of Tai Chi

I’m a sucker for Keanu Reeves movies and a sucker for martial arts films. This was satisfactory.

24 – The World’s End

25 – Computer Chess

I felt like it had been too long since I’d watched something strange. This film did not disappoint.

26 – Dogtooth

I was still feeling the need for something bizarre, and this film completely satisfied that desire.

27 – Veronica Mars

28 – Frozen

Haters to the left. I really dug this one.

29 – Good Will Hunting

30 – Shut Up And Play The Hits

31 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This movie is the litmus test for whether or not you think Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is working. It united plot threads from other stories the way The Avengers united Marvel’s characters.

32 – All Is Lost

I stayed up past my bedtime to watch this. I was that into it. I’m a sucker for films that let you absorb process and detail. A master class in escalating tension.

33 – Annie (1982)

34 – The Empire Strikes Back

35 – Romancing the Stone

36 – The Muppets Take Manhattan

37 – Matilda

Some friends stopped by with a copy of this and ice cream sundaes the night I was planning to watch the next movie on the list. I decided to go along with their plan instead, and I was not disappointed.

38 – Man of Steel

Everything I had been told from friends and the internet suggested that I would not find anything to like about this movie.

Turns out that was wrong. The scenes between Pa Kent and the young Clark were moving, and Amy Adams makes a great Lois Lane. It didn’t completely win me over, but it did remind me not to judge a movie by its spoilers.

39 – Le Samourai

See previous comments about loving movies that show process and detail. If you want a great noir about a hitman, look no further.

40 – Godzilla (2014)

I already covered this film (and the original Godzilla) in detail in a previous post.

41 – X-Men: Days of Future Past

If you don’t think that anybody knows how to offer a sincere apology anymore, watch this film. It’s a feature length mea culpa for X-Men 3.

42 – Hook

43 – X-Men

44 – X2 – X-Men United

45 – Assault on Precinct 13

46 – Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

47 – Home Alone

48 – An Autumn Afternoon

49 – Pillow to Post

50 – Boy Meets Girl

Let us never forget that James Cagney was a terrific comedic actor.

51 – Contact

There’s too much going on with this movie and my reactions to it to slip into here. It would make an intense double feature with Interstellar.

52 – The Great Muppet Caper

53 – Pacific Rim

No, seriously. I love this movie.

54 – Popeye

This was one of the stranger movies I watched this year, and that’s saying something. Delightfully strange, though.

55 – Johnny Mnemonic

See previous comments about Keanu Reeves, plus loving 90s representations of cyberspace and computer hacking.

56 – Mean Girls

57 – Guardians of the Galaxy

58 – The Lego Movie

My wife said it best: “This movie has no right to be as good as it is.”

59 – Intolerable Cruelty

60 – The Third Man

A movie very close to my heart that I’ve already written about here.

61 – Duel At Diablo

62 – The Grand Budapest Hotel

63 – The Lego Movie

Seriously. This movie had no right to be this good.

64 – Boyhood

A total gut punch. Maybe it was because I was soon to be a parent when I saw it, filled with hopes and fears. Maybe it was the way the actors grew into their relationships with one another. Or maybe it was Patricia Arquette’s final scene in the film, and the way it just cuts away, leaving you unresolved to her sense of emptiness and exhaustion.

65 – The Wild Bunch

66 – What About Bob?

Yet another one for the running theme of “How have I not already watched this?”

67 – Oldboy (2013)

68 – A History of Violence

69 – Sneakers

70 – Kill Bill Vol. 1

71 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

72 – Return of the Jedi

73 – Singin’ in the Rain

Stop reading right now and watch this movie. I don’t care how many times you’ve seen it already. It is always worth watching. I’ll wait for you to finish.

74 – Zero de Conduite

75 – The Baron of Arizona

76 – Southland Tales

I took a religious studies class with Professor Ralph Williams my freshman year of college. In one lecture, Prof. Williams said, “If you truly want to understand a religion, look for the thing which it pains them to affirm, but they affirm it nonetheless.”

I love this movie, but I should not.

It is a mess. It has digression on top of digression. It requires extra-textual reading to understand large chunks of it. It’s meta to a fault. And yet…

It’s sprawling and ambitious. It’s full of individual moments that stick in your brain. Lines of dialogue that bear repeating (“I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide.”). It is too full of ideas and imagination. Too full of potential. It’s like the scene from Alien: Resurrection with the failed Ripley clones, but the scientists were trying to splice Saturday Night Live and Philip K. Dick.

I should not love this movie, but I do.

77 – Jackie Brown

78 – Star Trek Into Darkness

79 – Sleeping Beauty

There are few animated films as beautiful as this. The commentary track is insightful and entertaining in its own right.

80 – The Muppets

81 – Clue

82 – Batman (1989)

I forgot how many people Batman kills in this movie. It’s a lot.

Batman may have a no kill rule, but you don’t for one moment believe Michael Keaton would. Keaton’s Batman is unhinged and desperate in a way that other screen versions wouldn’t touch. He plays up the sense of how damaged a person would have to be to think that the best way to avenge their parents’ would be to use their vast fortune to go out and punch criminals one at a time. Keaton makes you believe that his Bruce Wayne would have no issues with that logic.

83 – Interstellar

This is a movie that demands to be seen on a movie screen (though not necessarily an IMAX). It’s a beautiful machine. You can marvel at its quality and precision.

