The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Sometimes I meet with a friend or acquaintance and I leave the meeting thinking, “Am I doing enough with my life? Am I taking enough risk?” Ramit Sethi once told me he loves those sorts of meetings. (I love them too, though as I’ve written, if someone is too much better than me, it’s actually demotivating.)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller’s film which opened on Christmas Day, is a recent example of a movie which caused me to ask questions I ought to ask myself more often: Am I being adventurous enough? Am I being bold enough? Am I trying hard enough to realize my fantasies? Why haven’t I visited Iceland? The questions popped to mind as I took in the gorgeous photography and listened to the lovely soundtrack. (The official trailer is an accurate proxy for physical beauty in the entire film.)

To be sure, most of the critics have given Mitty mixed reviews. I’m hardly a film sophisticate, and even I saw flaws in the movie.

Sure, the actual storyline/plot is so-so, but it’s good enough to make you reflect on the big questions. Because you don’t have to be a shy paper pusher who works in the basement of an office, as Walter Mitty does, to day dream. And you don’t have to be able to jump through windows or on to arctic ships, as Mitty does, in order to make real a more adventrous and perhaps authentic version of yourself.

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On my flight to Hong Kong, I watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a film about older Brits who try to invigorate their lives by moving to a hotel for old people in India. It’s a story of seeking adventure, even to your very last day. I enjoyed it quite a bit, for reasons similar to why I liked Mitty.

Another movie I saw recently and loved was Perks of Being a Wallflower. Teen angst, high school travails, mental illness, broken romance, and a surprise ending. Deeply affecting.

Book of Mormon

Worthy of all the hype. Saw it last night on stage in San Francisco. Here’s a taste:

Admiring Excellence, An Ongoing Series

I recently watched two documentaries I highly recommend: Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Being Elmo. Each is about a craftsman and his craft: Jiro, a master sushi maker in Tokyo, and Kevin Clash, the brains and voice behind the muppet Elmo. Both available on Netflix streaming. It reminded of my post last year titled Admiring Excellence, which I’ve re-posted below. It’s a topic I continue to think about almost every day…


At a San Francisco Giants game a couple months ago, I joked to Cal Newport, who was sitting next to me, that the Newportian analysis of the game had nothing to do with bases and balls and everything to do with the years of deliberate practice that rocketed each player to the peak of their profession. Cal sees remarkable talent as the product of years of craftsmanship.

I thought about that moment at the ballpark with Cal the other week when I was listening to a commentator who, after reporting that the Houston Astros (one of the worst teams in baseball this season) beat the Giants, said that it doesn’t matter how bad the opposing team is–when you’re competing against professional athletes, it is always hard work to win. The worst player on the worst team in the major leagues is still one of the best athletes in the world. When you see a National League pitcher go to bat and hack at balls way off the plate, he looks like he’s never swung a bat before. Yet, that hitter was probably the best hitter on his high school team by far. When professional pitchers are made to look silly at the plate, it’s a reminder of how good major league pitching is. Only those who devote their professional careers to hitting stand a chance–and full-time pitchers, obviously, do not.

You don’t need to be a pro at the craft to admire it in others. In the baseball example, if you don’t know the rules of baseball you won’t appreciate the players’ talents. You need a base level of knowledge. But you can be an amateur and still be awed by the pros, if you let yourself.

Why admire excellence? First, admiring excellence is part of appreciative thinking. In a terrific, packed restaurant, admiring excellence becomes appreciating the myriad details the restauranteur has nailed to make the dining experience flawless. Purchasing a product on Amazon becomes appreciating the data analysts who processed billions of bits of data in order to optimize the shopping cart process. This appreciative, admiring mentality is also a backdoor entrance–in the house of feelings–to gratitude. “I’m grateful to be in the presence of someone who’s world class at their craft.”

Second, consciously admiring and recognizing the excellence of someone is the first step to becoming a master yourself. If the key to mastery of any skill is deconstructing what current masters did to get to where they are, then step one is knowing when you’re around professionals–and letting yourself admire them!

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From Josh Kaufman, a Craftsman’s Creed.

Via Carlos Miceli, Denis Dutton’s TED talk, which Carlos summarizes as: “Meticulous work, regardless of the field, is beautiful. We find beauty in skilled performances.”

