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.

Seabase Alpha

The Hydrolators. A row of specially designed, retro-futuristic elevators ready to take guests under the ocean to visit Seabase Alpha. I held my father’s hand and waited for my family’s turn to board. I tapped my feet, eyes darting over the crowd of sunscreen-scented tourists, cameras at the ready. They went inside the Hydrolators, the doors closed, and a minute later, another group would board.

I was ten years old, and I wouldn’t put my head underwater in a pool unless suitably bribed. During the swimming lessons my mother insisted I take at the YMCA, I clung to whatever flotation device I was offered. That pool, with its dim, sickly green lighting, appeared bottomless. The instructor said I could float on my own if I just laid back and trusted the water to hold me.

But I knew things could sink. Water swallows them up. I kept my white knuckle grip on the kickboard.

My parents and I entered The Living Seas pavilion mostly knowing what to expect. There was a short movie about the ocean and a ride that took you around a coral reef. Yes, water and I didn’t get along, but there was a fight going on inside me.

I was the kid who told his preschool teacher that he wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up (and then had to explain what that was to his classmates). I was the kid who checked out every Isaac Asimov branded book about space from my elementary school’s library, one by one. I was the kid who wanted to spend a big chunk of our trip to Disney World going to as many of the attractions at Epcot as we possibly could.

That was the battle: Science is cool! vs. Your watery death is an inevitability.

The crowd thinned out and we waited to move up. I started sniffling. Impatient twitching turned into fearful trembling.

I knew that Body Wars didn’t really shrink my family down and inject us into somebody’s body to swoop around inside their capillaries. I knew that when Pluto snuck up behind me at breakfast and put his gigantic mouth on top of my head, it was just a person in a suit.

But an elevator? Those are real.

One of the Disney World employees saw me and came over to talk. She asked what I was scared of and I told her that I was afraid of going down so deep.

She could have taken us to an exit. She could have said it was alright to pass on something you were scared of and left it at that.

Instead, she showed me a door. She lead my family off to the side of the Hydrolators to a door marked for staff use only and pushed it open for me to look through.

I saw the other side of the Hydrolators. They didn’t go anywhere.

The Epcot employee explained to me that there were a lot of effects that happened in the Hydrolators to make it feel like you were moving, but it was just for show. Something they did to make the ride feel more special. And then the doors on the other side would open.

She asked if I still wanted to go on the ride, and I nodded. She pointed to the line of people getting ready to get into the cars that would take us all around the reef and said we could head right over.

But I wanted to go back and see the Hydrolators. I wanted to see the bubbles. I wanted to feel the shaking. I wanted to see the rock walls moving behind the elevator glass to simulate sinking deep into the ocean.

I wanted to learn how this whole exhibit had made me ignore all the obvious red flags that a science-minded kid should have recognized (Such as “How would they build an undersea base in Orlando, which is in the middle of Florida’s peninsula?”). I wanted to laugh at myself for being afraid of this magic trick.

Peering through that door opened up worlds to me. That moment carried greater resonance when I got around to reading Philip K. Dick and Jean Baudrillard. The memory was sitting in the background as I watched Jurassic Park and thought about how maybe paleontology wasn’t for me, but there might be something to storytelling and film. I still think about that moment in a more literal sense, like when my wife and I went to Universal Studios, and I spent time on the rides looking for the tricks. Trying to spot the seams of the illusions. That moment even crept up during my first encounters with Buddhism.

But maybe the most important part of that moment for me to remember is the compassion of the employee, and how she did more than just try to calm me down and keep the ride going. She showed me that there could be joy both in being tricked and in discovering how it had happened; that skepticism and wonder don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

Simple Fluid Portable Musical

If I had my druthers, I would have a writing shed. Some windows, a power outlet for my laptop and some speakers, and a desk wide enough to spread out some notebooks and a coffee mug. A wall for a cork board and dry erase board. Maybe even a second outlet for a space heater.

There have been lots of different ways I’ve defined the ideal writing space. There were a string of coffee shops I thought were ideal back when I was living in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area where I did a lot of work. Sometimes a library would be my ideal spot to sit and attack the keyboard. I’ve even made efforts to make whatever desk space I have where I live meet some kind of ideal conception of what it is that I want to make it feel like The Happiest, Most Productive Writing Space On The Planet.

But there’s only so much you can really control. For me, the days of having wide open hours for work are gone (at least for a while). It’s an any port in a storm mentality, where the dining table is as good as a desk, or the phone needs to be as good as a laptop. Five minutes by itself needs to be as useful as five minutes in a full hour of work.

While listening to a podcast on the Four Noble Truths, the speaker mentioned how there is a lot of discussion from the Buddha on the cause of suffering, but the speaker is often asked why Buddha didn’t also explain the cause of happiness. He responds:

When there is a cause, your happiness… is dependent on the cause being there. […] and to feel relaxed and at home, it’s best for there not to be a condition that’s required. Because then you’re able to bring your happiness, your peace into any situation. It’s portable.

-Gil Fronsdal

It reminded me of this quote which puts it another way:

Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.

-C.S. Lewis

It’s not always possible or helpful to remove all conditions when you’re undertaking a task like writing. For example, writing without a writing implement. However, the principle is the same: attach your writing space and your process to as few conditions as possible. Be fluid. If you need an anchor, find one that’s easily portable, like music.

I’ve always worked while listening to music. It’s a way to create a writing space anywhere you have access to headphones. And if you make music as portable as possible (no streams, so lack of internet doesn’t interfere), it’s something always available to you.

Maybe it’s a certain song or album that puts you in the headspace for a project. A well-curated playlist that, or a shuffled selection of familiar favorites. The music can be that small luxury that helps keep your focus off the larger, frequently unnecessary desires that may feel important to your workspace or Your Process.

What is truly essential to you getting the work done? What are the things that you tell yourself are necessary, and how many of them can you go without? There is value in ritual, and to actions that create a transition from non-work to work time, but ask yourself: What’s the most portable version?

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.

Kidding.

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