Lessons From…Scandal: “A Door Marked Exit”

Somehow I have not written about one of my new television obsessions, Scandal. Frankly, it is a near sin that I have yet to discuss this amazing program. There are several episodes and scenes I could choose from, but the one I really want to focus on is Season 3’s 10th episode, “A Door Marked Exit.” Specifically the scene between Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) and Rowan Pope (Joe Morton). As usual SPOILERS ahead.

This, in my honest opinion, is one of the best scenes in television because it follows one of the golden rules of a visual medium: show don’t tell. We get the history of these two men and their relationship/connection by the words they speak, but we get their true, core character by the way they speak and sit and move and stare one another down.

Fitz (it’s the standard shortening for the show and will be easier for this post) uses Olivia, Rowan’s daughter, to try to get a rise out of Rowan because it would work on him. Throughout the entire series Olivia has been Fitz’s weakness. Anytime she is involved, his capacity for rational, intelligent thought drops immeasurably. He becomes like a whining child searching for his favorite toy or blanket. Olivia is his safety net which is why she is his weakness because he relies on her to find himself. The problem is that she is Fitz’s weakness, not Rowan’s; at least, not in the same way. Our weaknesses are personal, not universal. Just because something affects you, does not mean it will have any effect on someone else. Understanding ourselves is a strong advantage but to win a battle understanding our opponents is key.

scandal pope vs fitz 2

That smug look is going to be completely wiped off his face in a few moments.

Rowan knows people and organizations and understands power. He would have to considering that he runs the most powerful black ops organization in this world. Rowan knows why he is shackled to a chair. He knows why the president is berating and interrogating him. He knows what his situation is and he does not care. Because more importantly he knows the man before him, Fitzgerald Grant. Unlike Fitz, Rowan knows true conflict. He has fought and scraped for what he has. His struggle has changed him and influenced his character. Rowan started off low and had to rise to his position. Besides killing, which he did much of, the only way to rise in any organization, outside of power being handed to you, is to understand the people within it. Rowan could read Fitz from the moment he saw him because that is what Rowan has been doing his entire life. It is the way he survived and flourished amid the turbulence and uncertainty of his enemies. Knowing ourselves brings enlightenment; knowing others brings power. Nothing is more powerful or advantageous than knowing how our opponents, and at times allies, think, feel, knowing their desires and pains and worries.

This is the face of a man who don't have time for your shit.

This is the face of a man who don’t have time for your shit.

Of course, this confrontation is eventually resolved but not by either of these men. It is solved by Olivia because she knows both these men. She has her father’s skills and tenacity and understands how they operate. More importantly, she knows how to manipulate them because of her understanding.  It is not just enough to have the skills, but you must be willing to do what is necessary, even set aside pride, to get the mission/job/work completed. Unlike Rowan, Olivia is willing to work outside of prestige and power and humble herself to get at the core or heart of the matter. It is the key element that makes her different, and superior, to her father.

Thus endeth today’s lesson.

Lessons From…Satoru Iwata

If you have not heard, Satoru Iwata, the current President and CEO of Nintendo Corp., died on July 11, 2015 in Kyoto, Japan due to medical complications from a tumor in his bile duct. The next day, word spread of the tragic loss and gamers and game enthusiasts the world over mourned the loss to the industry and the spirit of Iwata and what he represented, not only for Nintendo, but for the entire games industry.

For all the criticisms and complaints lauded at Nintendo over the last few years, it is still an influential force in video games and without the company, it is very likely that the industry would not be the powerhouse of entertainment that it is. While he may not have been there since its inception, Iwata was the man in charge for the last 15 years and responsible for Nintendo’s direction, both good and bad.

He understood this and never faltered under the pressure or attention his actions and decisions would receive. He was an anomaly as far as the concept of CEO’s goes, at least in the U.S. When his company’s projections were low, he took a massive pay cut instead of letting hundreds of employees go. He kept developing and programming even after he became the CEO of Nintendo. And he was always engaging with the fans and audience because he still, after rising so high and so many years, saw himself as simply a gamer.

There is much to learn from this man’s incredible life and mind and it is probably best left up to him to impart his knowledge. So, in this case, I’ll leave you with a collection of this man’s wisdom. And a short tribute:

Thus endeth today’s lesson.

On Substances & Inspiration

Over the weekend, I watched the stellar film, Top Five. I had heard and read good things about the movie, and I have been a fan of Chris Rock for many years, so I decided to finally check out his latest project. Top Five is an incredibly simple but entertaining movie. There’s no big elements, action, or traditional deep dramatic moments. In fact, the whole movie basically revolves around a conversation between Andre Allen (Chris Rock’s character) and Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson’s character).

 

As you can see, their conversation is the movie. No big fuss or effects or forced narrative. The premise of the film is that Brown is interviewing Allen about his new upcoming serious movie. She continues to ask about his comedic past and why he no longer does “funny.” He tactfully avoids the question until in a moment of utter truth and desperation he finally reveals… (SPOILER!)