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose

So many smart friends had told me over the years that they liked the television series Friday Night Lights. “It’s about much more than football,” they told me. If memory serves, it was a Jonah Lehrer tweet about how the finale was the best 43 minutes of television he’d ever seen that pushed me over the edge (more specifically, pushed me to log onto www.netflix.com).

A few weeks ago I finished all five seasons of Friday Night Lights. I have not read the book nor watched the movie version. But the TV show was awesome.

The show worked for me on several levels. First, the marriage porn. The marriage between Coach Taylor and Tami Taylor has been praised by critics as one of the best ever on television. The marriage is perfect in part because it’s not a perfect marriage, but they manage to muddle through, and so to viewers their relationship dynamic seems at once amazing yet attainable. The husband-wife gender roles are also realistically complex. Sometimes it’s traditional, with a strong breadwinner man and loyal wife who raises the kid and follows him wherever his career takes him. But other times the roles reverse to a more modern dynamic, with the wife becoming principal at his high school and telling him (indeed, having the power to tell him) that she ain’t taking any of his crap. This interplay in gender roles approximates how many 20 and 30-something men and women today envision their 21st century marriage playing out; thus, how Coach Taylor and Tami Taylor work through their issues makes for fascinating viewing.

Second, the show let me enter a world I’m out of touch with: small town, middle to lower class America, by way of west Texas. The characters, their dilemmas, their evolution, their dialogue, their life choices — much of it was familiar enough for me to get emotionally invested, yet foreign enough where it felt like I was genuinely learning about a different part of America and the people who live there.

Third, the cinematography and music. When you watch the opening montage of small town Texas life with the Explosions in the Sky soundtrack playing in the background, it’s hard not to get a little reflective on What It All Means.

Fourth, Coach Taylor’s leadership — on the football field and off — was reliably inspiring. Tim Riggins says in one episode that Coach is a molder of men. You get fired up after his locker room pep talks. And in the way he keeps a steady voice and clear gaze when confronting one of his players, you want to emulate his style.

There are many TV shows people rave about that I have yet to see: Breaking Bad, The Wire, Lost, among many others. I’m holding off on committing to another show because many months of Friday Night Lights cancelled out time I would have spent watching movies. And while the character depth and emotional investment you build with a cast over five seasons cannot be rivaled by a two hour film, at the same time, the creative energy and money producers pour into a two hour film vastly exceeds that which goes into two hours of TV. A movie is a more intense experience. I find that a great movie (like Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close which I recently saw in Palm Springs) can hold my undivided attention for a full two hours — which is a rare treat in our always-on, always-connected culture.

In any case, here’s to Friday Night Lights. A show that I did not foresee would draw me in so deep, and a show I won’t soon forget. Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.

Iconoclasts

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At Cal Newport's recommendation, I've watched three episodes of Iconoclasts, a television series that runs on the Sundance Channel. Each episode is 45 minutes and juxtaposes two iconoclasts from a range of fields who engage in conversation about each other's lives and work. Instead of a one-way interview from a journalist, each all-star is eager to ask questions of the other. This creates a dynamic conversation that gives you a unique window into the lives and minds of accomplished people.

My favorite so far has been NBA star Steve Nash and uber-movie director Ron Howard. It opens in Chicago where Howard is shooting The Dilemma, and the two of them talk about the creative process of film making. They compare the thrill of victory and disappointment of defeat in basketball to filmmaking. They play a game of one-on-one hoops. Howard comes off as humble and thoughtful. Nash comes off as articulate and wise. Nash's closing lines about the meaning of life were especially impressive.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, and Norman Lear, Hollywood legend, were also interesting, although less philosophical and more biographical. I'm looking forward to watching Steve Penn and Jon Krauker next.

You can buy episodes on iTunes. Some are free on Comcast On Demand. Easy to watch, stimulating, inspiring. Recommended.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary that made me think a lot about the business of art. I recommend it highly.

“I Know What It’s Like to Feel Thirsty”

This two minute clip from White Men Can't Jump is the best relationship advice for men from any movie, according to Brad Feld.

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Speaking of movies, I watched The Maid recently, a Chilean movie about one family's relationship with their maid. Excellent and highly recommended for anyone interested in the delicate dynamics of an outsider in the house, and especially recommended for those with experience living or traveling in Latin America. Finally, I recently re-discovered Alec Baldwin's famous scene on The Art of Selling from Glengarry Glen Ross. Awesome.