But for all its solid qualities, it’s not that ambitious. It plays out like almost all of Christopher Nolan’s movies: A star-studded long con. It’s successful and assured, but conventional. It teases connections to 2001 without attempting to be its equal.

And yet, that may be enough. These are creative people working at the top of their game. Few working now do it better or more consistently.

84 – Muppet Christmas Carol

85 – Wreck-It Ralph

I expected this to be a decent movie that would play on my video game nostalgia, but what I got was well-crafted and clever.

86 – Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever

I don’t watch a lot of things that I know will be bad at this point. It used to be normal to look for things that were so bad they were almost good.

In college, a group of friends had a standing competition where we’d go to a video store, split into two teams, and each pick an awful horror movie. The team that found the better bad film (there were objective criteria, including number of on-screen fatalities) were the winners.

It seemed like we had so much time to burn.

Maybe watching a movie we knew would be bad, and that was constructed to be bad so that it could poke fun at itself, was a way of reclaiming that sense of time to kill. To willingly give up time for something silly and ridiculous.

But that’s a silly reason to watch something this bad.

87 – Galaxy Quest

88 – Miracle on 34th Street

It’s so easy to write this one off as just another Santa Claus film, but there’s something incredible in its construction: A cynical world conspires despite itself to prove the existence of Santa.

Every single person, other than Santa himself, has some kind of angle in play. From the judge who doesn’t want to dismantle his political aspirations to the mail room clerk who wants to get a bunch of old letters to Santa out of storage, everybody has their reasons.

So even though the message of the movie is about how faith involves believing in something that reason tells you not to, the majority of the characters are telling a different story. One where they’re willing to accept a lie or an impossibility just to make their lives easier.

But we get to feel, in the end, that the joke’s on them. Spoilers: He really was Santa Claus. Imagine the philosophical payload of this film if that wasn’t the case.

89 – Moonrise Kingdom

90 – White Christmas

Yes, it’s a Christmas movie. But it’s not specifically about Christmas. It just happens at Christmas. It’s really a comedy about soldiers returning to life at home.

It’s no The Best Years of Our Lives. It’s not playing for raw emotion and pathos. It’s light and full of musical numbers. But the story could substitute a different holiday and still (essentially) work. It’s not a movie trying to make some big point about Christmas, but giving us some wonderful, well-written and excellently cast characters to spend time with on Christmas.

91 – Christmas in Connecticut

Sometimes I think that every classic Christmas movie involves World War II.

92 – It’s A Wonderful Life

Every. Classic. Christmas. Movie.

93 – A Christmas Story

OK. Maybe not this one.

94 – Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer

I forgot about the part where Rudolph shoots down the German bombers.


95 – Guardians of the Galaxy

96 – Love Actually

97 – Suddenly

98 – Jiro Dreams of Sushi

An amazing documentary. I love films that show process, but this film also showed dedication and drive.

But it was a different sort of persistence and determination than you would see in a western version of a similar story. This was a movie about the banality of passionate dedication. About how people get up, go to work, and hone their craft day in and day out to become amazing without being emotionally unstable or self-destructive. Focus without monomania.

Inspirational. Beautiful. Subtle. Heartfelt. If it had been #100, I would have ended the year here. This movie will also be on my list for 2015.

99 – Ghost World

This was a movie I first watched as a college freshman. I loved it before I had the vocabulary to explain why, and I’m glad to see that I still love it.

100 – Band of Outsiders

101 – The Rocketeer

Choosing To Like Things

“I guess I just like liking things.”

-Abed Nadir

After two years of film school, my 20-year-old self had come to a conclusion: Modern blockbuster filmmaking sucked. Give me Criterion or give me death!

Film study is wonderful in what you can learn about how great movies came together. You get to peek behind the curtain and see how the great magicians do their tricks. You also become painfully aware of when a film doesn’t live up to its potential. That understanding of what could/should be happening makes you acutely not only aware of when a film is bad, but you can rattle off 34 reasons why. Couple that with youthful exuberance and, well…

I became a snob. Sometimes an insufferable one.

But then, something happened. Friends dragged me to see the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. And I had fun. I cut down on the snobbery and thought about how any film that finds an audience must have some value. To connect with one person is hard enough. Imagine what it takes to connect with millions.

But once you’ve peeled back the curtain and looked at what’s there, you can’t undo that. The desire to point things out that don’t work, or tear things down if they’re particularly offensive, can rear its ugly head at any time. The reasons can range from failures of narrative clarity to issues of representation. These feelings become even more acute when you add in your hopes, and there have been many times (this summer, especially) where I’ve had hopes dashed.

A well-argued post that champions something on its merits has a greater potential for value than a negative post working to tear something down. Even if that argument is sound.

I’d rather like things. I don’t want to remain silent about things I see as destructive or offensive, but I don’t want to engage them here. I’d rather talk about what works. The spectacular things. The times when narrative challenges without becoming inscrutable. Where films bring us real, dimensional humans instead of an amalgamation of tropes and stereotypes. Where the audience gets to witness a true spectacle.

I’ll leave you with a clip. This is the scene that I saw for the first time when I was… maybe 12? My dad sat me down to watch the PBS affiliate’s weekend movie: The Third Man I was already enjoying it, but then this scene happened, and it gave me ideas about what I needed to do for the rest of my life.

That’s the kind of movie I want to spend my time talking about.