…that he no longer does comedy because he is afraid. Allen admits that whenever he performed in his past, he was under the influence of something. Alcohol, cocaine, weed, whatever his dealer and friends would provide he took. Because of this, Allen does not want to try be funny. Simply put, he believes that the drugs and alcohol and excess fueled his humor, and he is unsure of what he will be without them.

It is not a new premise. After all, history is riddled with the tales of excess and debauchery that some of the greatest artists ever known went through, and at times reveled in, to find their muse and talent. As someone who enjoys a bit of drink and recreational substance use, I am not really one to judge or make aspersions against anyone (without good reason).

That being said, I have never known anyone who was a better talent under the influence over performing sober. In reality, we just feel like we are better, funnier, wittier, more charming, more inspired, etc. when under the influence of our preferred drug. At best, it is a “safety blanket” of sorts to hold onto to give us a sense of courage and means of overcoming our insecurities and fears. Of course, this is a vastly different experience when addiction comes into play, but that is a whole another conversation.

To be fair, drugs are not the only method of inspiration or safety artist use, but it is among the more common ones; usually with dire eventual consequences. So, knowing their potential for harm, why do artists use them? What is it about substances that seem to call to creative types? Why do we feel that sense of inspiration and creative burst under the influence? Why do we fear that we will not be as good without our buffer and safety blankets? Better yet, how do we get over this soul crushing anxiety?

In the film, Allen eventually overcomes his fear by finally jumping up on stage again and biting the bullet. The thrill of being in front of the crowd and just doing and saying what comes naturally is his cure, his salvation, his life. I suppose that is the key. We just have to forget about whatever chains we place on ourselves and just do the thing that we are driven to do. Without the aid of drugs, if possible.

On Knowledge & Impotence

I am enjoying the company of old friends during a trip in Oklahoma. I know; it’s weird. While enjoying a bowl of delicious pho, one of my friends told the table the full account of her recent child bearing process. Suffice to say it was eye opening and not at all the nice, pleasant experience one would hope for. Now, I won’t go into the full story because it is not mine to tell and I respect my friends’ privacy. Let’s just say that it was a complicated birth with trauma. Hearing her story led to a conversation between myself and another friend (we’ll go with S for this one) about birth experiences, the effects of modern medicine, birthing practices, etc. This is not a post about whether I, as a man, should speak on the subject of birth or who has authority to have that conversation, but more on the reason(s) behind the reactions my friend and I had to hearing the story.

I was ignorant to the full nature of my friend’s pregnancy and birthing of her child. The friend I debated with was not, however that only partially influenced her response. Whenever I am faced with information, knowledge, or obstacles, my immediate response is analysis, planning, and execution. I truly believe that information and knowledge is important to figuring things out and responding accordingly. S’s immediate reaction is to defend her friends and loved ones before facing the new obstacles. Neither one is better. We simply react differently.

In this case, we were both unable to do our standard practice since the events had passed, so we transferred those reactions into the conversation. The impotence of action on our part was not quite enough to deter our attempts at responding and fixing the non-existent problem we were facing. It is what we humans do in order to cope with trauma, even if it is not our own. Yet, ultimately we both knew our anxiety was for nothing as we could do nothing and the moment passed.

How could this energy, anxiety, and concern be channeled into something more fruitful? Would we have been better off not having known the actual experience our friend went through considering our inability to help? How significant is knowledge without even the remote chance of action?

Not really sure if there are any answers to these questions but would love to hear your thoughts and own queries in the comments below.

What Teaching Has Taught Me

About a week ago, I was asked by friend, Bryan, to guest write for his blog, TextbookPillow. Don’t ask. I have no clue as to the name either. Because I am a bit of a literary whore and have a slight inability to say no to my close friends, I immediately got started and delivered a short(ish) article to him. As per our arrangement, I allowed him sole control of it, until now. So without further ado, here is my guest piece on teaching and writing.

What I Learned About Writing From Teaching

Like many, if not most, English graduates, I have a touch of the authorial itch. I try to write whenever I have a free moment and feel guilt ridden when a day passes without words having been expressed. Writers want to write; hell, they have an almost instinctual need to do so. I equate it to almost an addiction without the usual, unfortunate consequences. No one will ever die from writing or not writing, but they will tend to become irritable, moody, unpleasant and could possibly suffer certain physiological effects (statements not to be taken as medical fact).

Concordant with my literary aspirations, I also really enjoy the basic amenities of food, shelter, clothing, and the occasional luxury of libations. As you can imagine, at my current level my musing and writings do not provide the sufficient funds to acquire the previously mentioned items. Thus, I have undertaken the noble profession of teaching, specifically teaching collegiate English. I know, I know; it does seem rather cliché of me, particularly considering the unfortunate adage of “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Even before I began teaching, this idiom irritated me. Everyone who has ever excelled at anything had a teacher at their earliest years. Whether a traditional educator or a personal mentor of sorts, no individual sprung forth fully able to create, play, work, in essence ‘do’ anything.