Movie Review: 500 Days of Summer

Artists explore love and romance constantly. If I had to rank the accuracy and helpfulness of discussions of love by medium, from worst to least-worst, it would be: Hollywood movies, pop music, non-fiction writing, fiction writing.

The movie 500 Days of Summer is an excellent exception to this ranking. It’s the story of boy meets girl in Los Angeles. But as Morgan Freeman’s narrator voice warns, “It’s not a love story.” In this film, it’s the guy who falls for the woman, and then has his heart broken. She’s taken by him but ends it because it doesn’t feel right. After things go south, he can’t quite get over her. He tries to win her back. It doesn’t go according to plan. But he does find a light at the end of a different tunnel.

The movie jumbles the chronology — it starts near the end, then jumps to the beginning. This is an apt approach for a love story. When you reflect on failed romance, you often dwell on the low points and either forget the high points altogether or confuse when they happened.

The side plots are fun and interesting. At one point a split screen shows “Expectations” and “Reality” and proceeds through the scene showing the differences. After the guy and girl sleep together for the first time, the guy walks to work with a spring in his step, as you’d expect — and a spontaneous Bollywood dance sequence you don’t expect.

Here’s Roger Ebert’s thumbs up review of the film with these three winning sentence: “One thing men love is to instruct women. If a woman wants to enchant a man, she is wise to play his pupil. Men fall for this.”

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The Hurt Locker is another good movie out on DVD. I thought about it for a couple days afterwards, which is always a good sign. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, one can easily forget what’s happening there. This movie brought me into that world for a couple hours. A memorable scene took place not in the war zone. The main character, who de-activated bombs in populated areas in Iraq, is in a supermarket back in the U.S. after completing his tour of duty. His wife asks him to pick up cereal so he wanders over to the cereal aisle. The dull florescent lights shine down on the abandoned aisle. Supermarket music plays in the background. He looks at the endless variations of cereal. Hundreds of different types. You could feel the triviality of the moment reverberate in his head. Going from saving lives on a daily basis to electing which type of Cheerios to purchase. He re-enlists and goes back to Iraq.

Other movies watched and recommended: Capote and Away We Go.

Finally, if you haven’t already read the excellent Esquire profile of Roger Ebert, you should.

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On a completely unrelated note, I’m going to Brazil next month for 1.5 weeks, mostly Rio, if you live there or have tips, drop me a line.

Movie Review: Religulous

Bill Maher, the always provocative comedian-cum-commentator, has a new movie out called Religulous, a round-the-world documentary on the irrationality of religion and those who believe in it.

I saw it last night. There were many laugh out loud moments and some truly frightening scenes of religious extremists off the deep end. Occasionally the movie was sad more than anything, such as the scene of John Westcott who was once gay but has “cured himself” and now, in the name of the Lord, helps other gay men rid themselves of homosexuality via Exchange Ministries. The irony is the guy still looks so obviously gay — haircut, voice, etc. Or the man who told Maher he believes in miracles and as evidence relayed a story of how one day he prayed it would rain and 10 minutes later — wait for it — it started raining! Unbelievable!

While I’m sympathetic to Maher’s basic points I have one stylistic complaint and one philosophical complaint. Stylistically, he repeatedly interrupted his interviewees and brought to the conversations a clear agenda for the answers he was looking for. Philosophically, he treated all believers the same — bozos through and through. The movie opens with Maher visiting a “trucker church” — a very small trailer in the middle of nowhere America where truckers gather together and pray. Maher, the smooth talking, blazer-wearing, L.A. comedian berates the overweight, blearly-eyed, not well educated truckers for their lack of skepticism about their faith. Huh? Why not let them be religious in peace?

Here’s the thing: Maher is convinced religion on the whole does more bad than good in the world. I entertain the notion that in the end religion does more good than bad. Take the truckers with whom he opens the film. Sure, I’m concerned about the slippery slope argument (if you’re willing to suspend rational faculties in this area, what else might you be irrational about?) but on the whole I bet these truckers derive a certain comfort and security from their weekly prayer sessions.

Later on, Maher interviews a senator and prominent God-believing scientist with these folks I do share his concern about how they’re letting religious doctrine influence their thinking. I’m totally fine with a trucker talking admiringly about God. I do get concerned when President Bush says God’s will informs his foreign policy, or when a CEO cites God as reason for doing something.

