There are certain habits I’ve developed over the past few years, moving around Los Angeles and finishing college. One is to fire up my copy of Real Genius, the film that’s become my favorite in the 33 years since it debuted. I find a weird comfort in it, a silly but meaningful story that contains numerous nuggets of wisdom I apply to life. It also centers around school, an institution I’ve drawn back to again and again in my life. Again, calming and comforting.
There’s another film I keep watching over and over. Grosse Pointe Blank, with John Cusack as an assassin-for-hire questioning his path. I tend to put this one on when I wonder how my society is moving, whether its direction is one I think I can help turn—or not. In it, the protagonist returns home, rather than being away from it, and tries to solve an internal puzzle, rather than an external one. It also has lots of violence and several deaths.
The films have something in common, besides lots of extremely wordy, quotable dialogue: a single female main character (though not the lead) who remains capable but vulnerable, uncompromising but open to possibility.
To segue, several former co-workers, my friends, were trapped in a hostage situation this afternoon when a man with a gun ran into their store after a police chase. He shot another of their co-workers, who subsequently died of the wound. It’s strange to watch a film that has so much shooting in it after hearing and reading about such a thing. It feels strange to me. I don’t know why it doesn’t disturb me as much. Perhaps because it’s such fake violence, movie violence. Real violence is sudden and terrible. It often comes with no warning and no logic.
What I get out of GPB is a sense that as Martin Blank is engaged in his existential crisis, so too am I. The only thing I can do is step back from a spiral of despair and disbelief and think about a bigger picture, re-examine my own path to see how I can further changes out there from examination inside. I feel helpless, and some of these comforts keep me from turning hopeless. They’re a weird kind of jolt, an attempt to spark, in the words of Minnie Driver’s character,
DEBI: You know what you need? MARTIN: What? DEBI: Shakubuku. MARTIN: You wanna tell me what that means? DEBI: It’s a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever.
Which is paraphrasing, but not far from the actual usage. It’s a good thing, I think, to have comforts and refuges. But we have to use them to get to a new place, not just return to the old ones.
Today was a series of decisions that took all the free hours of my day off. They were:
Scrolling social media feeds and alternately seething and laughing (1.5 hours…be fair, 2 hours)
Reorganizing space on my laptop by deleting unused and outdated apps (2 hours)
Traveling to the court house to get my address updated, since they seem to think I still live at my previous. (2 hours)
Squeezing in a single coding class Pomodoro (.5 hours)
Editing my podcast and queuing it to publish (5.5 hours)
Making dinner while adding things to my Netflix queue (1.5 hours)
Listening to All Things Must Pass while reading and writing this post before bedtime to get up at 5:30 for work. (1 hour)
There isn’t much of a point to this. Just that there are the same hours in every day, and looking at where they go can help identify where to change or cull choices of time spent. Time is all we’ve got, really.
Lots of advice on learning a new language (programming and foreign) or medium or instrument says you should just pick one and stick with it, not give it up and move to something else after the initial bout of getting the basics down. I’m not a big fan of this.
Life is short enough, and there are worse things than trying out several possibilities in a row. Sometimes you have to give something a shot to know it isn’t for you.
Or even that it’s not for you right this minute. In order to give learning something as complicated and slowly-progressing as language or the piano, you’ve got to have a connection to it. There needs to be a spark between it and you in order to make the tough middle part of the journey seem worth your time and occasional frustrated energy. Sometimes you don’t find it right away and you have to try a few different things.
But you won’t get chastised by me for abandoning things at the beginner stage because it doesn’t feel right, right now.
You’d think the great ones would praise their fellow masters, and so they do. But now and then comes insight about the less perfect, the odd, the understated.
As we came to the city limits the Lateran palace diverted us from our project. Also, the mother of all churches next to it. The Byzantine mosaics in the choir, two delicious deer. After this hors d’ouevre, over to the Christian museum in the Lateran. Sculptures in a naïve style whose great beauty stems from the forcefulness of the expression. The effect of these works, which are after all imperfect, cannot be justified on intellectual grounds, and yet I am more receptive to them than the most highly praised masterpieces.
There are plenty of reasons to celebrate the stuff you like that is critically acclaimed or praised as best. What about the things others disparage that you still love?
The answer is still to celebrate them. Ray Bradbury once said (probably more than once, as he gave plenty of talks over the years), “Never apologize for your taste.” Indeed. The things we like are an essential part of who we are. And, as artists, they color and flavor our work.
You can definitely benefit from trying new things and expanding the possibilities of what media you experience. But never be ashamed of what sparks love and excitement in you. We should be trying to become ever more truly ourselves, and that includes everything we enjoy reading, watching, and listening to. The set of things that influence you are unique to you.
One of the peculiar things about making art is the weirdly vast pool of raw stuff we turn into finished things. It isn’t tangible or visible, but all of the substance—that is, everything that isn’t the material components of the work like paper, canvas, pigment, wood, stone, fabric—exists in a big lake inside our heads ready to be, literally, tapped.
I mean, sometimes it feels more like a shallow pond than a lake, but I try to think of it more like our inability to always get the tide coming our way is a problem of weather—like fog or storms—obscuring our view and sense of the scale.
Like any other ocean or body of water, it changes, expands, gets choppy or calm, brackish, sweet, muddy, or, when we’re lucky, crystal clear.
Here’s the weird thing: none of us knows where it comes from. It’s all of our experience and knowledge and feelings. Somehow that becomes something new in the world just by our channeling the waters.
I write a lot about our work, and ways to get started on your art things. Those are primary components of our lives as artists. But just as vital is our relation to others. We don’t create for the universe. We create to connect, to describe the human condition, to explore deep mysteries within ourselves, to craft meaning.
We aren’t just islands apart from each other. We share responsibility for what being human means. There is no objective goal or blueprint to follow. We create it every moment, days to weeks to years. Therefore, our generosity of spirit and kindness elevate our own humanity.
The least among us, the children, the marginalized, and the vulnerable are important to who we are. For one thing, all of us have been all of those things at some point in our lives. Some of us quickly move past those states, and some remain.
I hope it will always seem worth it to remember my way isn’t the right way, just mine. I hope I keep wanting to help my fellow humans, to stay open to possibility, to keep reaching out to those who remain open to teaching back. People can disappoint individually. I still believe in us together.
The secret to happiness is lowered expectations. Or so say popular explanations of happiness studies on historically happier people like the Danes. But with such a wide range of opinion on what happiness even is, I’m not sure where to peg that meter on the low end.
I don’t like disappointment. But I like even less the idea that I care less. I’ll accept some of it if it means finding some sapphires now and then in the glass and dirt.
There are always going to be highs and lows, emotionally and experientially. Maybe what matters is that I lower my expectations on the utility of adjusting my standards.