Furthermore, the act of teaching, even the few years of experience I possess, has affected how I write at all levels and has given me an entrenched and undeniable appreciation for language and the ability and knowledge of how to use it well.

In order to avoid too lengthy a text, I will break one of my personal cardinal rules and present the lessons my class and students have taught in a semi-listed form instead of a fully detailed essay. (I apologize to my former English professors, at least the good ones).

Read and Write. Seems rather obvious, right? Hell, every essay, article, and book ever written about the process and act of writing states this, typically, within the first few pages. Maybe they are on to something? Seriously, though, the best writers and students I have had in my short time as a teacher have been those that read. It doesn’t matter whether they read the classics, (e.g. Chaucer, Melville, Austen, etc.) magazines, (Cosmo, GQ, Details, etc.) or just popular books, (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.) the ones who read were the ones who tended to either excel or improve the most in class. So, read, everything and anything, and write, often and as much as you can.

Respect the Process. Do you need to outline your essay, story, argument, thesis before committing a single word to paper? Do you need to have a spring scented candle lit in the room? Are you a research first type of writer? Music? Background noise? Doesn’t matter. Really, whatever you need to do to be able to write, do it. Whatever ritual or pattern you need to perform so that you can create, do it. Understand who you are and what you need and make that available to yourself. It is the only way to truly get to the core of your writing, regardless of what you are trying to write.

The Ideal Reader is Real. This particular gem is inspired partially by Stephen King’s On Writing. (I don’t usually recommend tomes on writing, but his is an exception. If you have a chance, pick it up as soon as you can). Everyone has an ideal reader in their head; that one person that we imagine smiling, laughing, and tearing up at all the right moments when they have your words in their hands. This is good because no writing, or work of art, is ever done in a vacuum. Even if it is a personal narrative that no else will read, it is serving a purpose and finding an audience in the author. So figure out who is that person who you want to read your book more than anyone else and write the story that will move them.

And He/She Can Be a Real Dick. Most of my students are taking the course because it is a requirement to graduate. Accordingly, they just want a certain grade, so they will write what they think I want to read to obtain that grade. Unfortunately, this severely limits their imagination and creativity when it comes to presenting their research and ideas. Similarly, you should not allow your ideal reader to limit your work’s possibilities. If an idea pops up that you think your ideal reader might not like, try it anyway and see what happens. The results may surprise you.

The Thesaurus is Your Friend. Expand your vocabulary and language. Honestly there are only so many times you can use the adverbs ‘really’ and ‘very’ before I want to drill a roughly sharpened pencil into my cerebrum. Also, instead of someone being repeatedly happy, let them be content, joyous, or exuberant. You don’t even need a physical thesaurus anymore. It is a simple click of the mouse away.

And Your Worst Enemy. If you have been using sad throughout your entire selection, it will seem rather odd for your topic or character all of a sudden to be depressed, especially if the cause of depression was the loss of a piece of gum. I always tell my students that connotation is just as important as strict definition, so be cautious of the synonym option on your word processors. Reaching for higher language is a noble endeavor, but understand and know the limits.

Writing is Easy, Revision is Hell. I know this sounds like idiotic blasphemy, but it is pretty accurate. For all the excuses and obstacles we place before ourselves, writing is a pretty simple process and one of the few things that virtually anyone can do regardless of class, race, gender, etc. Essentially, you are taking all the thought, research, and ideas you have in your head, and possibly notebooks and scraps of paper, and putting them all down in order to get them out of your head. This is easy. Does it take time and effort? Sure, but most of us have so many opinions and thoughts, that it doesn’t take too long to fill up a few blank pages. The real trick, and what separates decent writers from good and great ones, is being able and willing to go back over what you have initially written and meticulously deleting, editing, and rewriting your incoherent babble into something resembling intelligent, coherent, and entertaining essays and stories.

Screw the Rules, Do You. This is something I tell all my students. I will teach them grammar, spelling, how to actively read a text, and how to think critically. I will give them strategies, methods, and systems for improving their reading and writing abilities. Ultimately, it is up to them to incorporate them and, if necessary, ignore them. Earnestly, if they do not find my lessons or advice useful and it somehow impairs their success, I fully encourage them to ignore what I said and do what works for them. So, concerning all the advice on writing, on getting published, and on having a literary career you have ever read and heard, take what you want and disregard the rest. (Yes, including this essay).

I am sure I have already gone over my allotted word limit, so I’ll end there with the advice. Hopefully, you’ll find some of it useful, or at least a bit entertaining and thanks to Bryan for giving me this idea for a post.