At the end Maher insists that if you’re atheist and quiet about it, speak up! To wit, his prime audience: passive atheists. Hard core believers won’t watch a movie like this, hard core atheists will love it but they were already sold. It’s the light weight non-believers who just might be moved.

One last point. Religulous suffers from the limits of the medium (film). It’s very hard to explore a topic like religion in any kind of depth and near impossible to resist the kind of emotional cheap shots that video and music and animation allow. Just like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is a perhaps entertaining but shallow way to understand the lead up to the Iraq war, Religulous is a rather shallow way to explore the atheist argument.

Bottom Line: As entertainment and comedy, Religious is well worth it. If you want an atheist treatise on religion, there are many books which explore the topic better.

Movie Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Last year when I was living in Colorado I spent a bunch of time with my friend Stan James and along the way he gave me a copy of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It was fantastic. I read it soon after reading Chasing Daylight, a book that left me in tears (something that rarely happens), and they were an interesting pair. Chasing Daylight is written by high powered exec who documents how he spends his final months before dying of cancer. Diving Bell and the Butterfly is also written by a high powered exec who documents how he spends his days paralyzed — his whole body frozen except for the blink of his eye, which he uses to communicate letters and words to a speech therapist who then types out the sentences.

Both are powerful first-hand accounts which capture the preciousness of each day we live. They produced, for me, an effect of profound sadness followed by inspiration to "live each day of my life," and to feel grateful for that opportunity. The books also are a bit soothing for those of us who fear death and who expect nothing after death.

Last weekend I saw the movie version of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It’s awesome! I highly recommend it, regardless of whether you’ve read the book. It’s in French with English subtitles. I imagine it would be easy to screw up this kind of movie since the subject matter is so delicate. Yet this one pulls it off. It opens from the perspective of Bauby, paralyzed. We look out his eyes. Excruciating. Eventually we see him from the outside but the sense of stillness penetrates every active moment in the movie. Amazingly, despite the theme, the movie has several funny parts — laugh out loud funny, not cynical funny. This makes it more than bearable to sit through for two hours. The acting all around is superb.

I don’t see nearly enough movies. I’m glad I saw this one. It deals with a hard topic with infinite grace and has left me thinking about it several days later.

Darjeeling Limited and Family Relations In Adulthood

The other week I saw The Darjeeling Limited, a new Wes Anderson movie about three American brothers who go to India for a spiritual experience and bonding. It was good: funny, quirky, interesting cinematography. Seeing the three brothers try to re-establish both their own brotherly bonds and their relationship with their mom (who had fled to India to become a spiritual healer of sorts) made me think of a point that’s been rattling around in my head about family.

For most of my single, 20 or 30-something friends (their siblings and parents are usually alive and they don’t have spousal families), there’s a pretty strong correlation between their overall happiness level and their family relations. People who have bad or non-existent family relations seem to lead a more up-and-down life, whereas those who still get along with their parents and siblings in adulthood are in a better, happier position.

The obvious observation is that when you’re young and dependent, family matters because they exert so much control on your life. If you want to be miserable, have miserable relationships with your parents and brothers and sisters. The less obvious observation (ok – maybe it’s still obvious) is that even when you’re not financially dependent, even when you’re out of the house and building your own life, family relations still seem to impact your happiness in ways many people underestimate.

I know, we hear it over and over: Family matters. But here’s the rub: when we talk about the importance of family, we often talk about it in mushy wushy terms — the kind of later-in-life, formative, intense family bonding experience that Po Bronson wonderfully describes. That’s a fine ideal. Yet all I’m talking about is simply getting along. Neutral. Not bad. The key is to not have actively negative feelings. The key is for everyone to tolerate each other at the Christmas get-together and for family stress not to consume undue psychic energy.

There are plenty of books for teens on how to deal with your family. There are plenty of books for the recently-married on how to start your own family. There seems to be a market for those in-between these two life stages on how to maintain what you’ve got.

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On a related note, check out this touching reflection in the NYT “Lives” column from a guy who takes care of his father — and they, too, go to India, this time to trace the father’s roots together. Money graf:

We were both suffering from the need to say something in keeping with the scale of what we’d been through. Quite a problem, considering his default of emotional understatement and mine of lapsing into a crying jag at the first sign of human warmth. Standing there with his collar up and his left eye watering, he looked older than I’d ever seen him look. The bus arrived. We embraced, still reaching for something to say. In the end he just said, “Thanks for looking after me.”