Let’s Talk About Cats

Picture a cat.

Now picture that cat in your home, somewhere near you.

What do you imagine that cat doing?

Don’t overthink it. Whatever immediately came to mind when I said to imagine a cat in the room with you works fine.

Got it?

So, what did you imagine?

Was it something you’ve seen a cat do before? Chase a laser pointer? Stare out a window at some birds? Knock something off a table? Curl up and purr in your lap?

Remember that. Keep your imaginary cat in the back of your mind for a few minutes.


Recently, my daughter looked down at our lazy, 13-year-old cat lounging on the carpet.

“When’s Luna gonna get bigger?”

I paused. “She’s already fully grown. That’s as big as she gets.”

Sprout started to pout. “So I’m never gonna get to ride her‽”

I didn’t see that one coming.

What Sprout did just then? That was beginner’s mind in action.


You see a cat, or you imagine a cat, and your experiences tell you about things that cats do. They tell you purposes cats have. You catalog and categorize the things you see in the world around you.

This thing is a cat. This thing is like a cat. This thing is not a cat.

Time passes. More things make their way into the matrix of your memory. All thoroughly cross-referenced and orderly.

And that’s why you didn’t consider riding your imaginary cat.

You have your reasons, and they’re good reasons. They’re true. It would be foolish to try and actually ride a housecat.

But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be an imaginary possibility.


I want to try to break down how Sprout came to this moment. My guess is she had some combination of these thoughts (not necessarily in this order):

  1. There’s Luna.

  2. I love my cat so much, I can’t handle it.

  3. I am small, and so is Luna.

  4. I am growing.

  5. Is Luna growing? Ask a grown up.

  6. I can ride animals, like that time I rode Oreo the pony.

  7. If Luna was bigger, I could ride her!

  8. When will Luna be big enough for me to ride? Ask a grown up!

Her creative process for this idea probably involved memories, established facts, and questions about the unknown.

It’s unlikely she’s seen anyone riding a cat, so that’s a novel element. It’s an aspect of the unknown.

It's just a picture of He-Man on Battle Cat.

I am absolutely certain Sprout has never watched He-Man in any form, so I’m ruling out this as an influence.

However, that element of the unknown is an extension of the known. She’s not just creating this possibility out of nowhere.


So why am I doing a deep dive on two sentences from my daughter, besides the fact that they made me laugh really hard?

What I saw in her in that moment was a piece of the larger creative process: The desire to create something that does not currently exist, except in the mind.

It reminded me of the beginning of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“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.

Yoda: 'You must unlearn what you have learned.'

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.

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.

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.

 

When Sprout wants me to make up a story to tell her, she says “Tell me a story with your mouth.”

Usually she asks for this when she’s supposed to be falling asleep, and she knows I won’t turn the light back on to read one (or four) more books.

The other day, I was feeling pretty worn out, so I asked her if she’d tell me a story with her mouth instead. “But I don’t know how.”

Jumping over to physicist Richard Feynman:

Feynman was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin 1/2 particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics. He gauged his audience perfectly and said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But a few days later he returned and said, “You know, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it.” (source)

I was challenging myself to see if I could break down how to tell a story for a three-and-a-half year old. What I came up with was:

  • Pick someone
  • They’re trying to do something they like
  • Something makes it difficult to do that thing

It’s a setup she’s familiar with, from Moana to Daniel Tiger to Elephant & Piggie.

So I asked her who the story should be about. She chose Fletcher. If you haven’t met Fletcher before, he’s a stuffed fox from Target that Rosie got for her first birthday and has loved since first sight. Here he is:

IMG_6425.jpg

“Okay,” I said, “so what does Fletcher like to do?”

“Paint!”

“And when Fletcher goes to paint, what’s something that could go wrong.”

She thought for a moment. Then it dawned on her. “A volcano!”

“That’s cool! But what about something that could go wrong while he’s painting?”

“He could open the paint and there’s a volcano inside.”

We’ll work on plausibility and foreshadowing later.